Gameday: Raptors @ Timberwolves, Jan. 20

Battle of the Norths.

Most of the focus around the Toronto Raptors this season has been on the offensive end of the floor. They are once again a top-tier offense, and they’ve done so via different means this year, the vaunted “culture reset” producing a (mostly) more varied offense that’s produced more points per-possession than any Raptors offense before it. On Friday, though, it was the Raptors’ defense carrying them to victory over the San Antonio Spurs. Their progress on that end of the floor has been given less publicity, but the Raptors are the No. 4 defense in the NBA so far this season.

They’ll need that to show up again Saturday as they visit the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s a battle of top-five offenses – the Wolves are narrowly ahead of the Raptors for third on that end – but the Raptors have a significant edge on the defensive side of the ball. In a neutral environment, the Raptors profile a little better. Two-way play is important, and the Raptors’ advanced metrics are a little stronger. Travel is tough, though, and even one time-zone over (with a late tip-time), a back-to-back presents challenges. As such, the Raptors are slight underdogs on NBA betting sites, and they got out of Toronto in a hurry after Friday’s game to try to get as much rest in as they could.

There are interesting match-ups all over here. DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler always have fun battles, and adding OG Anunoby to the mix – plus the Raptors’ new penchant for switching – adds some color there at the other end. Jonas Valanciunas’ strong two-way play of late will be tested against a largely one-way player in Karl-Anthony Towns. Andrew Wiggins has averaged more points against Toronto in his career than all but two other teams. Kyle Lowry has a chance to (figuratively) dunk on Jeff Teague. And the Raptors’ bench will get tested against a team that uses theirs less than any team in basketball. It should be a fun one.

The game tips off at 9 on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Derek James of ESPN 1500 and Hardwood Paroxysm, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: So, uhh, the Wolves are pretty good. The pieces have been gathering and coming together for a while now, but are you surprised the degree to which the team has made a jump? They’re on pace to jump from 31 wins to 52, and from 10th and 27th in offense and defensive, respectively, to fourth and 21st. That’s a LOT of improvement in one year.

Derek James: Most definitely. I was criticized by Wolves fans on Twitter for saying they were about a 45-win team in a best-case scenario. There were questions over their shooting, reliability of their bench, and whether or not the defense could come together. So, I was wrong. Like you mentioned, it’s incredibly difficult to improve by 20 wins in one season. What was missed was the steadying presence of players like Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford. They not only bring experience on the court but hold the younger players accountable, which has positively influenced the culture.

Blake Murphy: The addition of Jimmy Butler has obviously been massive, and the price was entirely reasonable. The season Butler is turning in is on pace to show up somewhere at the back end of MVP ballots. What do MVP candidates in the Butler-DeMar DeRozan tier have to do to push higher than, say, fourth on ballots?

Derek James: That’s tough, isn’t it? DeRozan and Butler have both played incredibly but the spotlight seems to remain on three of the league’s other top teams: Golden State, Boston, and Houston. You might be able to mention LeBron James in there as well. Players in the lower tiers are going to have to find a way to raise their teams’ profiles. It’s hard to ask much more of them individually but the Warriors always have Steph Curry or Kevin Durant in the conversation. I don’t think anyone has mentioned a Celtic for MVP since Kevin Garnett but Kyrie Irving has them at the top of the East. And the Rockets have one of the best records in the league, which keeps Always-A-Bridesmaid-Never-A-Bride James Harden in the conversation and he could steal it one of these years. If the players in the lower tier can bring more focus on their teams with, for example, a lengthy winning streak that forces the coverage to shift away from the league’s upper-class.

Unfortunately for guys like Butler and DeRozan, they’ll probably have to do even more since they’re often an afterthought in the league. This is a little odd for DeRozan since the Raptors have been among the East’s best for years now.

Blake Murphy: Andrew Wiggins has not taken a leap in his fourth season, and you could even make the case he’s taken a step back shifting into a more complementary role. I remain optimistic – he’s 22, works hard, and has a wealth of tools. Has the perception of his ceiling changed in Minnesota this year? When will he hit these damn threes?

Derek James: He is a total conundrum. I said before the season that Wiggins will be a big determinant of how far the team can go. Yet, the team is achieving and Wiggins is largely the same player as ever. He started out the season strong until Jimmy Butler got sick of deferring to guys who weren’t getting the job done and Wiggins became a ghost. Being a secondary player is something he probably hasn’t done and he’s just started to figure out there are other things he can do besides score; Butler is a great role model for him in this sense. As far as ceiling, people are starting to come off of the idea of him becoming a superstar but he’s 22 years old and there’s still time. When you look at perimeter players who just figured it out, you can point to Kawhi Leonard whose efficiency was rather pedestrian until recently. Maybe Wiggins can have a similar breakthrough. He’s already figuring out the one-on-one defense thing and mastering team defense will be his next step.

For a player with his physical abilities and skill, he should be so much more. He has a spin move in the lane that’s unguardable; when he deploys it, he’s either going to the line or getting a layup. And his athleticism and size are the perfect template for a great defender. Figuring out ways to remain engaged off of the ball will be key on both ends. But that level of consistency has been seldom seen.

Blake Murphy: The Jeff Teague signing was derided a bit because many thought Minnesota could have either gone after George Hill, made an all-in push for Kyle Lowry, or even stuck with Ricky Rubio. How has the Teague fit worked out?

Derek James: The thing about that is George Hill said he was never playing for Tom Thibodeau. Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday stayed with their teams. That left Teague as the next best guy. It’s worked out well in that it gives them another capable shooter and pick ‘n’ roll player on the floor. The knock on Rubio was always his shooting and caused problems late in games because defenses would disregard him, essentially giving the opposition a power play. Considering the Wolves had only won as many as 40 games in a single season with Rubio, how many times do you want to bang your head against the same wall? Six years was enough time before deciding on a new direction.

Teague has a tendency to over dribble and falls asleep at the wheel when defending off of the ball but I would consider him a net positive.

Blake Murphy: Are the Wolves some Karl-Anthony Towns effort from being a good two-way team? I still struggle to figure out why he hasn’t turned into a good defender yet.

Derek James: The funny thing about Towns is that his defensive improvement began as soon as he started commenting on the public criticism of his defense. I guess being referred to as “Karl-Anthony Kanter” wasn’t flattering and he’s shown improvement late. Taj Gibson has been beneficial in keeping him accountable by doing things like getting on him when he’s too busy complaining about a no-call to get back on defense. Like a lot of players, he’s a work in progress but his defensive improvement coincided with the team’s jump this season. And as the defense has improved, the offense has slowed down a little but when you can have a five or seven-game stretch with a 95 team defensive rating, that doesn’t matter.

I think young players sometimes need to learn that you need to learn to sacrifice touches on offense or exert a little more effort on defense because it leads to winning. The young Wolves have started buying into a defensive mindset and the wins have come. When you start winning, you don’t want to stop and want to continue to build those habits. Hopefully, that’s what they’re doing now.

Raptors updates
Fred VanVleet was technically active on Friday but wasn’t used, with the second-unit guard minutes going exclusively to Delon Wright and Norman Powell. VanVleet is feeling better and will give it a go in pre-game warmups again Saturday as he’s done the last two games. The right knee contusion he’s dealing with is just a matter of comfort and pain tolerance at this point, and while VanVleet is a gamer who wants to be out there, the Raptors have the guard depth to take a cautious approach working him back into the fold.

They’d surely like to have the extra depth on the second night of a back-to-back when their star guards played 35 and 36 minutes a night prior. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas both also hit the 30-minute marker against San Antonio. Working in Toronto’s favor in that regard is that they have three days off before their next game, so rest is on the horizon. Short of VanVleet expanding the rotation to 11 or Lucas Nogueira popping in for a cameo, you know how the rotation will look right now. It’s been fairly consistent, the starters remain a big positive, and the all-bench groups still struggle to score but defend well enough to make up for it a lot of the time.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, (Fred VanVleet)
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Alfonzo McKinnie
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: Fred VanVleet
905: Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller

Timberwolves updates
No team has used a lineup more than Tom Thibodeau has used his starting five, which should surprise exactly no one. In fact, it’s not even particularly close – the Wolves’ starters have played 832 minutes together, while no other lineup in the NBA has topped 518. They’ve played 60.6 percent more minutes than the next highest-used lineup, and there are only four lineups in the NBA that have played half as much as this fivesome. Fortunate healthy, Thibodeau’s penchant for heavy workloads, and a plus-7.8 net rating in those minutes have all conspired to help this group get a wealth of experience together in short order. Only three lineups played this much all of last season!

Anyway, that’s cool, and it’s working, and familiarity is great, and Thibodeau’s been like this forever. It’s just…color me skeptical that having three players ranked 1-2-3 in total minutes played with another at 11 (and one more in the top 100 despite missing nearly a quarter of the season) is a sustainable long-term strategy. It does sure make Minnesota dangerous game-to-game, though, especially when they’re at a rest advantage as they are here.

PG: Jeff Teague, Tyus Jones, Aaron Brooks
SG: Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Crawford, Marcus Georges-Hunt
SF: Jimmy Butler, Shabazz Muhammad
PF: Taj Gibson, Nemanja Bjelica
C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich
OUT: None
TBD: None
Iowa: Justin Patton, Amile Jefferson, Anthony Brown

The line
The Raptors are 3.5-point underdogs with a 214.5 over-under.

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