Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Timberwolves, Feb. 10

All eyes are looking ahead to this weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities in Toronto, but the Raptors have one more piece of business to take care of first. They’re in Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves on Wednesday, a game that tips off at 8 p.m. on TSN and has some pretty huge stakes.

Namely, if the Raptors win, Wolves fans are no longer allowed to make jokes about who is actually located further north, and if the Wolves win, Raptors fans aren’t allowed to make Andrew Wiggins-to-Toronto jokes until 2018. That’s a lot on the line for an otherwise punchless game that kind of feels like an annoying task that needs to be checked off before the party can get started.

Hopefully, the Raptors aren’t feeling the same way I am in that regard. Toronto has won 14 of their last 15 games, a great stretch of showing up nightly and never looking past an opponent. There was the Denver stumble and a few partial-game slips, but for the most part, the Raptors have been taking care of business handily. The 16-37 Timberwolves, 24th in the league in net rating and below-average on both ends of the floor, should still provide a fight – they’re a spry, young team that’s won two of their last three as head coach Sam Mitchell has begun using more reasonable (and exciting) lineup iterations.

The biggest challenge facing the Raptors could be the Wolves’ ability to go with a stretchier four. Tayshaun Prince should be buried by this point, but so long as he’s spotting in at the three and not eating power forward minutes, that’s not a major hindrance to the Wolves. Playing Gorgui Dieng alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, or playing either of Nemanja Bjelica or Damjan Rudez at the four will really put pressure on a Toronto frontcourt that’s struggled with spacier bigs. Dieng hasn’t stretched his range out quite to the 3-point line but he and Towns both pass and operate the pick-and-roll well enough to make life tough on Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas (that duo in general has been great offensively), and Bjelica alongside Towns would lead to all-too-familiar results for the Raptors.

Elsewhere, the Wolves have a great defensive point guard and playmaker in Ricky Rubio, a capable scorer-slash-backup-point guard in Zach LaVine, a nice offensive threat (and black hole) in Shabazz Muhammad (warning for Twitter later: I LOVE me some Shabazz Muhammad), and of course, Wiggins. The Rubio-LaVine duo is playable together at both ends and Wiggins has shown mostly fine sliding to the three. I don’t think LaVine’s a point guard long-term but given where the Wolves are in their development, it makes all the sense in the world to play him there for stretches to improve his playmaking (similar to how the 905 deploy Norman Powell when on assignment). When LaVine shifts to the wing, Tyus Jones can see a bit of time, but the real draw is the Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins trio in that scenario – they’ve slightly outscored opponents in 247 minutes together and should see more run together.

Towns could be in line for a Rookie of the Year award and is an absolute treat to watch. Still, Wiggins is the focus in this one, because he’s Canadian and because his development has become a bit of a polarizing point.

Let me lay this out: I don’t know Wiggins personally. I’ve never met him or coached him or even talked to him. There are people who have and believe he lacks some sort of killer instinct or the requisite personality to become a star. Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun, perhaps the foremost expert on the Canada Basketball program, thinks there’s something lacking there. One of the Wolves’ color commentators (Jim Petersen, I think) seems to believe this to a degree. These people are closer than to Wiggins than I am.

But I think it’s malarkey. Wiggins is 20 years old and is already a solid, if not downright good, wing defender. He gives a ton of effort on that end of the floor every night, and it’s the offensive end where he sometimes “looks” complacent (in part because he has a bit of that Tracy McGrady sleepy face going on). If a player lacked the drive or the compete level, I’d venture that 99 percent of the time, that manifests itself on the defensive end, not on offense. Mitchell doesn’t use Wiggins particularly well and there are a lot of young mouths to feed right now, and maybe Wiggins has a passive personality in terms of demanding the ball, sure.

Maybe, though, he’s a 20-year-old sophomore who’s still discovering exactly what kind of player he’s going to be and is focusing on defense while he figures the offensive side out. That progress is encouraging, too, by the way, because even though the 3-point shot is remarkably bad for how smooth it looks, he’s still averaging 20.7 points on nearly league-average true-shooting. Again, he’s 20. You’d like to see him pile up more rebounds and assists and start knocking down his triples, but statistically, he’s actually a close comparison to a sophomore DeMar DeRozan right now. Maybe that’s not where the bar is for a hyped No. 1 pick, but Wiggins is younger than DeRozan was at that point and has a much higher defensive upside (which he’ll get to show against DeRozan on Wednesday).
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So, maybe Wiggins lacks some intangible factor. I don’t know. I think he’s far too young to write him off as such, and I remain encouraged by what he’s shown through two years.

Wolves Updates
Kevin Martin (wrist), Nikola Pekovic (ankle), and Kevin Garnett (knee) all sat out Monday’s game for the Wolves. There hasn’t been a status update on any of those three, but with the break upcoming, it stands to reason that Minnesota will opt to give them all extended rest. If that’s the case, the rotation will look something like this:

PG: Rubio, Jones, Andre Miller
SG: Wiggins, LaVine
SF: Prince, Muhammad, Rudez
PF: Dieng, Bjelica
C: Towns, Adreian Payne

Raptors Updates
As far as we know, the Raptors remain without DeMarre Caroll (knee) and James Johnson (ankle), and Powell will continue to start. The rotation will look something like this, then:

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright
SG: Powell, T.J. Ross
SF: DeRozan, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Scola, Patrick Patterson, Anthony Bennett
C: Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Lucas Nogueira

The Line
The Raptors are 6.5-point favorites, up slightly from a Raptors -6 opening line. I’m not going to be the guy to preach negativity with the run they’re on and heading into All-Star Weekend. Raptors win, narrowly hit the under, then party.

Raptors 107, Timberwolves 98

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