The “excuses” were aplenty. Second night of a back-to-back against a team with a perfect 6-0 record at home (now 7-0) when presented with an opponent in such a scenario, foul calls that resulted in a 42-21 free-throw advantage in favor of the home side, and an uncharacteristically average performance from the team’s best player this season.
Sprinkle in a 4-of-18 shooting performance from beyond the arc by the non-all-stars, and a banked three-pointer by Gorgui Dieng at the third quarter buzzer and a 115-109 loss at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves becomes quite palatable.
What went entirely against this script, though, was Kyle Lowry’s best game of the season. Bidding for his fourth all-star appearance, he finished with a season-high 40 points on just 25 shots, made six 3-pointers, and grabbed five rebounds to go along with five assists. His jump shot seemed to be on a string, his drive game had a verve that has been lacking for large segments of the season, and somehow, he didn’t commit a single turnover.
Enough can’t be said about the success he had attacking the rim Saturday night. Lowry has seemed a step slow this season, with defenses almost lying in wait for his for his moves which have often left him desperate to initiate some kind of contact rather than focus on getting a shot off. 16.7 percent of his shot attempts came 3-10 feet away from the basket last season, but that number is down to just 9.4 percent this season. His field goal percentage from that range has also dipped from 39.9 percent in 2016-17 to 26.1 percent in 2017-18.
In this game, he was the master of going all the way. On average, 2.8 of his field goal attempts have come within five feet of the basket this season, down from 4.3 last season. As a raw number, that can easily be attributed to his reduced playing time and the reconstructed offense.
In this game, though, he was a perfect 7-for-7 in that range and left Jeff Teague chasing shadows for much of the night.
Lowry had two 3-pointers and a layup within the first three minutes of the game, which is exactly the type of start teams look for from their best players when they need that little bit extra to fight through. The Raptors have dug themselves a hole quite a few times in this dogged month of January, and the early Lowry barrage earned them a 25-17 cushion before their point guard checked out of the game.
Instead of just breathing a sigh of relief, Andrew Wiggins used a poor closeout by DeMar DeRozan to surge the adrenaline of the Minnesota fans and players alike with a thunderous slam on Jakob Poeltl.
The poor closeout was just one of many issues the Raptors had defending in the halfcourt, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 halfcourt possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. For some context, the Wolves typically score 95.5 points per 100 halfcourt possessions, and the mighty Golden State Warriors lead the league at 102.4.
Wiggins was chief destroyer in this regard. Early on, the Wolves consistently went to him off some pick-and-roll action above the break, and he showed no hesitation in pulling up for midrange jumpers when Serge Ibaka gave him enough breathing room, before earning Ibaka’s respect and beating him off the dribble for getting too close.
OG Anunoby was caught flat-footed a couple of times leading to easy baskets at the rim for the Vaughan, Ont. native, and Delon Wright’s length wasn’t nearly enough to compete Wiggins’ size and strength. It’s hard not to feel for Anunoby right now, who looks to have hit the ‘rookie wall.’ He looked out of his depth trying to keep up with Wiggins, and while it was encouraging to see him hit a three, the all-star break can’t come soon enough for him.
As Wiggins went about his business, his partner in crime Karl-Anthony Towns was resigned to the bench after committing three fouls before he had even attempted a shot with much of the second quarter to go. Jonas Valanciunas could relate to the inconsistent whistle, racking up four fouls in just 11 minutes of action.
As you can imagine, that left the Raptors extremely vulnerable on the glass, an area of the game that the Wolves dominated with 15 offensive rebounds to Toronto’s eight as part of an overall 58-41 margin.
The foul trouble forced Dwane Casey to turn to both Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl, and the latter — despite the Wiggins posters — was more effective on both ends. What’s impressive about the Austrian is his ability to remain engaged possession after possession which make his quick reads appear as both a natural reaction but also a step quicker than his opponents might expect.
Poeltl played a particularly important role in the second quarter when the Raptors created some separation heading into the halftime break. He had an offensive rebound which led to an open Serge Ibaka three-pointer, and then put back a Lowry jumper before the backcourt took over. The pair of DeRozan and Lowry combined to assist or score the final 15 points of the quarter for Toronto, which added up to a 62-54 lead at halftime.
The second half is when Towns really started to come into the game, ironically, by getting to the line eight times in eight third quarter minutes. 2017 D-League All-Star Marcus Georges-Hunt also made his impact felt during the third, scoring six points
All told, the Wolves attempted 16 free-throws in the third quarter en route an 87-83 lead heading into the final frame.
The final quarter was highly entertaining as both teams traded haymakers. After Wiggins made a couple of free-throws to give the Wolves a 102-92 lead with just over seven minutes remaining, the Raptors went on an 11-0 run of their own, and Lowry was once again the catalyst.
He hit a crucial three-pointer with 5:40 remaining to pull the Raptors within five, made a jumper from the baseline to give the Raptors the lead with just under four minutes remaining, before pulling off his best move of the night.
With Georges-Hunt hounding him around the three-point arc, Lowry took his time with a couple of dribbles between his legs before a nasty fake that sent Georges-Hunt flying for an imaginary block. Lowry went straight to the basket before getting fouled by Towns.
The pair of free throws pulled Toronto back within two with 1:23 remaining, but they couldn’t close out defensive possessions and had one costly turnover on the other end when DeRozan committed an offensive foul with Georges-Hunt picking up the charge.
DeRozan was good, not great. He had five turnovers for the game and forced the issue a couple of times when there really wasn’t a need. Had his typical long two with his foot on the line and a play in the first quarter where a three-pointer didn’t count because he stepped out of bounds. Margins.
Ultimately, the Raptors didn’t lose this game due to a lack of effort or desire, which says a lot after a tough stretch of games and having to fly in to Minnesota after playing the San Antonio Spurs the night before.
Whether it was a case of unleashing some of the frustration from not being as sought after as he may have anticipated this summer or further staking his claim for another all-star appearance, the emergence of KLOE is the biggest cushion of all after an unsatisfying 3-4 stretch against teams the Raptors were eager to prove themselves against.
Note: It was good to see Fred VanVleet back and he gave the Raptors some important minutes. Pascal Siakam is really struggling right now but hopefully this is a learning moment for him. C.J. Miles’s inconsistency continues to perplex.