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Raptors avenge Huskies by beating Knicks in most impressive performance yet

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It’s only been 75 years since a team called the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knickerbockers in what is considered the first game in NBA history.

It was held at Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 1, 1946. The Huskies lost, 68-66.

It’s an oddly under-celebrated moment in league history or even Canadian sports history.

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It could have something to do with the Huskies finishing last, going through four coaches in a single season, immediately folding and the NBA taking nearly 50 years to return.

Regardless, the momentous occasion was observed in Madison Square Garden with a match-up between the Knicks and the Toronto Raptors, whose only acknowledgement of their forebearers is a well-received retro jersey they trotted out a few years ago. “The Huskies, man. That’s awesome,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Remember when we wore those Huskies jerseys? They were awesome.”

But what about the history?

“The significance of that for me is I lived right up there by Maple Leaf Gardens [now Mattamy Athletic Centre] part of I think, my first year in Toronto, and now it’s a grocery store. I went in there and I saw the sign on the pillar [commemorating the event] and I was taking pictures of that, going, ‘Man, that’s incredible. That’s incredible.’ Like, I didn’t even know that, you know, when I was there nine years ago as a Raptors assistant. So hey, pretty cool. We’re (in) a rematch. I think we owe ’em one, don’t we?”

You know what they say about payback. The Raptors got theirs Monday night with their most impressive win of the season as they reversed what seemed like a brewing Knicks blowout in the second quarter to dominate the second half on their way to 113-104 win, handing the Knicks just their second loss of the season and improving the Raptors to 5-3 with their fourth straight victory.

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They did it without emerging rookie star Scottie Barnes and benefitted from a career-high 36 points from OG Anunoby, who has found his legs after a spotty start. Fred VanVleet delivered too as he scored 13 of 17 points in the second half while adding nine rebounds and seven assists in 37 minutes

Anunoby was exceptional, converting on 13 of 27 shots and going 4-of-12 from three while snaring six rebounds and making just one turnover in 41 minutes. His highlight was a third-quarter dunk on a lob from VanVleet — “Fred threw a nice pass and I jumped” — but more noteworthy is that helped limit burly Knicks star Julius Randle to 22 points and 13 shots.

“I think that we told him ‘we’ll let you develop a lot more offensive opportunities but we don’t want to let your foot off the gas at the other end’ because we consider him one of the better, top, top defenders in the league,” Nurse said.

“It’s good that he’s getting in shape, he’s able to play hard at both ends.”

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The Knicks got a 27 points and 5-of-8 three-point shooting from Canadian men’s team star RJ Barrett, who followed up his 35-point career-high from Saturday in fine style.

It was a win for Nurse too as he pressed plenty of buttons with perfect timing — from starting Svi Mykhailiuk (15 points on seven shots) in place of Barnes, to giving Khem Birch extra minutes ahead of a struggling Precious Achiuwa, to finding early minutes for the likes of Malachi Flynn and Justin Champagnie, to playing his second-half starting five the full 12 minutes in the pivotal third quarter.

“I feel like sometimes you just gotta sacrifice,” said Birch, who acknowledged he was tired by the end of his stint. “Say if someone else was doing well like that and then I was on the bench, I wouldn’t complain either. I would let them keep rocking, keep rolling, and that’s what Coach Nurse does sometimes. I appreciate that, sometimes coaches have a set rotation but Coach Nurse goes off of feel for the game.”

The Raptors looked like they could be in trouble before the game started. Barnes was ruled out just prior to the tip due to a sprained thumb on his right hand he suffered in the final minute of the Raptors’ win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. He had an MRI Monday morning and went through a light workout on the floor of Madison Square Garden without having a splint or wrap of any kind on, but he was just shooting and handling the ball. He was ruled out shortly after.

“It’s just sore a bit,” said Nurse. “Nothing too bad.”

But with Barnes’ 35 minutes to fill, there were opportunities for others in a Nurse rotation that has proven surprisingly difficult to crack.

The first beneficiary was Mykhailiuk who — coming off a strong 16-point outing against the Pacers — got the start in place of Barnes. It allowed Nurse to keep his second unit mainly intact after Nurse considered promoting Dalano Banton and Chris Boucher.

But Mykhailiuk didn’t exactly run with the opportunity — he didn’t attempt a shot in the first quarter and had only one in the half when he converted a turnover nicely on the break.

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The general lack of aggression seemed pervasive. Meanwhile, the Knicks — who sat atop the Eastern Conference before the game with 5-1 mark and boast the league’s highest-scoring offence and a top-10 defence — got rolling early.

They knocked down their first four triples and were 6-of-11 by the end of the first quarter to jump out to a 34-26 lead as the Raptors were just 1-of-7 from distance.

The Raptors were trailing by 15 with four minutes to go in the half when things started to turn. It was interesting who helped it change direction.

Nurse went to Flynn with five minutes left in the half, paired him with little-used rookie Champagnie and brought Birch in early for Achiuwa, who has looked lost lately after a strong pre-season.

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The new-look lineup got rolling quickly: Flynn knocked a three and assisted on triples by Gary Trent Jr. and Anunoby. It was nothing fancy, but the kind of solid decision making that can carve out some extra minutes for someone in Flynn’s position. Champagnie kept possessions alive on the glass. The Raptors closed on an 18-7 run and cut the Knicks lead to 57-53 at the half.

Nurse kept juggling. He started Birch over Achiuwa out of half time. It was an easy decision, really.

In a brief sequence before Nurse sat him down in the second quarter the second-year centre failed to push the ball to an open Anunoby on the break and missed the lay-up himself; he lost track of Knicks centre Mitchell Robinson in the paint and surrendered a dunk and then barrelled into Robinson at the other end to kill another Raptors possession before it started. Achiuwa was 1-of-5 in his 11 first-half minutes.

It’s not like Birch is all-star material, it’s just the 29-year-old Montrealer completes his assignments, sets timely screens, and doesn’t try to do too much.

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He finished with just six points, but the Raptors were plus-20 in his 31 minutes as he settled Toronto down defensively and drew praise from Nurse for his ability to contain Knicks guard Kemba Walker on switches. Overall, it was an impressive outing given Birch said he’s still gaining his timing after missing 10 days in training camp due to getting COVID-19.

“I’ve always been a guy who just wants to make winning plays, I don’t care about the box score,” said Birch, who averaged 11.4 points a game with the Raptors last season but has cracked double figures just once in eight games this year. “Now that I’m here, I got my contract [he signed a three-year, $20 million deal in the summer] I can show that I can just make winning plays and some nights I might have four points, some nights I might have 10 so I’m just happy I’ve been able to be stress-free this year and contribute to wins.”

But there were plenty of contributors as the Raptors outscored the Knicks 38-22 in the third and took a 91-79 lead into the fourth, a 17-point turnaround sparked also by Anunoby and VanVleet combining for 22 points in the period. Hurrying the Knicks into six turnovers — to none by the Raptors — helped also.

For the game the Raptors held a 17-9 edge in turnovers, 13-7 advantage in offensive rebounding and a massive 99-76 edge in shots attempted.

Revenge is best served old.

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