The Toronto Raptors didn’t have to make their 86-81 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves so difficult. They were up by double digits for the majority of the game, winning the game by a laughable margin. Norman Powell was pitching his perfect game, as has become the standard for him recently, as he hit practically everything he threw at the net. The defense was brilliant, with all five players moving on a string. It has been a increasing occurrence recently, if not one over the totality of the season.
“Our offence has been carrying us most nights but it’s harder to win that way,” said Fred VanVleet after the game. “If that score would’ve been 120-125, I don’t know which way it goes, but I like the fact that we were able to clamp down.”
Everyone took their turns making defensive stops. Chris Boucher, after getting buried in the post early by Karl-Anthony Towns, held up shockingly well against the larger defender. He stayed big and vertical on drives, and Toronto helped him with desperation if Towns turned his back or reached the paint. Towns finished with 19 points and 5 turnovers, which has to be counted a win.
VanVleet was his usual self on the defensive end. I’m a broken record at this point — I should probably start copy-pasting — but like a frantic puppy trying to find which toy to play with, he accomplishes everything at all times. He stunts, closes out, digs. He forces turnovers. At one point he even clamped down on a fastbreak and single-handedly forced a miss.
Toronto’s bench entered the game and kept the momentum rolling. Yuta Watanabe was fantastic on the defensive end in the first half, blowing up ball screens, moving his feet, chopping his stance like a switch hitter, and interrupting anything Minnesota attempted. The Timberwolves suffered multiple consecutive 24-second violations with Watanabe flustering them.
Yes. I’ll stop you right there. Watanabe was driven off the face of the earth in the third quarter. Anthony Edwards dunked so hard that I spent the next few minutes staring, sight unseen, at the television screen. Uncomprehending. Contemplating mortality. It was such a roar of a dunk that it shook my moral code. My cerebral cortex.
I don’t care. In hindsight, he still played a solid game. Good defenders get dunked on! At least he tried to contest.
But the dunk came during a pestilent third quarter for the Raptors. They scored one single point over a span of almost nine minutes. It was horrific. Pascal Siakam spent a variety of plays trying to isolate the wonder-rookie Jaden McDaniels, and he found not an inch of give. VanVleet was too gassed to take over.
When Nurse gave Siakam and VanVleet their rest, and with Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby not dressing for the game, the Raptors couldn’t hold the fort offensively. The lead crashed and burned, and the Wolves built a lead of their own that they tended like a garden until the waning moments of the game.
Fatigue, perhaps more than anything else, was responsible for Toronto’s collapse. It’s life. And it’s impressive that the Raptors were able to rally.
In the fourth, Toronto found success through some lunacy. Stanley Johnson entered the game to guard Towns. Towns found a few buckets in the post, but the gamble paid off for Toronto as the pace of the game picked up. Terence Davis, like Johnson, was where Nurse’s roulette wheel landed in the fourth quarter, and he responded by hitting three triples, including the game-winner. It was undoubtedly his best performance of the season.
But Siakam took over in the fourth, and he did it not through his offense at all. He erupted on the defensive end, blocking shots at the rim and behind the arc. He switched, closed out with force and grace, and annihilated every player he came across. He did to the Wolves what McDaniels had spent a few quarters doing to him.
It didn’t have to be close, and it didn’t have to be ugly, but at least the Raptors won. They are now finally .500 for the first time in this endless and newly begun 2020-21 season, and they already sit alone in sixth place. The East is a joke. But Toronto is starting to find themselves, and that spells poor news for the rest of the would-be Eastern dynastic contenders. The road for the crown has to run through Toronto, even still. But first the team needs to get some rest; it has been a breakneck pace over the last few weeks. I truly hope that no Raptor is forced to attend the All-Star game, and that they all instead get to enjoy a vacation.