Gritty wins always feel good

Timberwolves 88, Raptors 94 – Box

Too close for comfort but eventually the quality came out on top. Minnesota’s rugged style of play and determination to go inside forced the Raptors to play a physical style of defense and they proved to be up to the task. Overcoming 32% shooting is tough, if not impossible, but the Raptors did it by digging in on D and getting some clutch stops and scores down the stretch. This Minnesota team is better than its 3-18 record; the fluidity of their players in 1on1 situations posed a matchup problem and Kevin Love was a load to handle. Our offense was at its very worst but Jack and Turkoglu made up for it with their consistent foul shooting, taking full advantage of a loose whistle on the way to 48 FTAs.

With Calderon out, Jack got the start and you immediately noticed how much more the ball was shared. We went into our sets quickly, all five players touched the ball on early possessions and we got good, high-percentage shots out of them. We didn’t make them but that’s another matter. I really liked the play-making mentality Jack brought into the mix, he forced Bosh into making two rolls, made quick one-dribble outlets to Hedo in early transition and looked for his shot going to the rim against Flynn. He played Flynn the right way, gave him space to make his drive-game a non-factor in the first. DeRozan got off to his usual good start, his intelligence is evident in the shots that he passes up. He realizes when the defense wants him to take a certain shot and rarely satisfies them, overall a solid active 15 point game from the rook. Liking him.

Triano’s offense leaves everything into the hands of their players and that’s not always good, you could see that in the second quarter when every play ended up being an isolation for Bosh or a pointless swing around the horn for a jumper. When they go in, nobody complains but when they don’t, it looks like tonight. Just like ball movement is contagious, missing shots is infectious to an offense and there were stretches last night where our offense just died, and no, it wasn’t due to Calderon not being in there. A lot of it was Minnesota working us on the defensive end and taking the energy away, and a lot of it was plain lethargy on the part of our scorers who went for the first option. I’ve longed to see the Raptors run the pick ‘n roll, last year we overdid it but this year we rarely catch a glimpse of it. I think it can be our bread-and-butter more so than previous seasons but it is inexplicably missing from our regular offensive options. With the offense choking and the Raptors missing perimeter jumpers, Minnesota stayed in the game by going inside, really inside. I was very impressed by Damien Wilkins’ energy and Ryan Gomes’ smooth offensive game. Flynn looked to get his big men involved by getting to them early in the post and they got great position against our bigs, Love and Jefferson occupy such a large radius with their bodies that blocking their shots becomes hard despite both being undersized.

Bosh’s defense against Jefferson was solid, he was forced to concede position but didn’t concede the clean look and took care of the rebound. Minnesota was being aggressive going to the rim and were just mustering enough points to keep up with the struggling Raptors. Our sagging defense also had a lot of success because Minnesota just can’t shoot the three, they’re 29th in the league in three-point shooting and went 3-16, so even when we over-helped there was nobody out there who could burn us. Marcus Banks came off the bench and had a nice enough drive which he drew a foul on but later pulled up in transition for a three that made you laugh and the ACC boo. What a terrible player, so sad. I’ve already made it quite clear that I hate Bargnani’s pull-up jumper from 20 feet. It’s a line-drive more than a normal jumper and it usually hits back rim and bounces out, it’s not the shot you want to get going with and it’s decisions like those and an unwillingness to take on slower bigs that had him struggling early, 2-8 in the first half and not looking like the impact player he’s advertised as.

Hedo Turkoglu’s shot wasn’t falling so he did what any good offensive player does, he got to the line. Basketball is a game where the aggressor gets the advantage and he understood that, he was 12-14 from the stripe and sought his opportunities against Brewer and Gomes. A lot of his FTs came after he took it 1on1 against the defense in transition, it was almost like Minny was surprised to see him so aggressive and fouled out of confusion. Good on Hedo, he had 8 fourth quarter points and was active on defense save a few possessions in the third, vast improvement. Jack too, you can’t speak enough (11-12 FT) about his play against the threatening Flynn, it definitely impacted the latter’s offensive game. Flynn ended with 17/8 but didn’t have the legs to exploit two Bargnani mismatches he had late in the game, all that defense he played looked like it had taken a toll on his jumper.

We had a hard fought 8 point halftime and should have extended it in the third, but questionable third quarter outside shooting stemming from a stagnant and unorganized offense allowed Minny to stay in it. We even pushed the lead to 11 thanks to Jack and a cameo from Rasho (thought he could’ve been used earlier against Love) but Minny ended the third on an 11-1 run which featured Ramon Sessions coming off the bench against Banks and taking him to school. It’s to be expected, though. Belinelli helped their cause by missing some quickly taken shots and suddenly we had a one point game going into the fourth. Our bench really struggled, we got outscored 31-10 and every time Triano went to it, nothing came back. Bargnani was struggling with his shot but he insisted on remaining on the perimeter, it’s a trait of his game that is really annoying. You really want to see him utilize the other dimensions in his game more equitably, standing on the perimeter and launching Js isn’t impressive. In fact, if I need somebody to just launch threes, I’ll take Belinelli or Hedo over him any day. Mix it up big guy, mix it up, and remember that you’re a big guy.

The Raptors kept up the brick building for most of the fourth quarter and Minnesota tied it at 70 with 8 to play after a Flynn 5-0 run – a deep three and nice pull-up against Jack, the guy’s jumper was challenged and he delivered when it counted. Our offense needed to respond and instead of running a proper play out of a book we went straight to Chris Bosh who bailed us out with an acrobatic 3-point play to take the pressure off. It stayed close with both teams fighting offensive congestion to keep it within striking distance, the breakthrough came when Bargnani (6-18 FG) finally hit a three to push the lead to 5 with 4:31 left. Despite a miserable shooting night he had done well in the fourth, he was contesting rebounds and soon got rewarded with a huge tip which pushed it to 6 with 3:38 left.

Maybe we thought we had won the game and eased up a bit because after the timeout, Minnesota came out firing. A 6-0 run fueled by a Bargnani turnover and a terrible shot by Wright tied the game at 84 with a 1:32. At this point I thought we needed a timeout to settle things down because we weren’t getting great looks on offense but Triano chose to play on. It was a bad decision and he’s lucky not to have been burnt thanks to Flynn’s costliest turnover of the game. His errant pass was a tailor-made assist for Turkoglu’s breakaway dunk. Flynn then got a mismatch on Bargnani on the next possession and tired to make amends only to brick it. On the Raptors offensive possession you had to wonder why Belinelli wasn’t in for Wright for an offense/defense sub, especially considering how Wright’s looking more and more like Fred Jones. Wright made us shut-up by…wait a minute…Turkoglu made us shut up by doing what he does best – using a screen, drawing the defense and kicking it out to a corner sniper for three. The sniper was Wright. We hit two threes all game, both went some ways in breaking Minnesota’s back and we couldn’t have done without them.

The bloody streak. I wanted to choke Devlin for bringing it up between 0-7 and 0-16.

Overall, I thought our defensive effort was there again. There’s a level of alertness over the past three games that wasn’t there before and it was good to see us win a low-scoring game where fourth quarter possessions mattered. The more tight, low-scoring games we play, the more our defense and clutch-scoring will be tested. I don’t think anybody should be upset at the margin of victory, Minnesota is a young physical team that was strong enough to beat Denver in Denver; we know too well what a feat that is. I thought Bosh’s defense and Johnson’s quick spell of 7 rebounds in 13 minutes gave our interior defense a big lift. Rasho’s cameo also prevented some offensive rebounds and Bargnani’s hustle-play late was crucial. I know Chris Bosh is riding the bus but I got to give the game-ball to Jarrett Jack (18/7/8, 11-12FT, 37 minutes) for his defense on Flynn, determination to attack and overall floor leadership. Take a bow.

Here’s the sound of a coach being cautiously optimistic:

“I think we’re starting to dial in a little bit,” said Triano. “We’ve changed a few things and it seems to be working right now. But we’re not ready to hang our hat on anything right now. There are a lot more games to play, and we’re going to keep working.”

This is the type of game that we are known to drop, you might remember last year’s home loss to Milwaukee after we had won three straight. It spoke of that team’s lack of focus and signaled the end of the season for me, sure enough they dropped six straight. This win isn’t anything that is mightily impressive, but once you look at some of the horrible home losses we’ve suffered over the last couple years, you just have to be glad that we had the discipline to stick to the job and finished it off.

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