The Toronto Raptors closed out a tight game against a quality opponent the right way.
The right way is often just whatever way works. In a high-leverage, late-game environment, analysis is often post-facto and results based. The Raptors have bucked that standard most of the year, because everyone who’s paid attention to this team knows that winning in general is not a problem, it’s winning in those close-out scenarios that’s been an issue. At least, it was in the playoffs, and it has so far this season, where the team’s top-five offensive and net ratings have both sunk to No. 23. With an easier second half of the season and plenty of games at home, their push toward the top of the Eastern Conference ladder is going to be about how they win, not just that they win.
Consider Tuesday’s 109-104 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves a good step in the right direction. Even with the Wolves on the second night of a back-to-back, there are positives to come away with. Most notably: The Raptors tallied 28 assists to just nine turnovers, and that democratic approach finally bled over into the late-game offense, where the Raptors looked like a different crunch-time team in sealing the victory.
The first quarter was fairly reminiscent of the last meeting, with both sides bringing a level of physicality and the officials giving them the leeway to do so. That meant some banging for rebounds, some fun wing-wing post-up action both ways, and some occasionally sloppy stretches born of equal parts frustration and a need to push through contact. Like 10 days prior, Minnesota came out ahead early. Some of that was shot-making – the Raptors shot 34.8 percent in the first quarter while Andrew Wiggins managed to bank in a pair of tough shots against quality Norman Powell defense and Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson stick a number of jumpers – and some of it was the Raptors once again coming out a little sluggish. Kyle Lowry getting scored on in a big-man post-switch situation is a bad harbinger.
That’s not to take credit from Minnesota. Jimmy Butler is always a game DeMar DeRozan defender, and the Wolves had a clear edict to disrupt DeRozan at the expense of whomever else would get going. Powell was essentially ignored beyond the arc and got a steady diet of 3-point attempts as a result, the Wolves let Serge Ibaka take whatever jump-shot he wished (unless he pump-faked), and Jonas Valanciunas was only moderately effective opposite Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins turning around his cold 0-of-6 start late in the quarter gave Minnesota a little extra push, and were it not for a tough Jakob Poeltl drive right at the buzzer, the Raptors would have been stuck double-digits. Shades of Minnesota, all over.
The second was no kinder, with Dieng continuing to hit from everywhere and the Raptors’ bench, down C.J. Miles in this one, struggling to score. A truly shocking turn of events, that. Powell blocking Shabazz Muhammad at the rim would have seemed to be an important turning point, but the ensuing possession saw Fred VanVleet commit a turnover, leading to a Nemanja Bjelica three to put the Raptors down 13. Minnesota didn’t cool down by any stretch – Dieng is literally the best mid-range shooter in the NBA now – though the Raptors started hitting some of their own looks thanks for the efforts of VanVleet, likely running on vapors.
Eventually, Dieng missed a shot. Butler then took over as an attacker and creator, and Towns followed with a solid drive. The Raptors’ starters at least responded offensively, with Lowry hitting a three and Valanciunas following with a long two and a dunk on a feed from Ibaka. The stars didn’t contribute much scoring – a combined 14 points on 16 possessions in the half, most of it Lowry – instead combining for 12 assists without a turnover between them, offered solid defense against Wiggins (DeRozan early) and Jeff Teague (Lowry holds a grudge), and Lowry drew his league-leading 25th charge. None of that erased a fairly displeasing first half. It did, however, get the Raptors back within six after once trailing by 13.
Whether it was fatigue for the visitors on the second night of a back-to-back or plain regression, the Raptors made their push in the third. Offensively, anyway. Lowry drew another charge and Gibson responded with a technical foul, DeRozan found his first groove of the night high in the paint, and Valanciunas continued playing well around both rims. Some defensive lapses persisted, which seemed to frustrate Lowry, but the Raptors’ shot-making began to match that of Minnesota. Playing twice in a fortnight lent some hostility to the proceedings, and the effort level on both sides ratcheted up appropriately, making for a much more enjoyable game than the first half teased.
“We were more physical,” Dwane Casey said. “The first half we were as soft as tissue. We really didn’t have the physicality, weren’t in to who we were guarding. Some of the shots we were going to live with but you’ve got to have some type of challenge. We were kind of watching, guys were sashaying in and laying the ball up and there was no resistance at the rim. Second half was much better.”
The Raptors threatened to erase the lead entirely on a few occasions, with a long DeRozan jumper and a huge Valanciunas put-back answering for each Timberwolves bucket or free throw. DeRozan came up with a big steal and save, too, springing Lowry for a breakaway that cut the lead to one, bodied Nav Bhatia, and tied things up on the resulting free throw. That was as good an impetus as any for Butler to start going Butler-against-the-Raptors, with the Gang of Utes connecting in response to keep Toronto within two entering the fourth. It was a nice response from the Raptors and a good example of how to hang on against an opponent’s surge for the Wolves, the impression created that Minnesota might not be able to repeat their side on tired legs if Toronto repeated theirs.
The bench tried their best to do just that. Powell ripped a ball from Wiggins and took it for a dunk, Poeltl tipped in a pair of offensive rebounds, Powell made a nice read from the paint, and Wright got to the free-throw line. That group’s defense held up as they’ve become expected to, and a 12-4 run over three-and-a-half minutes against an all-bench Wolves group, punctuated by Powell hitting a three and getting mobbed by VanVleet (with just about everyone else getting fired up, too).
“Obviously, we’ve all been there, ups and downs and not playing, and whatever else,” VanVleet said. “We know how hard he works and it’s good for him to be back out there in those moments. I’m just glad he got a haircut so I could slap him in his head a couple times and not mess up his hair. So, you know, it was good.”
Some good Norman Powell on trying to stay confident through struggles. pic.twitter.com/P0JspUtqUO
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 31, 2018
Casey rolled with that group even as Butler and Towns returned, and they gave the starters another two minutes of rest while remaining ahead. When the Wolves brought two more starters in, Casey had to respond with his stars.
The game couldn’t go down without some officiating weirdness, and the Air Canada Centre – and Casey – nearly exploded when Butler got a late whistle on a 3-point attempt. Casey went with VanVleet (in place of OG Anunoby) and the starters opposite Minnesota’s full starting lineup, a tough look given the size of the Wolves’ wings, even with VanVleet having a nice game and DeRozan giving nice effort on Butler defensively. It worked on offense, with a continuity set working to get VanVleet an and-one against Teague, and Wiggins misfired on a post-up against Lowry. That set up one of the most encouraging close-outs of the season so far.
The Raptors did well to vary their offense initially, with the three non-All-Stars each scoring before Lowry set up DeRozan for a missed corner three. Change doesn’t take permanent hold immediately – Ibaka sent unnecessary help on a drive and surrendered an offensive rebound as a result, DeRozan made an ill-advised isolation take against Butler, and a terrific pass from Towns gave Wiggins an open three to cut the lead to two with a minute to go. They corrected, with VanVleet setting up a DeRozan paint bucket with a drive and a tremendous defensive possession ending with Wiggins missing a three and the Raptors getting the defensive rebound made possible by a VanVleet box-out of Towns. DeRozan and Valanciunas sealed it with free-throws from there.
Jonas Valanciunas finishes January with a team-best +10.5 net rating. 13.1 points on 67 TS%, 9.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 31, 2018
“Exactly what we want: Just keep moving, a little bit longer, a little bit longer, a little bit longer, let the ball find who it’s going to find,” Casey said. “I tell the guys all the time, if you execute and move and execute your play, the ball will find the right person. And it did.”
It’s not a terrible loss for Minnesota, but that doesn’t make it any less of a win for Toronto. They moved the ball well for 48 minutes, including the stars both early when their shots weren’t there and late when the game was on the line. They didn’t defend exceptionally well, cleaning things up in the second half against a very good offense. Most importantly, they showed growth in a scenario in which they’ve struggled, putting words from the last few days into action. From here, it’s a matter of sustaining it and making it habit. They can only do that one game at a time.