Gameday: Timberwolves @ Raptors, Feb. 24

With two wins in a row back under their belt, the Toronto Raptors will look for a bit of revenge against the young, spry Minnesota Timberwolves at 7:30 p.m. on TSN 4/5 on Wednesday. Despite dropping a highly winnable game in Minnesota to enter the All-Star break, the Raptors are heavy 9.5-point favorites back on home turf, per the usual online betting sources.

That last one stands as a bit of a blemish for the Raptors, as they appeared to be in control at the half before checking out for vacation early. The Wolves have far too much energy to try to play at anything less than 100 percent, with their youth and athleticism helping make up for some of their lack of overall ability. Notice I say ability and not talent, because this is an immensely talented team, just one that’s full of players still finding their way, led by a coach who doesn’t necessarily know in which direction he should be leading them.

That’s been just fine for Karl-Anthony Towns, who was an absolute terror against the Raptors and is the Rookie of the Year so far this season. An unfair mix of size, speed, shooting, and skill, Towns wreaked havoc on the Raptors’ frontcourt, forcing uncomfortable assignment switches and a perpetual scramble to contain him. The answer didn’t appear to be Luis Scola or Patrick Patterson, and the guess is that head coach Dwane Casey goes to his rangier bench bigs pretty quickly. Towns had 35 points on 12-of-19 shooting in the Feb. 10 matchup and his pairing with Gorgui Dieng, in particular, was a major issue.

Andrew Wiggins had a great game in support, too, scoring 26 points on 8-of-18 shooting. Wednesday marks his second career visit to the Air Canada Centre – he scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting on March 18 of last season – and it’s great timing that he gets to come home for his birthday. Wiggins turned 21 yesterday, and maybe the Raptors luck out with Wiggins having celebrated just a little too hard.

That seems highly unlikely, and failing that, it will be another chance for James Johnson to state his worth as a perimeter stopper. Wiggins is averaging 20.7 points on 44.7-percent shooting, and while the outside shot has been slow to come along, he’s already nearly elite at getting to the free-throw line. Johnson had a pretty rough outing against Memphis on Sunday but turned around and did a terrific job on Carmelo Anthony on Monday, so it will be interesting to see which Johnson shows up – he may not have much longer to convince Casey of his utility beyond an injury replacement, and a good stretch here could keep him in the rotation even when DeMarre Carroll returns.

Wiggins struggled to contain DeMar DeRozan in the last meeting, an issue that could present itself again Wednesday. Wiggins is a quality defender but DeRozan is one of the toughest checks in the league if one wants to avoid foul trouble, and the Wolves will need to throw Zach LaVine on Johnson to the most part (LaVine has largely moved off of backup point guard duties, instead shifting to his more natural shooting guard of late, sliding Wiggins to the three and freeing Tyus Jones some). Tayshaun Prince is back to help with that assignment some but Prince really shouldn’t be playing much on this team just days from his 36th birthday.

That’s because the Wolves are still firmly rebuilding, which is plainly evident. In Ricky Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns, the Wolves have an embarrassment of high-upside talent, plus other intriguing youngsters in Jones, Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad. Standing at 18-39 should be just fine for them, as they’re in line for another potential top-five pick. They’re 26th in the NBA in winning percentage right now, with a three-plus game cushion on either side of them in the standings. That means a top-eight pick is a near certainty and the No. 1 pick is roughly an 8.8-percent proposition. Isnn’t the idea of Ben Simmons on this team terrifying? Brandon Ingram is going to be great anywhere, and the fit can be figured out later. If the lottery doesn’t break right, adding another combo-guard in Jamal Murray sure wouldn’t be the worst outcome. They also stand to have roughly max cap space (like everyone else).

This team could be terrifying as soon as October.

For Wednesday, they won’t be quite that. The Wolves will once again be without Nikola Pekovic, who has been ruled out indefinitely (again) following surgery on his right Achilles. “Our main concern is for the health of Nikola,” general manager Milt Newton said Tuesday. Where the Wolves are in the standings and the incentive to continue to give minutes to Towns, Dieng, and the other young frontcourt players probably hasn’t pushed the team to rush the 30-year-old, who’s played just 12 games on the year, back. Joining Pekovic on the sidelines will be Kevin Garnett (sore knee) and Nemanja Bjelica (foot strain), rendering the Wolves a little thin in the frontcourt.

Their rotation should look something like this:

PG: Rubio, Jones, Prof. Miller
SG: LaVine, Martin
SF: Wiggins, Prince, Rudez
PF: Dieng, Muhammad
C: Towns, Adreian Payne

The Raptors, meanwhile, are down just Carroll and Bruno Caboclo, who is on assignment with Raptors 905, barring a last-minute recall.

PG: Lowry, Joseph, Wright
SG: DeRozan, Ross, Powell
SF: Johnson
PF: Scola, Patterson,Bennett
C: Valanciunas, Biyombo, Nogueira

This is a winnable game, but so was the last one. Maybe the Raptors learned their lesson. Or not. In either case, the game should be a lot of fun, and the 212.5 over-under suggests defense might only be a rumor (that’s an area the Raptors should, umm, try to sharpen up ahead of Friday’s showdown with Cleveland).

Raptors 107, Wolves 99.

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