“The only time we can beat good teams is when we’re on edge.”
That lack of edge is what Casey feels cost his team when they blew an 18-point lead in the second half against Minnesota when the two teams met before the all-star game.
But Minnesota is a pretty compelling team, too, even if their 18-40 record suggests they are a long way from being a group that should give the Raptors all kinds of trouble on their home court.
They are though. While Toronto has built itself into a playoff team with continuity and over time, the Timberwolves have pure talent spilling off their bench in buckets thanks to years of being terrible.
The Raptors finally stabilized defensively later in the third, despite the ejection of Terrence Ross following two technical fouls. Ross was unhappy, justifiably, by an off-night from the officiating staff but Casey said he told him afterward that he needs to maintain better composure.
Lowry, Joseph and DeRozan were excellent in the fourth quarter, allowing the Raptors to get Casey to an even .500 in his NBA coaching career.
“I was able to get out in transition and make some plays,” Lowry continued. “At the end I found DeMar for a couple of threes and Cory found me for a wide open three in the corner. Our defence created our offence and it helped us.”
Patterson continued his roll of being a plus-minus stud, mostly thanks to his excellent defense on Minnesota’s imposing bigs. Biyombo actually displayed some hands on the offensive end (!) too; the Wolves’ defenders were noticeably sticking close to Biyombo as he rolled to the rim – something we rarely saw earlier in the year when he was barely catching 50 percent of the passes thrown his way, let alone converting them into buckets.
Grinding out wins against good teams. This is somehting that young teams are going to have to figure out. There’s no telling whether it will happen this season, or even next season. Tonight’s game is an example of a young team not used to playing a team this experienced, and this good at winning tough games.
This isn’t to make an excuse for the Wolves, but it is to say games like these are absolutely of the “learning experience variety”. They played well enough that they can feel good going into Saturday’s game in New Orleans, but they should also feel frustrated enough to study up in the film room and on the practice floor in the coming days.
Nevertheless, this was another great game by the Wolves against one of the best teams in the league. If Wiggins had been able to carry over his hot shooting into the second half (he shot just 2-10 in the second half after his 7-9 start), this game may have very well ended in another Wolves victory.
The Wolves should be encouraged by how they played, but hopefully they clean up their crunch-time offense for the future.
Overall it was the defense that was once again the problem for the Wolves. They shot the ball well–50% from the field and 6-10 from three–and made 25 free throws, but could not stop the Raptors from getting what they wanted through most of the game. DeRozan and Cory Joseph were excellent throughout, and Kyle Lowry eventually came alive after a slow start, as the Raps perimeter guys were just too much for the Wolves to handle, something they are going to have consider as we head toward the off-season.
The Wolves problem on offense tonight was turnovers–17 of them, six by Andrew Wiggins alone who had a somewhat odd game I thought. He started hot, was 7-9 in the first half, but went 2-10 in the 2nd half and finished 9-19 with 26 points and the six turnovers. I thought his shot selection was incredibly frustrating at times, as he took a bunch of contested pull ups and turnarounds, and yet his final line looks OK shooting wise. The turnovers were problematic, with several of them coming on extremely sloppy plays and ball-handling errors, yet he finished a +8 on the night.
“Those are two All-Stars in the backcourt for those guys and they played like it in the second half,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “We played hard. We played well. We did a lot of good things. It took their best effort to beat us [Wednesday], and that’s all you can ask for. You want your opponents to play a heck of a game to beat you and they did.”
Rubio had 12 assists before the second half was two minutes old, then didn’t get another. Wolves young star Andrew Wiggins scored 26 points in his return home to Toronto, 24 of them in the first three quarters.
“Keep a body on him, don’t let him see any gaps,” DeRozan said, explaining the Raptors’ defensive plan against Wiggins. “Force him into [being] a jump shooter.”
Wiggins went 1-for-6 in the fourth quarter and the Wolves got outscored 27-19 in that final quarter.
“They’re a good team, they hit some threes,” Wiggins said. “We struggled the last couple minutes there. I missed a lot of easy baskets. We played hard, though.”
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Minnesota is a highly offensive team that has played in some high scoring games this season. Tonight the Raptors were able to hold them to 105 which is more than a lot of other teams can say. Ricky Rubio continues to put up big assist numbers, tonight taking 12 for a double double and at times the Timberwolves can look unstoppable on offence. Good news was tonight the Raptors got the key stops, only giving up two baskets in the final 3 minutes and forcing 17 turnovers for the night. Minnesota actually managed 60% from beyond the arc but they only took 10 of those compared with the Raptors 26. It was even right to the end but Toronto’s defence eventually prevailed against a big shooting side.
BATTLE DOWN THE STRETCH
With Minnesota outscoring Toronto by two points in the third, the Raptors led by just one point to begin the final quarter. Toronto never trailed in the fourth, but allowed the Timberwolves to tie the game with 3:48 remaining on a Zach LaVine put-back dunk before ramping things up defensively and using a flurry of threes to close out the game.
Complacency is an ugly word in professional sports, it’s an ugly word in life, but it’s human nature. An 82-game season is a long stretch of time, especially for a team that has every reason to be counting down the days until the playoffs begin. For one, they’re in a pretty good spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting in second place with a full six-game lead on third-seeded Boston, although Casey joked that he probably wouldn’t feel comfortable with a 10 or 15-game cushion. Okay, maybe he wasn’t joking. Then, they know that nothing they do matters, in the grand scheme of things, until they prove their worth in the post-season. So, surely the thought of going on cruise control for a day, a week or a month must be tempting. That has a lot to do with what did them in last season.
There seems to be a different disposition about them this year. They’re still having fun, laughing with each other after wins, as they should, but the complacency they carried themselves with towards the second half of last season appears to be a thing of the past. They’re more humble, business-like and accountable. The sense that, ‘Our record is good so we’ll be fine’ is gone. It’s something Casey guards against every day, because he has to.
A year ago, the Raptors abandoned morning shoot arounds at home fairly early in the year, opting for pre-game walkthroughs instead – not an uncommon thing in the NBA these days. This season, they’ve gone back to it exclusively. They’re on the court at around 10:00 AM before every single home game, with the exception of the isolated early start time. Casey insists there’s no connection between what happened last year and these early wake-up calls, they’re just trying to “shake things up”, he says, but it’s hard to imagine they’re completely unrelated. The bar has been raised and so have their standards.
In a season that has been filled with plenty of positives that ability to nip things in the bud in a timely fashion and not let bad habits become ingrained might be the biggest positive of them all.
“We’re still growing,” head coach Dwane Casey cautions when the subject of his team rallying from a few bad games is brought up. “We’re handling it better this year than we did last year. When we stub our toe or not play very well, we bounce back with some maturity and that’s the sign of a growing team.”
But as always Casey is careful not to praise too much. After last season and plenty of times before it in his 20-some odd years in the game, he’s well aware of how quickly things can head south.
“There are still ways we can get better at that at both ends of the floor but that’s a good sign of growth,” he said. “We were struggling before the break a little bit, struggled after the break and bouncing back. I wouldn’t say we’ve bounced all the way back, we still have some areas to get better at.”
Casey will tell you that they have created an offensive scheme based on DeRozan’s talents.
“He has a niche, we have an offense catered around him and also Kyle. He knows where he’s going to get the ball.
“You can throw the analytics out the window because he gets to the free-throw line enough to offset the three-point shot. We have a system built around DeMar and his anti-analytical game that has been efficient for him.”
DeRozan is what baseball great Reggie Jackson used to say of himself “the straw that stirs the drink.” If this team is finally going to have playoff success it will all fall on the back of DeRozan.
Not many 24-year-old NBA players have experienced crushing defeat in the NBA Finals and sweet redemption the following year, but coming of age with the San Antonio Spurs was a part of Joseph’s story and a part of what he brings to the table.
When I first met Joseph during the 2013 NBA Finals, he was a bright-eyed sophomore who had earned a reputation among his teammates as a quiet, hard-working kid who had a bright future. The minutes weren’t there in abundance, but he took his experiences and opportunities seriously and became a favorite of the staff in San Antonio.
“It was just hard work,” Joseph said about turning 9.2 minutes per game as a rookie into a four-year, $30 million deal from the Raptors this past summer. “Behind the scenes, I worked on my game everyday, and honestly, I had a lot of good teachers there to help me.
“When I was there, I learned so much from Tony [Parker]. I learned so much from Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier; they would sit me down and watch all my film, they would review film with me and whatnot.”
Both Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo are above-average pick and roll defenders, surrendering just 0.88 and 0.94 points per possession respectively. There’s an obvious solution to this situation, which is to switch up the rotations and help cover the deficiencies of the starting big men by pairing them with one of their defensive substitutes.
Considering Valancinuas is still a net positive and the Raptors intend on him being a significant part of their future, the obvious candidate to be moved to a substitute role would be Scola. But would moving Scola to the bench really change how well the team performs significantly?
The answer, this season, has been a resounding yes. When Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Scola and Valanciunas share the floor together they have been outscored this season by a rate of 4.5 points per 100 possessions. When Patterson shares the floor with Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas they have outscored their opponents by a staggering 18.6 points per 100 possessions.
The Canadians will open their OQT Group Phase campaign against Senegal and Turkey in Group A, looking to finish in the top two. If they achieve this, they will then face a team from a Group B that includes France, New Zealand and hosts Philippines in a Semi-Final clash. The teams that win the Semi-Finals will then meet in the Final with a spot in the Rio de Janeiro Games at stake.
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