Free from the constant talk of the daunting schedule, fatigue, and the woes of going so long without a semblance of consistency, the Toronto Raptors had a prime opportunity to build some momentum heading into an extended stretch of rest. With just three games on tap over the next 15 days, and with only Patrick Patterson still missing from the rotation, the Raptors visited a struggling Minnesota Timberwolves team dealing with a lot of injuries of their own, including the devastating, season-altering loss of Zach LaVine. Games are not given, and the Wolves are simply too talented to pencil a victory in against, but the Raptors have been at a loss for good fortune and the opportunity to put wins together of late, and here it was.
The Raptors are, apparently, unwilling to accept such breaks, unwilling to take advantage of such opportunities, and perhaps unable to string together strong performances right now. A third consecutive win sitting in their hands for the entirety of the game, a litany of curious decisions saw the Raptors hand it right back to the plucky young Wolves. And when the Wolves stumbled, and dropped that precious ball (of yarn, as it were, in KAT’s case), well, the Raptors were right there to hand it back.
Coaches have bad nights, and Dwane Casey iss still navigating life without Patterson, a reality that’s left him with imperfect options at the starting power forward spot and a juggling act with the team’s entire frontcourt rotation. It’s a difficult situation, and most nights it has Casey using five or six bigs, as he did Wednesday. It is not, however, an excuse, because for as real as Toronto’s extenuating circumstances have been, Casey does not let his team use them as excuses and thus can not do so himself. Plus, he’s had weeks without Patterson to try to figure things out and continues to deploy the bigs sub-optimally at times. Case in point in this one: Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas both turned in strong first halves, but things started to unravel quickly after the Raptors opened the second half with a 10-point lead, and the leash on that pairing was quite long.
Lucas Nogueira then found himself in foul trouble in support, which completely took Nogueira off his game defensively, yet Nogueira was the choice at center through the bulk of the fourth quarter. Valanciunas appeared to jam a finger at one point and is dealing with a sore shoulder, but there was little on-court reason for him to sit the bulk of Minnesota’s comeback. No, he’s not an ideal check for Karl-Anthony Towns or Gorgui Dieng, but the other bigs were all struggling, too, Valanciunas is the team’s best rebounder by a remarkable margin, and Valanciunas had made terrific use of his touches to that point. It’s telling that Casey eventually relented and put Valanciunas back in the game. Too little, too late, it turned out, but Valanciunas has been playing some of his best ball of late and deserved the look late with Nogueira’s play dropping off down the stretch.
Now, one of the primary options for the Raptors with Patterson out has been to downsize and go small. They opted to do that, but not until very late, and the extra body initially belonged to Norman Powell. Yes, the Raptors have been able to use Powell in this de facto closer role to strong effect so far, but it’s never been particularly logical for a player to sit all game and be expected to come in and close. This isn’t baseball. Powell’s frustrating usage is in part understandable given other, longer-term goals, but asking even the ever-ready Powell to enter the game cold and lock down players the ilk of Andrew Wiggins is unfair at best and reckless at worst. With Terrence Ross turning in an ugly outing, there was opportunity to get him comfortable earlier, too. Some nights, Powell thrives like this despite the tough draw. Here, he quickly traveled, over-helped to allow a back-door cut, got shot over by Wiggins, and messed up a fast break. As it turns out, there’s a reason literally no other NBA team uses a player this way. It’s cool that Powell can do it sometimes, but it’s unreasonable to expect it nightly.
(By the way, you could add going for a quick two down three with no timeouts left to this list, but upon review, Minnesota defended a UCLA action really well to prevent a three, and the Raptors quickly took a Valanciunas two. Not ideal, but watching it back, they made the best of a well-defended set.)
This is not to say everything falls on Casey here. The Raptors’ defense as a whole remained suspect, and on Minnesota’s game-winning triple, far too many players collapsed toward a trap against Wiggins, leaving Tyus Jones free to morph into Winnus Jones. Kyle Lowry’s hot shooting start fell off and he finished the game 6-of-19 and 1-of-11 in the second half, one of his lesser performances on the year. Even DeMar DeRozan, who was relied on heavily down the stretch seeking Isaiah Thomas-like switches against Jones, needed 30 possessions for his 30 points. They needed him to use every one of those, but the Wolves did a nice job at least making another strong scoring night as difficult as possible. (He also didn’t get the whistle on what pretty clearly should have been an and-one late, but there were gripes to be had on both sides.) And the Raptors missed six of their 20 free-throw attempts, a reasonable number but one that always leaves what-ifs on the mind.
The thing with games like this – or really, most NBA games – is that a lot happens in the margins. The Raptors had a lot break well for them here. DeMarre Carroll was lights out on offense and solid on defense. Valanciunas gave them a ton of cheap points. DeRozan was DeRozan. But the Wolves answered those calls. Wiggins was terrific with a 31-5-6 performance that made me, his father, proud. Towns was Towns, dropping a seamless 29-and-14 despite strong efforts from a gaggle of Raptor bigs tasked with trying to guard him. Shabazz Muhammad was everything I’ve always thought Shabazz Muhammad could be off the bench. The Raptors couldn’t have been expected to blow this team out on their own court, and so with each side getting a similar number of pluses and minuses up and down the rotation, a lot of the game fell to those tiny swing factors, like free-throws, ill-timed turnovers, or errors in rotation judgment.
Again, the loss is not Casey’s fault, but he’s culpable. Any one of the decisions listed is justifiable, and alone probably wouldn’t matter much. The game swung on those elements, though, because the Raptors aren’t at their best when they can simply trudge through mistakes and still come out fine. Here, they had every chance to execute better throughout and didn’t. They also did some things pretty well that lend encouragement moving forward, particularly on the offensive end. It’s not surprising that the team’s two biggest issues here (the power forward spot and guarding Towns) are both made less egregious by the presence of Patterson. This is not a sign of doom or a fall back to their play a few weeks back. This was a better effort than a lot of their recent performances, and with what essentially amounts to a much-needed spring break (“Woo!” /flashes camera), there’s reason to believe they’re inching closer to the earlier version of themselves. But they’re not there yet, and it’s probably still a couple of weeks away.
In the interim, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch them fumble through the same issues game after game, losing to lesser teams, coughing away close games, and denying themselves the positive of at least having escaped with a narrow victory. It’s been a tough six weeks, and they probably need more of those. They had one Wednesday, and a litany of mistakes on the court and on the bench precluded it. The way out remains the same, they’re just opting to take a more circuitous route.