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Raptors blow 18-point lead, lose to shorthanded Timberwolves 128-126

Their offense was clicking for most of the game, but a lack of defense and a poorly timed drought kept the Raptors from leaving Minnesota with a win.

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves caught a flight late Wednesday night, after an overtime loss at high altitude against the Denver Nuggets. They lost an hour of sleep because of the time change. Both Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns were out due to injuries. They had every excuse in the book to lose this game, and the Raptors had none. But despite leading for most of the game and knocking down half of their threes, the Toronto Raptors were unable to get the win, dropping them to 20-26.

Tonight’s loss was pretty consistent with the team’s troubling trend of playing bad defense. The Raptors had allowed 33.2 points per first quarter in their five previous games – in tonight’s opening frame, they allowed 31.

Within the game’s first few minutes, the Raptors appeared, once again, neither fully connected nor intense on defense, and gave up a couple open corner threes due to some delayed rotations. Even when they got stops, they gave up some second chance points on easy offensive boards. They looked good on offense, though, as they continually pushed the ball off turnovers and defensive rebounds, leading to eight early fast break points in the quarter.

Precious Achiuwa was the first player off the bench and put in an excellent shift, beginning with a fast break alley-oop from Fred VanVleet. On the other end, he deflected a pass bound for a backdoor cutter, likely saving a couple points. On another defensive possession he made a timely rotation and a beautiful block. He followed that up with an offensive board and a drawn foul. He missed both free throws, but made up for it with a putback on the next possession, then a three. Achiuwa – who was notably not accompanied by frequent collaborator Chris Boucher (DNP) – provided a nice injection of energy and production, helping them score 37 in the first.

In the second quarter we got our first look at Joe Wieskamp, who’s on his second 10-day. Wieskamp hit two corner threes, then another one in the fourth. Wieskamp!!

The Raptors looked like the much better team in the second quarter, and played at a blistering pace. Siakam led the bench unit with his facilitation, and VanVleet was locked in, hitting threes, mid-range pull-ups, and creating easy shots for teammates. Scottie Barnes finished plays with nicely timed cuts and finishes inside, and Trent provided some important secondary shot-making. Most importantly, their zone defense flustered the Wolves for a few minutes, allowing them to extend their lead to 18. But once Minnesota started picking the defense apart again, the Raptors provided far too little resistance and allowed them to close the gap to 10 by halftime.

O.G. Anunoby didn’t play his best game, turning the ball over three times in the first half and losing a couple defensive gambles that ultimately cost them points. Siakam only ended up with 13 points, but he was the engine of the offense in the third quarter, setting up a couple threes for VanVleet and hitting a mid-range fadeaway. Barnes was solid in the first half, but really picked things up in the third. He had a particularly nice stretch where he stopped Naz Reid one-on-one, then drove by him at the other end for a layup. On the following possession, Barnes finished inside on a nice pass from VanVleet, who initiated the offense to end the third, and ended the game with 25 points and 10 assists.

Despite looking like the superior team, the Raptors left far too much meat on the bone. Towards the end of the third, Barnes threw a lob to Achiuwa, but the lob was a bit high and Achiuwa missed the dunk. Achiuwa also missed all four of his free throw attempts, which blemished his otherwise very solid game. The Raptors’ transition defense was slightly disorganized and Anthony Edwards capitalized with a three, capping off a five-point swing to make it 106-101. On an inbound play, the Raptors essentially gifted the Wolves two free points as Siakam fell asleep on a backdoor cut. They just weren’t stingy enough to keep building the lead.

The Raptors went with Barnes-Wieskamp-Hernangomez-Siakam-Achiuwa to start the fourth quarter. While Barnes has operated more often as a big lately, Point Scottie was unleashed for a few possessions and the results were pretty good!

But after extending the lead to 119-105, the Raptors just couldn’t deal a final blow. They were sluggish in their closeouts – not only on rotations, but even on highly-contestable catch-and-shoot attempts, and allowed D’Angelo Russell to hit three three-pointers in a row. Then, after a Siakam miss, Edwards drew a foul to make it 124-121, and tied the game with a three.

Finally, the Raptors strung together a few stops, but their offense hit a wall as fans collectively came to the same realization: the Raptors hadn’t yet suffered their offensive drought of the game. When the starters came back in with about seven minutes left, the Raptors had 122 points – they scored four points the rest of the game. Siakam made a bucket with 5:54 left. Their next points were scored by Scottie Barnes with 1:09 on the clock.

Midway through the fourth quarter the Raptors lost the pace that they’d used to pull away in the second. Siakam – who finished with 13 points and nine assists – was off with his shot-making down the stretch, and Anunoby missed two open threes in the last 30 seconds. It was a poorly timed, complete collapse of the team’s offense. Maybe the team was tired from their high-paced play early on, and perhaps a little more depth could’ve helped the starters sustain their effort. But depth can’t be an excuse against a Minnesota team missing both KAT and Gobert.

Poor execution down the stretch is certainly a problem with this team, and that problem was apparent today. But the only reason this game was even close in the fourth quarter was the team’s inability to lock in defensively. They let points trickle in with unfocused rotations and poor closeouts, until suddenly it was 126-126 and Fred VanVleet – who otherwise played an amazing game – fouled D’Angelo Russell on a rip-through and sent him to the line. This came after Scottie Barnes – who was also excellent, finishing with a game-high 29 points, eight boards, five assists, and two steals – unnecessarily fouled Russell to extend the Wolves’ possession. This team just can’t stay out of its own way.

It’s been clear for a while now that, as currently constructed, the Raptors are not a playoff team. They had no excuse to lose this one, but up 18 points and sizzling on offense (they hit 63% of their shots in the first half!), they just refused to put the Wolves away. They allowed the Wolves to score 31, 35, 35, and 27 points in each quarter respectively. The Raptors are now 11th in the East, and are as close to the 13th-place Orlando Magic as they are to .500.

If you’re pro-tanking, this game was a pretty sight for you. The Raptors made it interesting and Scottie Barnes looked awesome. If the goal is to bottom out while maintaining a solid point differential and fostering Barnes’ development, this was the perfect outcome. If you like watching the Raptors win games, though... well, this could be a long winter.