Gameday: Raptors @ Timberwolves, Feb. 8

15 mins read

There is, mercifully, some rest coming. Charged with one of the most dense schedules of the NBA season so far and a very compressed ledger of late, a banged-up and tired Toronto Raptors team is about to get a reprieve. Starting Thursday, they’ll play just three games over 15 days, including three consecutive days of this week, a virtually unheard of mid-season break. First, though, they have to visit the Minnesota Timberwolves, who present an opportunity for the Raptors to enter their siesta with a bit of momentum and much higher spirits.

Winners of two in a row for the first time in weeks, the Raptors draw a Wolves outfit that’s coughed up four straight, including two in a row at home. Minnesota is a much tougher challenge than their 19-33 record would suggest, but the loss of Zach LaVine has them reeling some, and a Raptors team that’s nearly back to #FullSquad status should sense an opportunity to pounce, taking advantage of being on the good side of the injury/momentum ledger for the first time in a while. But again, the Wolves are hardly an easy out, so the Raptors can’t afford to do what they did against this team before the All-Star break last year and look past them, getting punished as a result.

This also presents another opportunity for Canadian basketball fans to check in on the progress of Andrew Wiggins. As a comparison point, in his third season he’s a little younger than DeMar DeRozan was at the same time, and through that lens, it looks like he’s doing just fine. DeRozan is a completely unique player development case, and his ascension can’t be assumed for anyone else, but from a raw production standpoint, Wiggins still firmly seems on his way to a good place.

The game tips off at 8 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Zach Harper of FanRag Sports and A Wolf Among Wolves, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Zach LaVine’s torn ACL is still making me sad. Losing a player that dynamic and exciting sucks for the entire league, and from the Wolves perspective, it’s a loss of important development time. How big a setback is the injury, not from a playoff-push standpoint, but from a more macro “this core figuring it out” perspective?

Zach Harper: It sucks. This isn’t saying a whole lot but he’s already the best 3-point shooter in Wolves history. No disrespect to Shane Heal. He’s going to set all of their records within a couple of years from beyond the arc and was on pace to obliterate their single-season best for makes (Kevin Love, 190). While the ACL tear isn’t the killer it used to be, it puts the Wolves in a couple of precarious situations. The Wolves’ starting lineup is the most used lineup in basketball right now. Tom Thibodeau has been trying to get them as many reps as possible to work out their many issues defensively. On offense, they lose their best floor-spacer and a guy that is killer in transition. To miss those reps with LaVine just delays them figuring it out. Also, he’s up for his extension off the rookie deal in October and he probably won’t be back until November. Not a huge deal but you probably have to commit a lot of money before you see him on the court.

Blake Murphy: The lone bright spot from LaVine’s injury: Lance Stephenson! I’m fully expecting the newly signed Stephenson to drop 20 on the Raptors here, because that’s what players like Stephenson in situations like Stephenson’s do to the Raptors. It’s science. Where are your expectations for Stephenson, and is this a short-term depth filler or a potential piece for the rest of the year? (Also, Zach, this headline, amazing work.)

Zach Harper: I expect him to give us one epic .gif during his 10 days. It wouldn’t shock me if he played defense just well enough to get a second 10-day and a rest of the season deal, but I have zero hopes that he’ll contribute. He’s a veteran presence that you break the glass for in case of emergency. The LaVine injury is the emergency. I guess this is why they had the open roster spot.

Blake Murphy: Outside of Stephenson, Kris Dunn figures to maybe see more time with LaVine out, at least once he’s healthy. He hasn’t exactly blown the doors off in his rookie season, but are there reasons for Wolves fans to remain encouraged with Dunn as a prospect?

Zach Harper: Absolutely. He’s been very good defensively for most of his rookie season. You rarely expect that from a rookie, and especially a rookie point guard. He’s been torched a few times, but he’s mostly excelled at harassing dribblers, getting deflections, and even blocking shots inside. Offensively? Hey, did I mention how good he’s been on defense? Offensively, it’s been rough. His passes are sloppy. His shot is broken. He’s not driving to the basket consistently. I think these things will improve the rest of the way, but he’s got a long way to go until he deserves Ricky Rubio’s spot.

Blake Murphy: You and I have spoken a handful of times about the perception that Andrew Wiggins doesn’t have “it” or the “killer instinct” or whatever other personality trait people like to ascribe to more demonstrative players. For the most part, I think this is silly, and the accused *lack* of these things often seems like a crutch for explaining why someone just doesn’t love a player’s game, or can’t explain why they’re not at their full potential yet. Wiggins is 21 years old, averaging 22 points on moderate efficiency, showing an evolved in-between game, and lines up fairly well with DeMar DeRozan, statistically, at roughly the same point. The defense hasn’t come consistently yet, because again, he’s 21. All of this is a rambling way of asking: Andrew Wiggins is still on track to be very good, yes? 

Zach Harper: Yeah, he’s really good for a player in his early 20’s. If you expected LeBron James and you get what Wiggins is then you’re trying to disparage him for you miscalculating what he should be. He’s still a good on-ball defender, who struggles with off-ball stuff. That’s improved this season but a lot of the blow-by situations you see typically come with confusion on help from the bigs in Thibs’ system. That communication is on both parties, but the perimeter player is the one usually getting blamed for it because it “looks” worse aesthetically for them. The criticism of Wiggins typically comes from League Pass tourists parachuting in and focusing on the bad moments. I guess that’s part of the game with analyzing players but if you watch him every night and don’t come away impressed with this 21-year old while recognizing there is room for improvement, it’s just hard to take you seriously.

Offensively, the handle is getting better and he’s passing a lot more. The passing has improved quite a bit but has a lot of room to grow in pick-and-rolls. He’s fearless taking late game shots and he’s been pretty successful at them as of late. People say, “he can’t be the No. 1 guy on a title team.” Good thing they have Karl-Anthony Towns then.

Blake Murphy: Higher or lower: Number of headshot kills in John Wick 2 or Ricky Rubio trade rumors from here until the end of his deal?

Zach Harper: If there are readers of yours who haven’t seen John Wick, go do yourself a favor and watch it before John Wick 2 comes out this weekend. John Wick is the best action movie and the best action movie character I’ve ever seen. Yes, you’ll scoff at such high praise of a Keanu Reeves movie. Just go see it. I haven’t had one person I’ve recommended it to not come away in complete awe of how good it is. Nobody gets more headshots than John Wick. Not even Sears. John Wick 2 headshots will far surpass Rubio trade rumors. Mostly because I think Rubio will be traded this summer, but also because it’s #HEADSHOTSZN.

Raptors updates
With DeMar DeRozan back, the Raptors only need to worry about the status of Patrick Patterson. Patterson is dealing with a contusion to the same knee he previously strained and missed significant time with, and so while it’s not a re-injury, the Raptors are being careful. It’s sounded for a few days now like Patterson is ready to go, but with three more days off coming up, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Raptors just try to fight through one more game without him. If he can’t go, Pascal Siakam or Lucas Nogueira could start, while Dwane Casey’s bench units will continue to be fluid and, quite often, weird. A Patterson return could really help bring some rotation stability here.

For anyone wondering – and a few have asked – the team-level numbers still aren’t any kinder to Siakam despite the up-tick in performance over his last stretch and the team winning games with him as a starter. Correlation does not equal causation, it turns out. The starters with Siakam have still been outscored by 7.3 points per-100 possessions over 345 minutes, not a criticism of the rookie but of the fit of those pieces. Toronto’s best non-Patterson lineup might be the dual-center starting look, which has held up remarkably well in 96 minutes, playing to a plus-13.5 net rating in protected minutes against only certain matchups.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross
PF: (Patrick Patterson), Pascal Siakam, Jared Sullinger
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: Patrick Patterson
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright
OUT: None

Timberwolves updates
Already down Nikola Pekovic for the year, the loss of Zach LaVine is a huge hit to the Wolves, and to NBA fans in general. His absence pushes Brandon Rush into the starting lineup and necessitates the signing of Lance Stephenson (which is not official as of this writing), but it could also open up more minutes for rookie Kris Dunn. Dunn’s been sitting with a hand injury, but he practiced Tuesday and was available in an emergency Monday, so there seems a good chance he’ll be given the nod in this one. Adreian Payne also remains out indefinitely due to thrombocytopenia.

As Zach mentioned, the pre-injury starters were the most used group in the NBA, which means all of Minnesota’s rotations are going to feel a little unfamiliar now. LaVine was a member of Minnesota’s three most common lineups, and the most regularly used one without him has played just 98 minutes together. As a comparison, the Raptors have three lineups that have played together more than that (although only one that doesn’t feature Patterson). Look out for Minnesota’s new starting group, too – in 79 minutes as a unit over 10 games, they’ve outscored opponents by 12.8 points per-100 possessions.

PG: Ricky Rubio, (Kris Dunn), Tyus Jones
SG: Brandon Rush, (Lance Stephenson)
SF: Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad
PF: Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica
C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill
TBD: Kris Dunn, Lance Stephenson
OUT: Zach LaVine, Nikola Pekovic, Adreian Payne

The line
The Raptors are 3.5-point favorites on the road, which is always a nice nod of respect to the visiting side. The over-under sits at 212.

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