If you ever wondered what happens when one unstoppable pain in the ass runs into an equal and opposite immovable pain in the ass, you got your answer on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena as the Raptors took down the Wolves 125-102. It’s not really surprising that the Raptors and Wolves share heaps of similar traits — they are coached by Nick Nurse and Nick Nurse’s best coaching friend, respectively. But the see the full extent to which they are the pointing spider men meme come to life is quite something to behold in person.
raps & wolves fighting tooth & nail to see who can overhelp more and give up more wide-open corner 3s, riveting stuff— Joe Wolfond (@joey_doubleyou) March 31, 2022
these teams are such spiritual siblings it’s incredible— Joe Wolfond (@joey_doubleyou) March 31, 2022
Toronto and Minnesota entered the game 10th and 11th in defensive rating, top ten in offensive rebounding rate, bottom ten on the defensive glasss, and with near idential records (43-32 vs 43-33), having spent the bulk of the second half straddling the play-in line in their respective conferences. The similarities run all the way down to Nurse and Chris Finch’s schemes. Case in point — the all-too-familiar star-stopping defense the Wolves threw at Pascal Siakam throughout the game.
Unfortunately for Finch and Wolves, Siakam was too damn good for that shit on Wednesday night. It wasn’t a thrilling 40-point game with a crunch time takeover, but Siakam’s 12-point, 10-board, 13-assist triple-double effort against Minnesota was every bit as impressive as his performance against Boston on Monday night. Much like two nights ago, he’s the biggest reason the Raptors won.
For a time to start this one, Siakam and the Raptors actually looked spooked by Minnesota’s length and size. Despite forcing the Wolves into ten first quarter turnvovers, Toronto’s offense couldn’t squeeze a damn thing out of its offense early on, be it on the run or in the half court. The Wolves got out to a 30-20 lead to end the first frame, and extended it out to a 40-23 edge within a couple minutes of Q2.
Following a Raps timeout, Siakam eased into the flow. Leveraging the Wolves’ hyper-agressive, super-Raptorsy defense that leaves shooters open by design, he cast aside his recent score-first approach, instead opting to pile up them dimes. Like clockwork, he’d drive, spin, diagnose the incoming double-team, and whip passes out to the wing. Sometimes Precious Achiuwa or Gary Trent Jr. or Fred VanVleet was there for the quick-fire look, others it swung to the near-corner on a touch pass for OG Anunoby or Trent or Thad Young. Somehow, the 13 assists under Siakam’s name don’t do justice to the way he sliced up the imposing Wolves pack line defense. The advanced box scores won’t be updated until after this posts, but I’m setting the over/under for secondary assists credited to Siakam at 8.5.
The number of potential assists he missed out on will probably come in a little lower than that, because unlike the game against the Celtics, Siakam had all the help he could have hoped for on Wednesday. Anunoby knocked down all four of his threes, and poured in an uber-efficient 22 points on 13 shots to pair with five boards, three assists, and a team-best plus-29; Trent Jr. led the way with 29, missing just two of his eight triples; the bench trio of Young, Achiuwa and Chris Boucher combined for 29 points and six threes on 13 tries.
“Well we did a good job of getting it out of there,” said Nurse after the game when asked about Siakam’s playmaking from the crowded middle. “Obviously we made a ton of them tonight, which is also good. We took the right ones, we made the extra pass ... everybody was in the act with their three ball tonight.”
Nurse had especially high praise for Achiuwa, who got the call to start the second half in place of Scottie Barnes after an outstanding stretch in the first half, during which he poured in nine points-worth of threes and went toe-to-toe with Karl-Anthony Towns on the defensive end.
“I just think he’s crossed over some kind of psychologial thing where he really thinks he can make ‘em,” Nurse said when asked about the 22-year-old’s ever-expanding range.
“When it comes to him it’s just going up.”
After the ragged start, the last 34 minutes of game time in this one were more track meet than basketball game, meaning we saw the Raptors at their swarming best. They might be the most Slamball-inspired team in the NBA.
Toronto goaded Minnesota into 22 turnovers — a good number of which came at the iron hands of Fred VanVleet, who just might be the nastiest dude on a team literally designed to feature nasty dudes only. For VanVleet, whose clearly looked hampered by his nagging knee injury for weeks, it was a bit of a throwback performance to a healthier time — hopefully a sign of a turnaround to come.
“I thought that was as fast as Fred moved in a few games,” said Nurse when breaking down VanVleet’s 12-point, eight-assist, five-steal effort. “And his hands were unbelievable tonight, it seemed like there was a stretch where he was going and pulling it out there time and time again ... Yeah, he was incredible defensively tonight.”
National media types in the know have been tossing out the Raptors as the team with the best shot at pulling a first-round upset among the Toronto-Chicago-Cleveland clump; they also seem to be the one engendering the most fear amongst the Heat, Celtics, Bucks and Sixers. If Toronto is going to stun someone in a few weeks’ time, it’ll be because they replicate the formula they used to run the Wolves outta the gym four times in seven games.
It’s pretty clear that this team has the horses to do some damage when things are humming. It all flows from Siakam, whose methods of demoltion have been diverse all season. We’ve seen this week alone that he can swing a game with his individual scoring punch, or with his wildly improved playmaking. There’ve been plenty of nights this season he’s combined the two. The playoffs are a different beast from the regular season, but Siakam’s gotten it done all year under some of the most difficult circumstances of any star in the league, from cramped spacing to the two-way hot-and-cold spells that come with life on a young and learning team. So while things do ratchet up in the post-season, it’s not crazy to think we’ve already gotten proof of concept that this version of Siakam will in fact translate to the rigours of playoff ball in a way the 2019-20 edition just didn’t.
If the guys around him hit shots and stir up mayhem the way they did against the Wolves, one of the East’s heavyweights is gonna have some problems come mid-April.