Losses to the Nuggets and Pelicans aren’t heartbreaking if you’re the Toronto Raptors, but having to think about a three-game losing streak over the next nine days would be painful.
That’s what was hanging over the team as they headed into Minneapolis on Wednesday, facing a Minnesota Timberwolves team that’s been red hot at home — and have been parallel to Toronto’s playoff position in the Western Conference standings.
It wasn’t without some bumps in the road, but the Raptors got their win, beating Minnesota 103-91 thanks to a fourth quarter where they outscored the Wolves 31-17.
Tonight, Toronto’s main challenge was a Minnesota zone defense orchestrated by former Raptors assistant and current Wolves head coach Chris Finch. The Raptors have performed below average against zone defenses so far this season, and with Fred VanVleet sitting to rest a sore knee, Toronto had even less options for shooting over or cutting through the look.
Their domination of the fourth solved the problem, though. Nick Nurse unabashedly went away from his hot offensive hands — Gary Trent Jr., who finished the game with 30 points, and Scottie Barnes — in favour of a quicker lineup. Malachi Flynn ran the point and pushed tempo, Thad Young made some veteran savvy cuts and Pascal Siakam glued it together. By the time Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa had hit back to back corner threes, the Raptors had a three-possession lead in hand.
You don’t get to that point without Trent Jr., though, so you can’t discount his impact on the game. With VanVleet out, his 10-for-24 night from the field was necessary, as that included 5-for-12 from three. Siakam finished with 17 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in support — another near-triple-double in a season full of them. Achiuwa and newcomer Young combined for 21 points off the bench.
Minnesota, although equal parts scrappy and genius on the defensive end, couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn door from three on Wednesday — and never went away from shooting them, finishing 10-for-42 (23.8%). That’s more or less where they lost the game, despite their competitive spirit. Even before tip-off, Patrick Beverley was getting into it with Trent Jr. over their position on the opening tip (both players were assessed technical fouls) and the Target Center crowd was engaged from there on out.
Karl-Anthony Towns led the Wolves with 24 points and 11 boards, despite appearing to hurt the thumb on his shooting hand in the first half. It’s a miracle for the Raptors the Wolves didn’t look his way more — a box score where Towns has 14 shots and Jaden McDaniels and Malik Beasley combined to take 24 is a bit puzzling.
In the first quarter, the Trent-Beverley skirmish appeared to fire up the former, as Gary would score eight of the Raptors’ first 11 points. Barnes looked right at home running the point too with VanVleet out, creating some good looks on interior passes and hitting a three of his own in the opening minutes. A huge Scottie transition dunk put Toronto up 24-11 in the first quarter.
The only downside for the Raptors was the struggling OG Anunoby — a player who appears to need the nine-day break more than most. OG missed a couple shots early and looked a bit defeated for the rest of the first half, passing up open looks and committing some uncharacteristic fouls on the perimeter. Still, by the end Anunoby made his contribution — 10 points off hustle plays, one of five Raptors players in double figures.
The Wolves began running their zone with a bench unit in the second quarter and immediately started seeing dividends. Threes from D’Angelo Russell and Beasley cut Toronto’s lead to three, and Minnesota would eventually take the lead off a Taurean Prince three with 2:52 left in the half.
While the Raptors returned to the starters, Minnesota barely strayed from the zone in the third. Khem Birch put in some nice minutes here, keeping balls alive on the offensive glass and making some finishes off his own, as he’d finish the game 3-for-3 for eight points. The teams stayed within one possession for the most part, as the Raptors picked up their own defense — forcing the Wolves into long, contested shots (which was partially the home team settling too).
The Raptors really managed to get momentum going, though, when Thad Young came in for his second shift of the game. Thad had his best stretch yet with the Raptors, showing hints that he was figuring out the flow on offense. Three creative off-ball cuts set up baskets or assists for Young and his play set off a 15-2 run that would bridge the third and fourth quarters.
After the aforementioned big man threes, Toronto really was able to control their lead the rest of the way. Nurse trusted his energy lineup all the way until there was 5:30 left, when he finally brought back Trent. The Minnesota hooper went on to hit the dagger three, finishing off a win that will make the next nine days very bearable for the Raptors.
Next up, the All-Star break and a meeting with the Hornets on February 25.