This is it. After Saturday, the Toronto Raptors are done with road games against the Western Conference. Does that mean a ton? Not particularly. It shows the Raptors have gotten the bulk of their difficult away games out of the way, at least, and since the West is once again a little better than the East, it shows their hot start hasn’t come entirely against cupcake competition. In fact, the Raptors will move back into second in total road games played after this one, and they’ve played the fewest home games. For a team that ranks in the top five on both ends of the floor and has been criticized some for doing their damage against an easy schedule, well, at least the tougher half is coming with plenty of home games and with little in the way of travel.
That’s after Saturday, though. Saturday still remains on the schedule, and it might be the toughest game the Raptors have left in terms of travel and rest. After beating the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, the Raptors flew right to Minnesota, where they’ll face a rested Timberwolves team – to the degree any Tom Thibodeau team is rested, that is – on the second night of a back-to-back. Considering the Wolves are also a dangerous opponent because they’re an elite offense with plenty of weapons and a handful of quality defenders despite a poor ranking as a team defense, this one could be on the tougher end.
The Raptors have played a lot of playoff-life basketball the last few weeks, and this should be no different. And that’s perfect, really – they’re clearly better than their inferior competition, and these games will be instrumental in galvanizing the new playing style in late-and-close scenarios, getting a very young roster more experience in this same tight games, and maybe preventing the team from their annual January malaise (so far, so okay). This should be a big one for the bench, in particular, as they’ll go up against a team that uses their starters more than any other. As outlined in the preview, there are fun matchups all around, which means good tests all around. Assuming the Raptors still have some juice after Friday, this should be another step toward being their best selves in April, win or lose.
The game tips off at 9 on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
Fred VanVleet is no longer listed on the Raptors’ injury report. This is not necessarily a guarantee he’s back and will play here – he was technically active on Friday, as well – but the removal of a questionable tag would seem to be a positive sign. The questions for Dwane Casey then become how much to use VanVleet and whether those minutes come through expanding the rotation to 11 for the night or knocking Norman Powell back out of the mix. Powell has been getting run first with Kyle Lowry down and then VanVleet, and while he’s shown some signs of a turnaround, he could still be qualified as in a bit of a rut.
The argument in favor of expanding the rotation, then, is two-fold: To keep Powell in the mix since he’ll be needed at some point in the future, and to limit the minutes of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan on the second night of a back-to-back. Lowry and DeRozan have been playing far fewer minutes than in years past, and keeping them below 70 minutes or so in the back-to-back scenario feels like an appropriate enough arbitrary benchmark to try to limit them to (Lowry played 35 a night ago, DeRozan 36). As noted in the pregame, that’s going to be tougher against Minnesota than most because the Timberwolves use their bench less than anyone.
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
905: Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller
Just how little, exactly, do the Wolves use their bench? Their bench players average 66 minutes, by far the fewest in the league, a whole 12 minutes (18.2 percent) fewer than the next most starter-heavy team, New Orleans. They also rank 27th in bench scoring, 29th in bench rebounding, and 27th in bench assists. Jamal Crawford is averaging his fewest minutes since his 2000-01 rookie campaign, Tyus Jones is under 20 minutes per-night despite starting 10 games, and Shabazz Muhammad has mostly fallen out of what’s become largely a nine-man rotation. Said differently:
This, despite Teague missing nearly a quarter of the season. They have players 1-2-3-11 in total minutes, and Teague is top-100 even with the missed time. Thibs going full Thibs.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 20, 2018
UPDATE: Woah, the Wolves are sitting Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford tonight. The team announced at 8:05 that Butler is out with a sore right knee and Crawford is out with a left toe sprain. This, obviously, fundamentally changes a lot of our analysis of the matchup and the Wolves in general. Butler is their best player, a legitimate MVP candidate, and Crawford is their best bench scorer. This is a big opportunity for the Raptors to take a road game in an otherwise tough spot. Nemanja Bjelica starts in Butler’s place.
PG: Jeff Teague, Tyus Jones, Aaron Brooks
SG: Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Anthony Brown
SF: Nemanja Bjelica, Shabazz Muhammad
PF: Taj Gibson, Amile Jefferson
C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich
OUT: Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford
Iowa: Justin Patton
- Raptors 905 are off until Monday. Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, and Malcolm Miller are with the team, while Alfonzo McKinnie remains with the Raptors.
- Speaking of Raptors 905, they made a minor move today, trading the returning player rights to Mustafa Shakur to the Oklahoma City Blue for a third-round pick. Shakur was selected in the expansion draft, hasn’t played in the G League since 2013-14, and last played in Germany in 2016-17.
- Over at The Athletic, I dove into the Raptors’ numbers at the mid-way point to see how the culture reset is coming along. RR readers can get 20 percent off a subscription here.
- The Last Two Minute Report for Raptors-Spurs is as follows:
- Missed traveling call on Pau Gasol at 0:59.
- Missed traveling call on Kyle Lowry at 0:34.
The Raptors opened as 3.5-point underdogs, but the line has moved to Raptors +2.5. That’s a pretty respectful line with the rest disadvantage and on the road. The over-under initially dipped from 216 to 214.5 and is now right back where it started. UPDATE: The Raptors are now 1.5-point favorites after the Butler/Crawford news.