After the Raptors beat the Timberwolves, 109-104 on Tuesday night, Fred VanVleet confirmed he had played on only a couple hours sleep. He’d come from the hospital, arriving just an hour or so before the game, after the birth of his daughter. That VanVleet managed to play at all is impressive; that he played well — contributing a clutch assist on a game-sealing cut and tear drop shot from DeMar DeRozan, and then boxing out the giant Karl-Anthony Towns on a long rebound — is downright amazing.
In this fun and good season of Raptors basketball, it wasn’t even the most heartwarming or remarkable story of the night. But first, let’s recount the particulars of the game.
Owing to some irregular shot making from the Timberwolves, the Raptors played from behind for most of the first half. The Wolves were getting their usual Terminator-like production from Jimmy Butler, but Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns were both relatively quiet. The constant six to 10 point deficit for Toronto was made all the more disheartening by a shooting display from Gorgui Dieng that would have made Dirk Nowitzki jealous. The Wolves big man had 14 points in the first half, off 6-of-7 shooting (one of which, a fallaway one-legged jumper, was patently absurd). It felt like it might be that kind of game for the Raptors — a heartbreaker.
Fortunately, Toronto bent but did not break. They too were paced by their usual production from the typical sources. Kyle Lowry played with relentless pace, urging the Raptors to stay with it; Jonas Valanciunas continued his streak of solid outings, and totally made up for his recent foul-plagued no-show in Minnesota; Serge Ibaka once again looked spry (this will be my go-to adjective for him for all time); and DeRozan, much like he did against the Lakers on Sunday, felt the game out, picked his spots, and amassed six first half assists while planning his revenge.
The Raptors bench meanwhile needed inspiration. Their first half run, fuelled by seven first half points from VanVleet, was shaky at best. The Timberwolves looked to be the aggressors, and as coach Dwane Casey said after the game, invoking one of his absolutely favourite analogies: the Raptors bench looked like they were playing in mud. (You really have to hear him say “mud” in person to understand the disdain with which he loads the word. Never play in mud in Casey’s presence.)
The young Raptors were gifted another 24-minute window to prove themselves. And despite playing in the face of that relentless Butler attack, and more talented players like Towns and Wiggins, the bench delivered. VanVleet capped his performance with a stirring and-1 to finish with 10 points; Pascal Siakam upped his intensity (if you can believe that) and hustled even more on defense; Jakob Poeltl potted 12 points of the largely opportunistic variety — when a driving Raptor missed, he was often there to keep things alive or go for the putback; Delon Wright only managed two points, but fed one of the prettier passes you’ll see for two of Jak’s easier points. Suddenly it felt like that kind of the night for the Raptors instead.
Which brings us to Norman Powell. The would-be starter, the possible saviour, the potential future of the Raptors was coming off three DNP-CDs in four games (and a mere 11 minutes in a garbage game against the Hawks). When he has played in the last few weeks (and months?), Powell has often looked lost, or harried, like he wants so much to prove he can still play, that his hard work isn’t going to waste, that he still matters. It could break your heart, watching the ultimate worker grind himself into dust for minutes that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come.
So when it was announced C.J. Miles would get the night off (he’s fine; his knee’s a bit sore), I think it’s fair to say we hoped for the best for Powell, and prepared for the worst. Happily, with just shy of 20 minutes of playing time, Norm looked like his old, best self. “It felt good, you know, not playing too much recently,” said Powell. “Going through ups and downs of the season, but I think it felt good to just go out there and play, feel confidence, and just play hard.”
Powell finished with eight points, on 3-of-7 shooting (including 2-of-5 from three), and three rebounds. It’s a modest line, but coming as it did in the flow of the action, it is satisfying to report. Powell’s presence on defense in the second half helped slow the Wolves attack too. He got into Butler, he got into Wiggins — including one straight up steal and dunk that recalled some serious Game 5 vibes — and he just played his game. When Powell hit a late three-pointer, his teammates swarmed him, all smiles. There was no way the Raptors were losing this game.
And so they didn’t. Eventually the lead grew to eight points, the starters returned, and even though the methodical Butler (he really is terrifying) almost willed the Wolves back into it, cutting the lead to two, the Raptors would hold on. DeRozan finished with 23 points, eight assists, and four rebounds; Lowry contributed 15 and nine, to go with Ibaka’s 15 points, six rebounds, and three assists(!), plus one monstrous late block on Butler; and Valanciunas would turn in 18 points and 11 rebounds, outplaying KAT in his 28 minutes and in crunch time.
But I won’t forget the smile on VanVleet’s face as he celebrated with Norm after the latter’s late much-needed three pointer. The two players, one undrafted, the other barely so, are part of this Raptors team — not the biggest part, but present, useful. For different reasons it felt unlikely they’d play, and yet here we are. It’s been that kind of heartwarming season for the Raptors as a whole.
“I think that’s what’s so good about our unit,” said Powell into the bright lights of the post-game scrum that had rediscovered him. “Our chemistry, always rooting for each other, always giving words of encouragement. If you miss a shot or are going through a tough stretch, it’s always good to know all the guys have your back no matter what.”