Raptors’ backcourt too good for Wolves as 2nd seed enters focus

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(AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

Taking care of business.

After disposing of the Washington Wizards in incredibly efficient fashion — no player touched the 30 minute threshold — the Toronto Raptors had an opportunity to be fresh and claim both ends of a back-to-back in Minnesota against the Timberwolves. While the defensive effort that we’ve grown accustomed to was lacking for the most part, the Raptors turned on the switch when they needed to and eased to victory in the second half, eventually coming out as 122-112 winners.

Impressively, no player touched the 30-minute mark once again. The “minutes-restricted” Fred VanVleet who made his return after sitting out since a Jan. 4 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, led the team with 29 minutes, scoring a point for each of them that included seven triples and finished with a team-high plus-20 as well. In fact, the key cogs of the backcourt were all spectacular in their own way, Kyle Lowry especially mesmeric in the third quarter on his way to 28 points and seven rebounds while Norman Powell extended his longest stretch of consistency with 20 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes off the bench.

The return of VanVleet brought about a change to the starting lineup, as Nick Nurse went away from the ultra-big lineup of the previous two games and swapped former Wichita State guard for Serge Ibaka. While the offence was certainly humming throughout the night, there was plenty to pick at on the defensive end in the first half. The Raptors played down to their opponent — despite the recent return of Karl-Anthony Towns — and found themselves having to shoot their way back into the game after Minnesota exploded for 39 first-quarter points. Jarrett Culver started the game on fire with 14 points in the opening frame, but despite knocking down four 3-pointers for the game, it has to be said that jumper is going to need work in the off-season. There was one occasion where he stepped into a three in transition, but because of the funkiness of his shot, the step actually seemed to take him out of rhythm.

Marc Gasol, who looked tremendous offensively against both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Wizards, looked to be picking up from where he left off with a couple of nice moves in the mid-range and around the basket, but faded quickly as the impact of a third game in four nights appeared to take its toll. Understandable, he missed virtually an entire month of action and the legs for his 3-point attempts (0-for-4 in this one) should be there on most nights.

The game turned in the third quarter when, after trailing 65-61, Toronto went on a quick 8-0 run with a layup from Pascal Siakam and two 3-pointers from Lowry and VanVleet. Lowry finished the quarter with 17 points, scorching the net from beyond the arc and pushing the pace and getting to the rack at will as well.

That’s leadership. Lowry reportedly spoke before the game about how these are exactly the type of nights that get you in the NBA and for him to come out and set the tone and play with his intensity all game set the tone for the way the Raptors would finish. It’s certainly something Siakam could look to learn from, as his effort and intensity when he’s been healthy has ebbed and flowed over the course of the season so far. The defensive effort he showed in this game was an improvement from the Wizards game — especially with his closeouts on the perimeter — but he did have his offensive struggles matched up against Robert Covington. The former key cog for the Sixers has the length and quickness to disrupt Siakam’s rhythm, and outside of a few possessions where Siakam was able to have easy baskets created for him or push in transition, it was a fairly quiet night for the Cameroonian.

Constantly in a flow right now, though, is Powell. Saturday night marked his fourth straight 20 point game, and seventh in his last eight going back before the injury. Since Nov. 16 (20 games), the 26-year-old is averaging 18.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 45.2% from beyond the arc and 62.7% inside it. Per Cleaning the Glass, Powell is shooting a career-high 71% at the rim which would rank him in the 95th percentile among wing players. And that, perhaps, is the biggest takeaway from all his production. Powell is no longer darting toward the rim with blinkers on, he’s making good reads on when to attack and when back out, understanding when to find his teammates and rarely looking out of control.

VanVleet’s return was always going to be an interesting test of how Powell would acclimate, but the first impression couldn’t have been better. Credit VanVleet, too, who didn’t skip a beat in his return, running the offence with consummate ease and finding the range right from the get-go.

“I think with my first minutes restriction with the knee, coming back, I probably had the wrong approach with it, so, just trying to be a little bit smarter this time around,” VanVleet said after the game. “I think playing at ease like that allowed me to not press and just let the game come to me.”

With a healthy roster and a schedule that is easing up, now is Toronto’s chance to ascend the Eastern Conference standings. Tied in the loss column with Boston after the Celtics lost at home to Phoenix, the Raptors are 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat. Seven of the next eight games are against sub-.500 teams who the Raptors are now 22-2 against, the one plus-.500 team being Philadelphia on Jan. 22.

The importance of that 2-seed cannot be understated, as that would mean avoiding one of what has been the Big 6 in the East this season and facing off against one of Orlando or Brooklyn at the moment. It also earns you home court for the second round, and we saw how crucial that ended up being last season.

Notes:

  • Minnesota’s neon green uniforms gotta go.
  • Andrew Wiggins remains non-committal on his status for Team Canada, according to Raptors reporters in Minnesota. He finished with his first career triple-double on this night, with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson low key had himself a very solid night with nine points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks in 24 minutes. He was his ever-energetic self, cleaning up the glass a couple times including a nifty offensive rebound before an up-and-under finish around Karl-Anthony Towns.
  • Gasol and Siakam both picked up technical fouls in the first half, both for jawing a bit too much at Ed Malloy.
  • Up next: Early tip on Monday, Jan. 20 for MLK Day against the Hawks, 2:30 p.m. ET.

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