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Five Thoughts on Last Night: Raptors 109, Timberwolves 104

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The Toronto Raptors came back after a poor shooting first half to hold off the Minnesota Timberwolves. Here are five thoughts on the five-point victory.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors dropped a tough one to the Minnesota Timberwolves a week and a half ago, and were looking for a little payback Tuesday night. It wasn’t gonna be easy, with noted Raptor killer Jimmy Butler back in the lineup for Minnesota.

The First Half Wasn’t as Bad as it Looked

There was a lot of handwringing about the Raptors defense in the first half, and even well into the second quarter. And while there were a few unforgivable breakdowns where the Raptors didn’t offer much resistance on the perimeter and then parted like the Red Sea (or, you know, the Cavs) to allow layups and dunks. I think the first-half deficit owed more to some great shot-making than poor defense. Wiggins banked in two long mid-range jumpers over rock solid Norman Powell defense. Butler hit a fadeaway over Jonas Valanciunas after a switch. Even Gorgui Dieng — a recipient of several open looks — hit a one-legged Dirk Nowitzki-style fadeaway over Serge Ibaka.

Meanwhile the Raptors missed a number of great looks on their end.

I was confident that Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Dieng were not going to shoot 12-15 in the second half and that the numbers would even out.

Does Everyone Else Get as Angry as I Do About Offensive Rebounds?

The last time these two teams played the Wolves took advantage of the Raptors on the glass, securing 15 offensive rebounds and winning the overall rebounding battle 44-35. The Raptors have cleaned things up a little since—they’ve won the rebounding battle in all three games since that Wolves game, and Minnesota was only a +1 on both the offensive glass and overall—but the Raptors still seem to give up situational offensive rebounds that make me want to tear my hair out.

Three examples:

  • Early in the third quarter last night, the Raptors had cut the deficit to two and forced a miss from Karl-Anthony Towns; but Andrew Wiggins tapped it out and the ball found its way to Jimmy Butler for a wide-open three.
  • Midway through the fourth, with the Raptors having taken a seven-point lead, they played great defense to force a tough Butler shot with the clock winding down... and Towns grabbed the board, and Gibson scored in the lane.
  • Finally with less than two minutes to go, Raptors up seven again, Serge Ibaka swatted a Butler layup; on the inbounds, Gibson drove, everyone collapses and Taj bricked one off the glass... but Towns got the putback slam.

I know it’s easy to pick on examples after the fact (and the Raptors had some good second-chance buckets themselves), but it really does irk me when the team plays great D but can’t finish the possession with a rebound.

(Here’s a positive though: Did you see Fred VanVleet box out Towns on Wiggins’ 3-pointer with 24 seconds to go? That’s how you do it!)

Jimmy Butler is Terrifying

Although the Wolves shot almost 60% and led by six at the half, I felt pretty good about the way the Raptors had played Towns and Wiggins. Towns took only two shots and Wiggins was 2-9.

But Butler had scored 12 points on 5-6 shooting and had gotten OG Anunoby into foul trouble... and on the other end he’d held DeMar DeRozan to 1-8.

I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone of Butler’s stellar play against the Raptors in recent years, so with the baby Wolves struggling and Butler making shots, I was legitimately worried about a 30-point Jimmy Butler second half takeover (and a DeMar DeRozan single-digit scoring game).

Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

Butler cooled off, hitting only four more FGs (and only one in the fourth); he also missed four free throws in the second half. Meanwhile DeRozan went 5-10 and 8-9 from the line to score 19 and finish with 23.

Phew.

Norman Powell is Still Alive

C.J. Miles missed the game with a sore knee, and OG Anunoby got into foul trouble early in both halves, which meant extended time for Norman Powell.

Remember him? Norm Powell, the third-year, second-round pick whose hard work made him a fan-favourite and earned him a $10-million contract extension that kicks in this summer? Who had played himself out of the rotation and had gotten DNP-CD’d in three of the last four games?

Yeah, that Norm. He played, and made an impact, and it was so great to see. Daniel has more on Norm’s night in his piece, but I want to give Norm some extra love for the defense. The D he played on Butler and Wiggins brought me back to what made me take notice in his rookie year: the way he would get low, get his shoulders into guys’ space, move his feet and frustrate them in their inability to get around him. Strong D is what first earned Powell his minutes, so I’m glad to see he still has that in him.

And it was really cool to see was just how much love his teammates had for him and how happy they were that he found a little groove.

Crunch-Time Offense, Non-Mud Edition

Lotta noise about the Raptors crunch-time efforts this year, especially in light of how the offense has adjusted overall but reverts to old habits when the games get close down the stretch.

Last night we saw something a little different. After a Wiggins three cut the Raptors lead to two with a minute to go, the Raptors actually ran their usual offense instead of just going iso. Kyle Lowry dribbled into a handoff to DeRozan, who in turn swung it to Fred VanVleet on the right wing.

VanVleet probed, reset, then drove on Jeff Teague, and when the defense collapsed, he found DeMar in the lane for the short floater that all but sealed it.

They didn’t rush. They got the defense moving. Three players touched the ball and there were three passes, and bucket was scored on an assist.

Here’s what I really like about the play, and it’s something really only Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet do for Toronto: it’s the way they’re able to use their small size to lower the lead shoulder and get the inside edge on their defender. It’s not always enough to get the full step and a clear lane, but even a half-step is usually enough to get the defense moving. And that opens up seams for others.

On the flip side, when it’s a DeRozan iso, the defense doesn’t have to react in the same way. For one thing, it generally knows he’s taking the shot no matter what. But more than that—DeMar’s footwork is so good and he’s big enough that he doesn’t actually need to “beat” a defender to create space and get a quality shot off. He can get a good look with his defender still squarely between him and the hoop. And therefore the other defenders (short of an actual double-team) don’t have to sag off their own man nearly as much.

I’m obviously not suggesting Fred VanVleet needs to initiate all crunch time offense, or that I think the Raptors need to go away from DeRozan in the clutch. But ball movement and traditional dribble penetration does make a difference, and that play last night is a prime example.

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That’s a quality win against a good, full-strength Western conference playoff team, something the Raptors haven’t really done since November (unless you count beating the Kawhi- and Manu-less Spurs, which, yeah, we probably should!) and a good cap to this mini-homestand.