Knicks have no answers for Fred VanVleet in ugly loss to Raptors

Fans or no fans, healthy or not healthy, the Knicks can’t win in Canada.

With his team depleted, it wasn’t Tom Thibodeau’s finest hour. The Knicks coach benched his new starting point guard, rookie Miles McBride, after the opening 4:44 of play and watched Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet erupt for 35 points in 31 minutes during a 120-105 thrashing at an empty Scotiabank Arena on Sunday.

VanVleet, who sat during fourth-quarter garbage time, shot 7-for-13 from 3-point range amid the silence as decreed by the Canadian government.

McBride — and Obi Toppin — started for the second straight game. But after that initial 4:44 minute stint, McBride, a defensive specialist, didn’t return until the fourth quarter when the Knicks were down 23.

VanVleet did his damage in the third quarter by racking up 19 of his points as Thibodeau’s tactical move backfired. When VanVleet was a free agent in 2020, he never gave the Knicks a passing glance.

“Just the way the game was going,” Thibodeau said of McBride’s benching. “I felt we probably needed a little more offense to try to get things going. So we went back and forth with that before the game. We were hoping to find some rhythm with one group. We never really got there.”

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In opening the new year, the Knicks, depleted at center, point guard and missing their best player in Julius Randle, finished their four-game road trip 2-2 and fell to 17-20. It’s hard to make any judgments on this one.

Fred VanVleet scored a game-high 35 points against the Knicks.

They’ve gone 0-2 since Randle went into COVID-19 protocols and Kemba Walker re-injured his arthritic left knee. Both are out indefinitely with the Knicks awaiting test results on Walker, who was not on the bench.

Randle has taken significant heat on social media with fans wanting to see more of Toppin. And the fans sure got a lot of Toppin as he played 45 minutes in the loss.

While Toppin’s numbers were OK, the Knicks were routed on the boards, 44-30. Toppin scored 19 points, had six assists but hauled in just six rebounds.

“He’s a terrific player,’’ Thibodeau said when asked about the online clamoring for Toppin. “It’s the day and age of social media, and that’s what social media is. You try not to pay attention to it, because it’s really meaningless, whether it’s praise or criticism. It doesn’t really matter. Really, what matters is what we think. And so, we know how important he is. But it’s like the backup quarterback. Everyone thinks the backup should start until he has to start.’’

Miles McBride, who started the game, did not return until the fourth quarter after being benched in the first quarter of the Knicks' 120-105 loss to the Raptors.
Miles McBride, who started the game, did not return until the fourth quarter after being benched in the first quarter of the Knicks’ 120-105 loss to the Raptors.

Missing three starters in Walker, Randle and center Mitchell Robinson (COVID-19 protocols) proved too much.

Three of the Knicks centers have COVID-19 and Taj Gibson was forced to start without a true backup. Toppin is not a center.

“Obviously tonight we got crushed on the rebounds,’’ Evan Fournier said. “Because they played really big and we’re really small. So I think that was a key. Just having one true center with Taj, it puts you in a tough spot, obviously. Obi played the 5 but I don’t know how comfortable he is playing that position.”

The Knicks last won in Canada in 2015.

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“It means something, but obviously the loss sucks,’’ Toppin said of playing 45 minutes.

Thibodeau started Alec Burks at point guard for the second half and went to Immanuel Quickley when Burks got into foul trouble. VanVleet exploded on them.

“He’s a heckuva player,’’ Thibodeau said. “He’s a tough cover. He’s going to make you pay for mistakes. And he did. Some of them were challenged well. Other ones weren’t.

“Our margin of error is small and you got to play with great intensity and if our defense and rebounding is good we have a chance.”

The Raptors got off to a fast start in hitting their first five shots and taking a 17-6 lead. The Knicks fell behind by 17 points in the second quarter as they still looked to have the low energy displayed in Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve.

“It’s not just Julius — we have three starters down,’’ said Fournier, who scored 20 points and is playing on a sore ankle. “The margin of error is smaller. So we have to play better, period.’’

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