You’d be forgiven for not yet quite believing in the Toronto Raptors — yes, even with Kawhi Leonard on the team. It’s sometimes just plain hard to accept this franchise as a legitimate contender, even as more minutes pass, and more games end with a win. At a certain point though this unbelieving feeling changes in tone, going from scoffing incredulity to pure amazement. Is... is this really happening?
After a pleasing 112-105 win on Wednesday night over the hapless Minnesota Timberwolves, the Raptors are 5-0. Each win so far this season has been satisfying in its own way. What’s more, this team continues to show what they are in the moment, and also what they could soon become — simultaneously. It gives us cause for celebration now while engendering vibrant, almost painful, anticipation. What else can these Raptors do?
If tonight was any indication, the answer is: anything they want. Led by Kawhi’s season-high 35 points, the Raptors controlled most of the game against the Timberwolves; the lead changed once beyond the opening minute (after a 13-0 Minnesota run between the first two quarters). Leonard would go on to shoot 15-of-23 on the night, while corralling five boards and chipping in two assists. Most impressively, Leonard made Jimmy Butler look for the most part like just another guy — Butler, the guy who once dropped 40 in a half on the Raptors essentially ending DeMarre Carroll’s career, Butler who killed Toronto time and time again over the years, that Jimmy Butler. He finished with 23 points (on 7-of-13 shooting) with five assists and four rebounds, inspiring none of the terror he usually does.
That could be because the Timberwolves are in a funk as a team, or it could be because the Raptors are now able to smother teams outright — even ones featuring former tormentors. “We’re trying to play and wanting to get down and play [defense],” said coach Nick Nurse. “I think there were some really good stretches, some really dominant stretches of defense but as any coach tells you after any game, there’s mistakes there. There’s mistakes that we want to clean up a little bit and get even more dominant and string stops together.”
If this was an example of a game with defensive mistakes, let’s ask again: what else can the Raptors do? Sure, the T-Wolves managed some strong three-point shooting (15-for-30 as a team, with some fluky deep buckets from noted marksmen Derrick Rose, Josh Okogie, and Taj Gibson), but the Raps also held them to 42 percent shooting from the field, just 38 points in the paint, and a collective offensive rating of 105.0. This despite the fact the Timberwolves, after the four previous games, were ranked sixth in the league with a 115.5 offensive rating.
“We’ve got some guys who can play defense,” confirmed Nurse.
Meanwhile, on offense (after Kawhi’s awesome output), the Raptors called once again upon a diverse batch of sources. There was Kyle Lowry with a 13 point (on 4-of-9 shooting), 10 assist, six rebound night — which, given his previous gaudy numbers, is something of an off night for him (hah). Pascal Siakam opened the game with a nine-point explosion, during which he ran Taj Gibson ragged for 19 minutes. The tandem of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas continued their strong play in the pivot, each giving the team something different and necessary.
Ibaka has played almost exclusively in the paint since moving full time to centre and its paying dividends: 15 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) and seven rebounds, along with a couple decent reads out of the post. Now with the bench unit, JV just continues to just bash away. “My mindset is just to do good things, win a game, win the battles,” said Valanciunas. “Every minute I spend on the court I’m trying to find the battles. Nothing disappointing to start from the bench. I can be as productive as starting the game.” The proof is in there in his stat line: 16 points, nine boards, plus a pair of delightful 3s, in just 20 minutes.
There are other things to note here for Toronto, continuing with Norman Powell’s strong 12 minutes off the bench for 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting and two assists. Nurse said he was “proud” of him and it’s easy to see why — filling in for both Delon Wright (still not all the way back despite making his debut tonight) and Fred VanVleet (out with a sprained toe) deserves some respect. Also off the bench, OG Anunoby played bigger minutes tonight (28 in all) and made life difficult for the Wolves’ wings (including Butler), while canning a pair of threes of his own. And Danny Green provided his usual veteran presence (if not quite his lights out shooting) for the night.
(The only real note of concern so far through five games is the Go Daddy Curse-afflicted C.J. Miles, who has stepped up on defense so far this season, but still hasn’t quite found his shot. Miles went 0-for-3 from the field tonight, including two misses from beyond the arc — but he did block Gorgui Dieng at the rim, so it’s not all bad.)
The Wolves made a few runs in tonight’s game, including one late that threatened the Raps lead, which had grown as large as 17 in the second half. But Leonard kept working, Lowry kept probing, the Raptors’ defense kept swarming, and everyone did their job with stout certainty. “I feel good,” said Leonard afterwards. “We’re on the right track. We’ve won every game so far and we just gotta keep going in.”
Indeed. The Raptors are now 5-0 and looking mighty good. So, hmm, what else can they do?