With a six-game road trip that spanned over 10 days finally over, the Raptors return to Tampa Bay tonight to play host to a struggling Minnesota Timberwolves team. In all, the trip went well for the Raptors as they won four and got themselves back into the top eight of the Eastern Conference. They even ranked third in the league in offensive efficiency during that stretch.
A visit tonight from the 6-20 Wolves doesn’t mean the schedule ahead will get easier for the Raptors. This will be the first of two matchups between Toronto and Minnesota in the next six days, but sandwiched between them are a couple games against the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks. Still, the focus tonight for the Raptors must be the Timberwolves, as these are the types of games that can get overlooked on the schedule in favour of the matchups against tougher opponents.
Karl-Anthony Towns returned to Minnesota’s lineup a couple games ago after struggling with COVID-19 symptoms for some time. Towns had been out of the lineup since Jan. 13. He also missed games earlier in the season due to a wrist injury. Despite getting their star centre back, the Timberwolves continue to struggle, going 1-5 in the month of February, while currently sliding through a four-game losing skid.
Games against the bottom feeders can be overlooked, but 26 games into the season and at 12-14, the Raptors can’t afford to lose their focus for tonight.
Here are the game details.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 7 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norm Powell, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Minnesota – Ricky Rubio, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Karl Anthony-Towns
Toronto – OG Anunoby (calf – questionable), Yuta Watanabe (ankle – doubtful), Patrick McCaw (knee – out)
OG Anunoby and Patrick McCaw both practiced today. YUTA did not.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) February 13, 2021
Nick Nurse is optimistic about OG playing tomorrow but hasn't been determined for sure yet. McCaw a few days away.
Minnesota – D’Angelo Russell (leg – out), Jarrett Culver (ankle – out)
Locking in the Defense
As mentioned above, as unbelievable as this seemed earlier in the year, the Raptors’ offensive efficiency was one of the league’s best during their recent road trip. The same can’t be said about the defense.
Over the course of the last six games the Raptors ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency and surrendered 117.5 points per game. A team that has been known for their defense in recent years, the Raptors this season have been in the bottom-half of the league. It will be important for the Raptors to buckle down defensively tonight, even if Minnesota has been a bottom three offense so far this season. If you give a young team the opportunity to knock down a couple jumpers, their confidence tends to grow throughout the game, which can lead to further trouble.
Keep this number in mind: the Raptors have given up at least 60 points in the first halves of their last six games. Will we see that again tonight or will the Raptors buckle down early and take care of business defensively?
Boucher Pick N’ Roll
It’s clear the Raptors don’t have a lot of options at the centre position and tonight’s game might not be the best matchup for Aron Baynes either. As with the trend on the year, we might not see him beyond the first couple minutes of both the first and third quarters.
As has been the case all season, this provides more opportunity for Chris Boucher to play a lot of minutes at the five. Meanwhile, if OG Anunoby is back, the Raptors may also play tons of small ball with him at centre — but that remains to be seen.
Regardless of Anunoby’s situation, the Raptors need to take advantage of Boucher in the pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet. This will help bring Towns out of the paint, creating more of an opportunity for the Raptors to attack the hoop.
BOUCHER CATCHING BODIES ON THE REGULAR pic.twitter.com/AKOg2KAsKQ— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 11, 2021
Even getting Naz Reid, Minnesota’s backup centre who averages a block per game, out of the paint will be beneficial. Being able to clear Towns and Reid away from the rim will not only allow for more attacks, but also more opportunities to drive and kick. And we’ve see what that does for the Raptors, with Siakam attacking from the post and Boucher rolling down the lane.
Boucher has proven this season he can be a key piece to the offense, tonight might be the time to put him in the spotlight.
Get to the Line
In addition to the above point, this is a game for the Raptors to take advantage of their opponent’s style of play and get to the free throw line often. Minnesota fouls the fourth most in the NBA and if Toronto can attack the rim, they can jump on some easy points.
The tricky thing here though is that the Raptors are second in fouls per game — their defense is aggressive but has not been as disciplined. As has been the case other times this season, when the Raptors win the free throw battle, they put themselves in a good position to win. It means that not only are they attacking on offense, but also keeping their hands and feet moving well on defense. Still, this could be a game filled with lots of whistles.
For now, let’s remember: the Timberwolves are young and inexperienced, so they are bound to foul a lot. The Raptors should know better, and need to take charge (and take charges) to keep things under control in tonight’s contest.