Toronto capped off a league-best 7-1 pre-season with an 83-80 victory over the New York Knicks in a tight contest Friday night at the Bell Centre.
The game was held in Montreal as part of the 2014 NBA Canada series.
"The intensity was up," said Lou Williams, who had 12 points for Toronto — including a crucial jump shot in the game's final minute. "Everybody was focused tonight. We really felt like this was a tune-up game going into Wednesday against Atlanta."
The Raptors open their regular season Oct. 29 versus the Hawks at Air Canada Centre, where Toronto will play nine of its first 12 games of the year.
Although pre-season records aren't always indicative of how a team will fare when the games actually matter — last year's championship-winning San Antonio Spurs went 2-4 in pre-season — the Raptors are feeling confident heading into the regular season.
"We're a team that's going to compete, and that's going to be hungry," said Kyle Lowry, who scored 12 points against the Knicks, including six from the free-throw line. "We're going to go out there every night and making sure we're doing our job."
With the Knicks ahead 78-77 with less than a minute to play, Williams drained a jump shot to put Toronto in the lead for good. A key giveaway by New York's Shane Larkin with eight seconds remaining in the game sealed the victory for the Raptors.
It was a tight contest throughout, with 17 lead changes. With the Raptors in front by six to start the fourth quarter, New York slowly clawed at Toronto's lead, coming to within two points with 10 minutes remaining in the game. The Knicks tied it up 68-68 with seven minutes on the clock.
New York (3-4) then answered Toronto's seven-point run with five consecutive points of their own, which set up the pivotal basket by Williams with 1:04 on the clock.
"The effort tonight was where we want it to be," said Knicks head coach Derek Fisher. "But we need to focus on our attention to detail. We let it go in the third quarter. We got frustrated with the ball not going in our offensive end, and our defense got really poor."
A Raptors victory looked unlikely early on.
Carmelo Anthony, who finished with 24 points for the Knicks, was unstoppable to start the game. The forward set the tone with an early three-pointer — his first of three in the game. Anthony finished the first quarter shooting five-for-eight from the field for a game-high 14 points.
The score was tied 24-24 after one.
It was a close contest for much of the first half — with 12 lead changes — and no team taking more than a three-point lead until late in the second quarter.
That's when the Knicks starting pulling away. With four minutes remaining in the half, a tip-in shot by Canadian Samuel Dalembert gave Fisher's men a 38-34 lead. New York went to the dressing room with an eight-point advantage at halftime, with Dalembert sitting on a team-high nine rebounds.
The Knicks centre, one of only 14 Canadians in the NBA, got the start for New York. Born in Haiti, Dalembert moved to Montreal when he was 14 years old. The six-foot-11 centre, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round in 2001, finished the game with two points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes of play.
"I'm ecstatic to be back here, with all my friends and family," he said. "Who knows, maybe I'll be back next year?"
When the starters were announced, the crowd met Dalembert's name with a huge roar.
"I loved it," said the 33-year-old, who was traded to the Knicks from the Dallas Mavericks this summer. "It was a great game. The crowd was into it. They were screaming all the time, clapping for both teams — they had a great time, they had fun."
Down eight at the half, an inspired Raptors team took the court in the third quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points. A couple of commanding, crowd-pleasing slam dunks by DeMar DeRozan and eight points by Jonas Valanciunas led Toronto to a 57-48 lead, their biggest of the game at that point.
"I don't think we wanted to lose," said Williams, trying to explain the halftime turnaround. "When we play teams in our division or conference, we want to get things going now, and create an identity for ourselves. Down the stretch, we just didn't want to lose that game."
Added Lowry: "We just picked it up. We understood what our flaws were, and we made adjustments."
DeRozan ended the game with 15 points, and Valanciunas added another 13. Veteran centre Amar'e Stoudemire had 11 points and six rebounds for the Knicks.
The inaugural edition of the Canada Series in 2012 saw the Raptors beat the Knicks at the Bell Centre and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Detroit Pistons in Winnipeg. Last year, the Timberwolves played the Boston Celtics in Montreal, a game in which Toronto-born rookie forward Kelly Olynyk scored four points.
The Knicks get their regular season underway against the Chicago Bulls at home at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 29.
Notes: Prior to the match, fans at the Bell Centre observed a moment of silence to honour Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. … In attendance at the game were NBA legends Dikembe Mutombo and Muggsy Bogues, and Montreal mayor Denis Coderre. … Montreal is the only Canadian city to host four Raptor pre-season matches. … There were 20,738 in attendance at the Bell Centre.