TORONTO — The Knicks have a problem.
They’re reeling. They’ve lost their identity, their defensive tenacity that has been abandoned and ditched during a discouraging four-game losing streak.
It’s easy to blame the injury to Mitchell Robinson, the bouncy anchor in the middle. But if the Knicks can’t withstand the absence of a specialist center, the issues go much deeper.
“Clearly we have to pick it up, be better,” Jalen Brunson said. “All five spots on the floor. It starts with me and it starts with everyone else helping each other. We can’t say, ‘Oh, (Robinson’s) not here. We have to come together as a team.”
Sunday’s 125-116 defeat to the Raptors became the latest example. It started early and took full shape in the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the reserves gave up a 13-2 run in about three minutes. The Knicks couldn’t recover.
“I know we fouled, we gave up offensive rebounds and we turned the ball over,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That’s usually a recipe to getting beat.”
On one hand, it’s easy to see why Thibodeau leans so much into his starters. The reserves allow devastating wounds to open, such as Sunday. On the other hand, he’s been leaning into them so much lately that it’s impossible for the subs to find a groove, or feel confident, without worrying about who is walking to scorer’s table.
Obi Toppin was a strong example of that Sunday. He played seven minutes to start the second quarter, shot well and scored 12 points in a flash. Then he didn’t play again until the fourth quarter.
“Not (surprised),” Toppin said. “Whatever coach needed me to do, I’m going to do.”
Overall, the Knicks (25-23) got 23 points and 19 rebounds from Julius Randle and enough offense to leave with at least a more competitive effort. But they couldn’t stop the Raptors (21-27), who carved up New York’s pick-and-roll defense while shooting 15 for 34 from beyond the arc.
Six Raptors — Scottie Barnes, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Chad Boucher, Precious Achiuwa and Pascal Siakam — scored in double-digits. Siakam, Trent Jr. and VanVleet each had at least 24.
The Knicks gave up at least 116 points for the fourth straight game. Brunson missed 9 of his 15 shots while getting outplayed by VanVleet.
“I’m always concerned. I’m concerned every day,” Thibodeau said. “But it doesn’t change how you approach anything. Okay, we study, we have to improve, we have to do better, get ready for the next game. We’re not overwhelmed. We know what we have to do. We’ve got to get in, we’ve got to work and we’ve got to correct that.”
Beyond Robinson’s absence because of the fractured thumb, the Knicks navigated Sunday without Immanuel Quickley. The backup quard was a late addition to the injury report with a sore knee, although Tom Thibdoeau, true to form, provided no insight into the extent of the injury or how it occurred.
“Just general soreness,” the coach said.
It was Quickley’s first missed game of the season, and his DNP meant Evan Fournier got another shot in the rotation. The Frenchman didn’t take advantage while missing six of his nine shot attempts. .
Remarkably, Sunday represented the first time all season the Knicks played with a rest in advantage. In other words, the Raptors were on the second game of a back-to-back and the Knicks came off a rest day. Thibodeau has implied New York’s unbalanced schedule was at least partially to blame for its poor record at home, which he repeated before Sunday.
“It’s been unusual. I think if you dig into it, particularly the home games, usually when you’re at home you have the rest advantage or it’s equal. But that hasn’t been the case,” the coach said. “Whatever the schedule is, the schedule is. You just have to deal with it.”
But the rest didn’t help the Knicks in Toronto. They came out flat and lazy on defense, falling in a 15-point hole after the first quarter while giving up 37.
New York clawed back to take the lead late in the third quarter, but then the 13-2 run to start the fourth doomed the Knicks.
“We got in another hole,” Thibodeau said.
RJ Barrett, the Canadian who received a nice ovation at introductions at ScotiaBank Arena,, said he carried extra motivation in his first homecoming game of the season. He responded with 30 points but was also on the floor during Toronto’s fateful fourth quarter run. Barrett was juiced for his head-to-head with Barnes, who claimed after their previous matchup that he exploited the size mismatch at will.
Barnes had 19 points and left with another victory, the second time the Raptors beat the Knicks in a week.
“We can’t dwell on how we’ve been playing,” Brunson said. “We know how we’ve played in the past and we have to get back to that.”