Pre-Game

Game Day: Timberwolves @ Raptors, Dec 8

It’s said by the time teams play 20 games in a season their identity has been established. In fact, most analysts believe by this point not much shifting will occur among the top seeds. There is a reason for that logic. By this stage, teams have traveled and played a section of top and lower tier squads.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com expounds upon this theory with solid facts saying:

Sixteen teams make the playoffs every year. And over the last 10 full seasons (throwing out the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season), an average of 13.6 of the 16 have been in playoff position at the quarter pole. Basically, seven of the top eight teams in each conference at this point in the season will stay there.

Most telling is Schuhmann’s chart highlighting how many teams who were top 8 at the quarter mark finished top 8 (excluding the strike shortened season of 2011-12).

schuhmann-chart-quarter

So, you’re probably asking why I’m bringing this up on a game day. Well, it’s either my abject stubbornness or perhaps my theory this season will be the exception to the rule is accurate.

Consider how different this season has been on a whole:

  • More players began the season shooting 30 plus points than ever before (including Raptors very own DeMar DeRozan who scored 30 or more in 10 of his first 12 games, equaling the record last achieved by Michael Jordan)
  • Players are posting triple-double performances at a much higher rate (due mostly to the super human efforts of Russell Westbrook who already has 11 this season, with 6 in-a-row).
  • Top 10 defensive ranked squads rarely include playoff home court seeds. Presently only 3 of the top 10 defenses are home court seeds: Clippers (WC 3rd seed/top defense – but reeling), Hornets (EC 4th seed/5th defense) and Warriors (WC top seed/10th defense)
  • And, of course three point shots are the new norm.

Youthful teams like the Timberwolves, Jazz, 76ers, Suns, Lakers and Nuggets may well represent the future of the NBA. Yet, heading into this season most pundits thought the Jazz and Wolves would vie for playoff berths (myself included).

The Jazz are definitely poised to make the leap with the under rated MVP dark horse – George Hill showing the way. But, Minnesota has been struggling to figure out the next steps which will push them over the top. At season start the Wolves would build effortless 20 point leads in the first half, only to give everything back in the third quarter. Through 21 games, the Wolves have won the third quarter on just 3 occasions and tied on 2 others. Minnesota posts a plus differential in all quarters except the third:

  • First Quarter – plus +2.1
  • Second Quarter: plus +2.3
  • Third Quarter: minus -6.9
  • Fourth Quarter: plus +0.8
  • Overtime: plus +5.0

Yet, when I look at the standings in the Western Conference there is a tight cluster of teams under the playoff line. The Lakers have seemingly woken up to recognize losing out on this talent rich draft would be a major mistake (Lakers have a 1-3 protected pick, otherwise it goes to Philly). Phoenix and Dallas appear to be jostling for the number 1 lottery pick. Boogie Cousins and the Kings are ready to pull their annual self-combustion act and the Pelicans seem doomed once more. That leaves the Nuggets (my other dark horse) and the Wolves left to make a bid for a lower ladder playoff berth.

wc-standings-dec-8

Perhaps I’m stuck on this Timberwolves playoff bid based on Tom Thibodeau being the man in charge. In his 5 seasons with Chicago, his Bulls never missed the playoffs and they averaged 51 wins per season. Much like the Jazz, behind Quin Snyder’s brilliant defense turned a corner to become a top defensive unit, I keep waiting for the Wolves to do the same. There have been signs all season of Minnesota being on the precipice, but aside from a few solid victories (OT vs Hornets) they’ve yet to string together a series of wins.

Minnesota’s next 5 games are against current playoff teams. After that they have a 12 game portion of the schedule where they’ll play 8 non-playoff squads as well as the Blazers, Thunder, Bucks and Jazz; all squads they’ve fared well against. If they intend on climbing the ladder, NOW is the time they’ll need to make a move.

That said, Schuhmann provides a solid factual foundation for bashing my theory into bits. Suffice to say I may have to wait one more season until I see my NBA League Pass guilty pleasure donning jerseys in late Spring.

With that, let’s break down tonight’s game:

Statistical Comparison:

wolves-at-raptors-stats

Walking Wounded:

Raptors:

  • Delon Wright – shoulder, is getting shots up and will see doctor next week to be cleared for full contact as he continues his process to return to regular action
  • Jared Sullinger – foot, had surgery expected to remain out until January as per Masai Ujiri

Wolves:

  • Brandon Rush – has been dealing with a sprained big toe. He was available to play on Tuesday, but was a Coaches Decision DNP
  • Nikola Pekovic – ankle, out for season

Rotations:

Raptors Starting 5:
PG: Kyle Lowry: 20.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, shooting 42.2% from 3
SG:DeMar DeRozan: 28.0 points, 4.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 48.2% field goal percent
SF: *DeMarre Carroll: 10.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 35.8% from three
PF: Pascal Siakam: 6.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.4 offensive rebounds, 57.1% field goal percent
C:  Jonas Valanciunas: 12.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.0 offensive rebounds, 53.2% field goal percent

*potential to rest since Raptors play back to back set, traveling to Boston to play Celtics Friday

Raptors Bench:
PG: Cory Joseph
SG: *Norman Powell
SF: Terrence Ross
PF: Patrick Patterson,
C:  Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl

Note: not sure of the status of Fred VanVleet and Bruno Caboclo. I’m sure Blake will have that in his pregame notes.

Wolves Starting 5:
PG: Ricky Rubio: 6.4 points, 6.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds
SG: Zach LaVine: 20.1 points, 2.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 37.5% from deep
SF: Andrew Wiggins: 22.2 points, 2.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 38.3% from deep
PF: Karl-Anthony Towns: 22.0 points, 2.4 assists, 10.3 rebounds, 37.8% from deep, 1.5 blocks
C:  Gorgui Dieng: 10.2 points, 2.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks

Wolves Bench:
PG: Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones, John Lucas III
SG: Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush
SF: Nemanja Bjelica
PF: Adreian Payne, Jordan Hill
C:  Cole Aldrich,

Comparing Line-ups:

Bench plus one starter:

Much like the Raptors 4 reserves plus Kyle Lowry tend to be the squads best line-up the Wolves have a similar situation. When Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine joins 4 reserves good things happen. Most of the games where the Wolves have fought back has involved one of the dynamic dunkers with the Wolves reserves.

Examining NBA.com top reserve line-ups provides the proof:

Offensive Rating:

The Raptors reserves boast the top ranked offensive rating with a healthy +9.7 differential over fourth ranked Wolves reserve unit.

wolves-raptors-bench-off-rank

Defensive Rating:

Only 0.3 separates the two teams reserve units who rank 10th and 12th respectively on the defensive end of the court.

wolves-raptors-bench-def-rank

Net Rating:

Just like the offensive ranking, the Raptors and Wolves rank first and fourth respectively in Net Ranking. Last week the Lakers reserve unit, who was producing 60 points per game, arrived to face the Raptors and while there were some noticeable absences due to injury, Toronto easily grabbed the upper hand. The question is can the Raptors have the same success versus the Wolves bench unit?

wolves-raptors-bench-net-rank

Best Line-Ups:

Comparing the top offensive lines in the NBA finds the Raptors sitting in the top spot with the noted reserve line plus Lowry. LaVine plus the Wolves reserves have the 6th best offensive line.

raps-and-wolves-best-off-line

Notable Player Match-Ups:

Jonas Valanciunas has been laboring since he hurt his knee and ankle. I’d almost suggest resting the big guy a game to prepare for the Celtics tomorrow night. Towns will offer a handful for JV, Bebe or whoever is tasked with guarding him. Like many of the new age bigs, Towns is equally adept at scoring in the post as he is at stretching out to the 3-point line which his handsome 37.8% three point field goal percentage suggests.  Casey’s best bet may be to go to Patterson early in an effort to slow the KAT down.

Gorgui Dieng is said to be a Thibs favorite. Look for Thibs to run some plays at Siakam to test the rookie early.

Since the Raptors are playing again Friday, might we see DeMarre Carroll rested tonight in order to be fresh for Boston? (Especially since Carroll has a vested interest in playing Jae Crowder – see the closing statement). I’d say the odds on that are very likely.

Norman Powell would be the probable benefactor in this case. The question is who Casey tasks with guarding Wiggins and who guards LaVine. Of the two super talents, Wiggins is more consistent and LaVine tends to be a streakier shooter.  Knowing Wiggins will be amped to perform in front of the home town crowd, he’s likely to be on the top of the chalk board for today’s game plan alongside Towns.

Although LaVine boasts a better plus/minus differential, defensively Wiggins will be assigned the task of stopping DeRozan since Thibs uses him on the opponent’s best player.

An x-factor for the Wolves is Bjelica who stayed in Minnesota all summer working with Thibs. He added muscle, worked on his endurance, and like KAT is a threat to score both at the basket and from deep. If you recall how Thibs utilized Nikola Mirotic it’s a similar situation for Bjelica, except as a reserve.

Lowry and the Raptors’ task will be to force Rubio into being a shooter. Rubio remains one of the NBA’s best and craftiest ball distributors, but sadly he still can’t shoot. It’s funny because Rubio has a reputation for being a poor defender, but he’s under rated in that regard.

Arguably some of the most intriguing pairings will come from the bench assignments as Cory Joseph squares off against rookie Kris Dunn and Terrence Ross battles with Shabazz Muhammad.

Game Specifics:

Recent History:

The two teams have played each other 40 times with the Raptors holding a 27 – 13 edge. In their past 10 meetings the Raptors have won all except last season when they lost to the Wolves in Minnesota: 112-117.

Referee Assignments:

Scott Foster (#48), Marat Kogut (#32) and Mark Lindsay (#29)

Fan Data:
The Venue: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON
The Tip: 7:00 PM EST
TV: TSN 1, TSN 4 and TSN 5
Radio: Sportsnet 590 The FAN

The Line:

The Raptors open as 7.5 favorites with an over-under of 214.5 points.

Closing:

Toronto survived that hellish road trip with a 3-2 record and returned home to get in practice time, feast on teams missing core players and re-calibrate. During the home stand they’ve vaulted to the top of the offensive rankings and made discernible improvements to their defense. Sure, it would have been nice to beat the Cavaliers, but I’m one of those people who think it does our team good to be reminded every so often of how hard the next step will be.

Patrick Patterson and Kyle Lowry have been on fire during the home stand and I’d place good odds on the squad looking to get back on track with a strong effort to close out this longest ACC stay of the season.

(thought I’d throw this in from Schuhmann as well, for you Patterson fans)

Patrick Patterson has always been a plus-minus star (after a bunch of Warriors and Clippers, he ranks second behind Kyle Lowry in raw plus-minus), but has been the league’s most effective shooter (minimum 50 FGA) over the last 15 days.

It’s always exciting to see Andrew Wiggins return home and day dream about the possibility of him one day (in a few years??) wearing a Raptors jersey.

And, as much as I want to be proven correct in my preseason assessment, let’s just hope Andrew Wiggins and co. wait to face Detroit prior to turning their season around.

It will be an entertaining match regardless of the score, but look for the Raptors to take this one. Ideally, the Raptors take an early lead and sustain it to get their core some rest prior to heading to Boston to show Jae Crowder precisely why he should be concerned about Toronto!

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