Gameday: Raptors vs Timberwolves – Jan. 17/14

Gut-check game for the Raptors who are hosting Wolves two nights after shaking people’s confidence

I’m not talking about the Celtics game, or the couple games before that; just know that the Heat lost to the Wizards the same night by double-digits. Sorry, I lied, I will talk about it…

I feel like everyone generally needs to the calm the eff down over what’s been going on the last month and a bit. A single loss to the Celtics doesn’t mean this team is coming undone at the seems, and winning 12 of 16 doesn’t mean this they are Eastern Conference finalist. All it means is that they are playing better as a team, and will experience hiccups along the way; hell, the Heat lost to the Wizard that same night by double-digits and are on a three-game losing streak? Is the sky falling? Should they be trying to trade for Lowry and sign Bynum before all is lost?

I’m done…


So the Wolves are in town, and I wanted some perspective on what’s been going on in the north star state, I reached out to Steve MacPherson and William Bohl who cover the Timberwolves for A Wolf Among Wolves of the ESPN TrueHoop Network:

What’s up with Rubio’s horrible FG%? He’s on pace to be the worst shooter in the 3pt era? If he’s not, I’d be demanding 500 shots a day from him.

Steve McPherson: Before I begin, let me make it clear that I would never dispute that Rubio is bad at shooting the basketball in a professional basketball game. That is indisputable. But the whole “worst shooter in the modern era” thing is overblown to me. He shoots a decent percentage from 3-point range — especially on spot-ups — and is basically done in by awful finishing. If he shot a roughly league average 60% at the rim (instead of a truly awful 42%), his overall FG% would be around 41.8%. Far from a sharpshooter, but respectable.

I think his difficulty with finishing comes from not going towards the rim with the actual goal of getting the ball through the hoop. He’s really looking to pass it the whole time and then — as soon as he commits to going up with it — he’s looking for a foul to put him on the line, where he’s much more comfortable. He contorts his body in all kinds of weird ways, doesn’t get up very high when he elevates, puts the ball too hard off the glass, and often lands sprawling and out of bounds.

William Bohl: Wolves coach Rick Adelman has repeatedly downplayed concerns about Rubio’s shooting, saying, in essence, “The kid works hard, those shots will start to fall.” Ricky is, by all accounts, a perfectionist. Work ethic doesn’t seem to be the problem – but his struggle to make shots with any sort of consistency is troubling, nonetheless. I offer two theories – one, that his delivery (which is a difficult thing to change, especially once you consider that he’s been a professional basketball player for nearly a decade) is too herky-jerky and inconsistent to yield success at NBA-game speed. There might be something to this, but Rubio’s actually been okay from beyond the arc (36% for the season). The second theory, and the one that carries more weight (in my estimation) is that he has trouble finishing through contact at the rim (41% inside 8 feet) due to lingering timidity over his previous injuries. He had a full offseason to heal following his shortened 2012-13 campaign, but Rubio continues to struggle when defenders body him and force him to finish through tough contact.

The Wolves give up a really high FG% at the rim; can Pek + Love ever be the backbone of a top-10 defense?

SM: Are they likely to be? No. But is it possible? Sure. The tenth best team by defensive rating in the NBA right now is the Phoenix Suns, and I don’t think Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye or the Morris bros. are setting anyone’s hair on fire as defenders. Your own Raptors are sixth right now without a definitive inside defensive presence, although Johnson and Valanciunas are both certainly nice pieces. More and more, defenses in the NBA are relying on schemes instead of anchors when it comes to defense. I think if the Wolves can ramp this into a top five offense, a top ten defense (and we’re talking like ninth or tenth) is not out of the question.

WB: The Wolves are currently 13th in Defensive Rating, which isn’t far off, but I can see why you phrased the question the way you did. Pekovic and Love are two of the worst qualified defenders at opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim – neither serves as anything resembling a rim protector, a sought-after commodity in the league at the moment. Can they ever be the backbone of a top-10 defense? Sure, if the Wolves would employ above-average defensive wings. At the moment, however, the Minnesota starting five has Corey Brewer (a fine defender, but one who cedes size and strength to larger wings), Kevin Martin (a liability) and Ricky Rubio (a good defender who’s prone to gambling on the perimeter, leading to drives to the basket). The Wolves’ present roster is constructed to win games by excelling on offense – getting stops just isn’t in their DNA.

Speaking of Love, what is in the works to keep him from bolting when his contract is up (assuming there is something to the Westbrook + Love in LA is a legit possibility)?

SM: Britt Robson had a great two-part Q+A with Wolves PBO Flip Saunders recently where the topic of making the playoffs came up and Saunders had a great response: You can’t get into the playoffs right now, or even directly. What you have to do is win the game in front of you, and the next one and the next one. That’s the same way the team is going to retain Love. To be honest, I can see the Wolves making the playoffs this season and maybe even sneaking into the second round if they’re hot at the right time and with the right matchup (they often give the Thunder fits, for example). And I can see Love still deciding to leave. And it’s a slimmer chance, but I could see them missing the playoffs and still managing to keep him. There are just too many unknowns. The journey of retaining your star player begins with a single step, and that step is winning games.

WB: Nothing’s in the works now, in terms of negotiations, anyway. Firing the cantankerous David Kahn, who sparred with Love in the past, was a good first step to mending the relationship in hopes of enticing the All-Star power forward to stick around. Hiring the affable Flip Saunders to take his place was a fine second step. The third step is winning games, and getting to the playoffs, and the jury’s still out on that one. If Minnesota wants to keep Love in town, they need to make basketball fun for him and show an organizational commitment to surrounding him with talent.

This team can obviously score, but will need to make stops if it’s ever going to move up in the West and be a force. Recently Bill & Jalen floated a three way trade that would send Pek to New Orleans in return for Asik from Houston. The key in that deal was Ryan Anderson being healthy…however, Asik is still gettable; thoughts?

SM: I enjoy Pek as much as the next guy, especially if that guy is Billy Bohl. But I understand the perspective that says he and Love together might not work in the long term. That’s tough, because Pek is actually the better defender of the two, but you obviously have to go forward with keeping Love in mind. I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing Asik next to Love, and I also wouldn’t mind seeing Pek next to Anthony Davis, frankly. But I don’t see it happening.

WB: I love Nikola Pekovic. I love his tattoos, I love his goofy personality, I love watching him feast on weaker, younger big men, and I love how nice he is to the assembled media in the locker room. That being said: a Love-Asik frontcourt pairing may yield more victories, as the two would complement one another quite well. I highly doubt any such move will happen, though.

Is this a playoff team in the West?

SM: Stranger things have happened.

WB: Before the season started, I had the Wolves pegged for 43 wins and the 8th seed in the West. I still think they’re going to finish above .500 – but the last seed in the loaded Western Conference may need 45-46 victories. The Wolves certainly have the talent of a playoff team, but after giving away as many early contests as they have, I’m not sure they’ll be able to atone.

The Raptors are a much better team than the one that had gone 4-1 against the Wolves over the last three seasons. With the improved offense (lots of ball movement, pick-and-rolls, strong bench), what will be the game plan to steal a win on the road?

SM: The Wolves need to learn to win ugly and, given Toronto’s aforementioned defensive prowess, this is as good a time as any to learn. I don’t see them blowing out the Raptors, so if they’re going to get by, I think Minnesota has work through Love and Pek more than through their jump shooting and penetration. Pek has been rounding into solid shape recently in terms of scoring, but he still seems to have the yips at the end of tight games. If he can impose his will a little more at the end of tight ones, this team can overcome that worrying 0-11 record in games decided by four points or fewer.

WB: Lots of Kevin Love, energy, and execution. Ricky Rubio also needs to get his mojo back. No one knows which Wolves team is going to show up on a nightly basis, so I could see the tilt against the much-improved Raptors going either way.


Point Guard
While Rubio can create for his teammates, get into passing lanes, play some passible defense, and is generally pretty and seemingly nice guy, I’m not so much worried about this match-up, as much as I am terrified of Barea bobbing and weaving his way to a career night on Vasquez. I’m not going to say terrified, but he’s been getting some decent run the last few games and putting up numbers. Since Lowry will get the run of the minutes here, it should minimize the damage, but since I’ve lost confidence in Vasquez, I’m weary.
Edge: Raptors

Shooting Guard
You have to respect Kevin Martin for no other reason than for signing a seemingly ridiculously generous contract at 29, he actually lived up to it in his 1st year, and improved across the board with respect to his production. He can’t play a lick of defense, but that’s not what they signed him for; they need his perimeter shooting to free up space for Pek in the paint, and pick-n-rolls between Love and Rubio; he’s doing this…well I might add. I’m thinking this could be the dark horse match-up of the night since Ross can keep up with him on the perimeter, and make life miserable for Martin on defense. Should be entertaining, with some back and forth.
Edge: Even

Small Forward
Brewers offense seems to come as a result of the players he plays with: last year in Denver’s up and down, break neck pace, and this year sandwiched between offensive behemoths that draw a lot of attention. That said, he plays solid defense on the wing, and will make DeMar earn every single one of his 26 inefficient points he drops tonight. I’m hoping to see some Shabazz tonight, but that’s unlikely given the Wolves need a win (not that they are getting it).
Edge: Raptors

Power Forward
Amir’s penance for letting Humphries outplay him is having to deal with Love all over the court tonight. The expectation is that Amir will rebound (as he normally does), and give Love some headaches on the glass, but the degree of that trouble is TBD. At best, what we can hope for is Love being limited on the glass, and a hand in his face when he shoots the rock. I’m not going to hold my breath.
Edge: Wolves

Much like Amir, Jonas gets to go to war with Pek in the paint, and it may not end well considering some of the struggles he’s had with bigger, stronger, lumber centers earlier this season. That said, his job is easier than Amir’s in that Pek is low-post player who I’m sure is a sweet-heart once you get under that rough exterior. I don’t like either of these front-court match-ups for the Raptors, but I do like being able to mix up the looks Casey can throw out there with Patterson (who I need to give me a good fantasy night) and his spot-up shooting.
Edge: Wolves

The Line

The Raptors are 2 point favourites with an over/under of 206.5. The Raptors perimeter close-outs will go a long way tonight in keeping the Wolves shooters honest, and taking away some room for Rubio and Love to operate. More importantly than the loss to the Celtics, is how the Raptors respond tonight; one loss to one of the best coached/prepared teams in the league is nothing to hang your head over. The Raptors have an opportunity to quell some folks anxiety, and I’m calling a 4 point win.

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