There's a clever quote about learning more from loses than from wins...but lazily paraphrasing is always easier than actually researching quotes.
The Raptors had what was probably an overdue letdown game (their first in the post-December 8th era) on Wednesday night agains the Celtics. They were destroyed down-low by
Charles Barkley Jared Sullinger and apparently forgot how to shoot free-throws. It was an ugly loss, but we should learn a lot of about this group tonight when they face the talented Minnesota Timberwolves at the ACC.
As well as the Raps have been playing in the last few weeks, no team goes through an 82-game schedule without playing some absolute stinkers -- the Miami Heat have played more than their fair share of late. That being said, it's worth emphasizing that the Raps are no where near good enough to coast through games. They can't afford to take quarters off. They're talented, no doubt; but they've been winning games on energy and hustle as well. Those qualities weren't on show in Boston on Wednesday, and they better be there tonight if the team's going to bounce back with a win.
Tonight they face a team, in the Timberwolves, who are a bit of an enigma. To discuss that enigma I've enlisted the help of Derek James, writer for the fantastic Timberwolves blog, Howlin' T-Wolf; as well as Hardwood Paroxysm (you know, the site with the awesomely bizarre season previews), and SB Nation's own, Rufus on Fire.
Derek was kind enough to answer some of my (probably quite tedious) Timberwolf-related questions.
RaptorsHQ: The Timberwolves have been hovering around .500 for what feels like an age now. Consistency is obviously an issue, but what are the biggest things preventing this very talented team (on paper, at least) from putting together a solid winning streak?
Derek James: It's sort of beating a dead horse, but this team's execution on both ends, with the game on the line, is really the main culprit. It's not just one thing, either. The offense stalls as the opposition's defense sags off Ricky Rubio and clogs the passing lanes to make it difficult to get the ball to Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love. Defensively, their efficiency plummets as well. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but if the Timberwolves aren't up by 15 going into the 4th quarter then I'll be a little worried. It's kinda hard to win when you can't get, or make, good shots and get stops.
RHQ: On a positive note, Pekovic seems to be playing the best basketball of his career in recent weeks. Any obvious improvement you've seen in his game this season?
DJ: I think the biggest thing is a bit of an intangible. Not only was he facing the pressure of playing fresh off a lucrative contract, but he admitted that it was different playing next to a shooting-guard like Kevin Martin. But it seems like he's figured it out. Another thing is the fact that he's finally healthy. He skipped EuroBasket this summer because of his contract situation, so he's finally had the time to let those nagging injuries that he's accrued over the years heal. Really, it's been a joy to watch Pekovic continue to produce like he has.
RHQ: On a scale of R.C. Buford to David Kahn, how sick are Timberwolves fans of talking about Kevin Love's future?
DJ: Bryan Colangelo? Kidding, kidding! Seriously, though; it's already tiresome since the rumor mill has revved-up, despite the fact that he's still under contract for a year and a half, and it's too soon to know anything yet.
RHQ: I was listening to a Bill Simmons podcast he did with his dad, or college roommate, or butcher, or barber (can't remember which random person in his life) and he was criticizing Love for what he considered to be a lack of leadership. Is there anything in this, or have we just gotten to the point, as a society, where we look to poke holes in everyone -- even dudes putting up nightly lines of 25-15-6?
DJ: The biggest thing with people criticizing Love this season, for his leadership, is that they were also criticizing him in the past for not being vocal enough and taking control of the locker-room. Which is it? Or is it just that people don't like the way he is? You really can't have it both ways. You'll never be able to please everyone. Don't get me started on the nitpicking of the NBA amalgam, though. I could go on forever.
RHQ: If you were the G.M. of the Timberwolves and you could make one trade with the Raptors, prior to the deadline, what would that trade be?
DJ: Anything involving Jonas Valanciunas, and not involving Kevin Love.
Great stuff, Derek! And with all that in mind, here are 3 keys for the Raps tonight:
Under the Screen, Under the Screen (To be sung like Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. Yeah, you know the song)
The Ricky Rubio honeymoon period appears to be over -- he flat-out can't shoot. An effective field-goal percentage of 38% is evidence of that, as is the eye test; the dude passes up open looks because he has zero confidence in his jumper. Derek mentioned how this affects the Timberwolves' offense, and the Raptors should look to exploit that by sagging off Rubio on the pick-n-roll and playing the pass or drive. Until Rubio shows that he can shoot, it's more important to keep tabs on the very dangerous Minnesota big-men popping-out, or rolling to the bucket.
Basketball Fundamentals 101: Boxing-out
Okay, so Valanciunas was feeling ill and Amir Johnson was playing through ankle problems against Boston. But whatever the excuse, the Raps got unforgivably murdered on the offensive glass. Giving up 19 offensive rebounds is pretty atrocious and the Raptor big-men are going to have to do a much better job boxing-out against a very good offensive rebounding team (the Timberwolves currently rank 3rd in the NBA in offensive rebound rate). If not, Kevin Love is going to make the Raptors pay big-time with second-chance points.
Be quick out of the gate
The Raptors can't afford to start this game off slowly. The Timberwolves, as poor as they've been in close games, have absolutely shellacked teams this season when they've found their offensive rhythm. The Raptors are going to need to come out the blocks guns-a-blazing and get on top of a team that has been a little 'feast or famine' this season; and are not currently the most confident bunch.