Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 116-112 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
One — Disgusting: There is absolutely no excuse for any team that isn’t outright tanking to be losing to the Timberwolves, who had lost 20 of their last 24 games. The Raptors played down to the level of their opponent, then played below it for the entire third quarter, and their late comeback attempt was cut short by Pascal Siakam missing an easy layup that would have tied the game. It doesn’t take much to beat the Timberwolves, but the Raptors couldn’t even play a decent quarter, and got burned. With four of the next five games coming up against Milwaukee and Philadelphia, this was not just shocking but wasteful. Everybody from the stars, to the bench, to the coaching staff should brood on this result.
Two — Impossible: Minnesota did everything in its power to choke the game away. They fouled on nearly every trip down the stretch, they whiffed on offensive rebounds, they stepped out of bounds when just holding onto the ball would have sufficed, and practically begged the Raptors to force overtime. Siakam drives the ball all the way to the basket without any help, had his man beat, and went up for a finger roll right at the rim. The ball spilled out, the Timberwolves grabbed the rebound, and drained two free throws as the final nails in the coffin. It may have felt like a missed opportunity, but it was absolutely deserved, not in that the Timberwolves deserved to win, but it would have been an injustice had the Raptors stole it.
Three — Embarrassing: The Raptors lost this game in the third quarter after allowing the Timberwolves to score 37 points on 15-of-20 shooting. Wolves rookie Anthony Edwards led the charge by getting inside the paint at will, and Malik Beasley added three triples. Instead of picking up their defense, the Raptors responded by trying to go shot-for-shot. It was especially bad for Fred VanVleet, who shot 0-of-8 in the third after scoring 19 in the first half, and he went consecutive possessions without making a single pass. Minnesota sprinted out on every miss to bulge its lead to 12 points.
Four — Push: Nick Nurse was desperate for the win, deploying his two All-Stars to start the fourth quarter against the Wolves’ reserves. It worked great to start with Siakam scoring in the post and Lowry living at the free-throw line, and it looked as if the Raptors would just seize control. But they just couldn’t sustain their effort on defense, bleeding points in transition and routinely losing their assignments, which allowed the Timberwolves to respond each time the Raptors got level. The pick-and-roll combination with Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns gave them fits, with the Timberwolves thwarting every scheme the Raptors threw at them.
Five — Brittle: Aron Baynes was a positive contributor to start the fourth quarter, securing rebounds, being strong at the rim, and generally filling his role. However, he became an obvious target once Towns checked in, and his limitations became painfully clear. The Raptors tried to trap the ball handler out top, which required Baynes to step above the arc and well outside his comfort zone. The task then was to rotate and cover for the numbers advantage, which again is not Baynes’ strong suit. It got so bad that the Raptors were willingly switching Fred VanVleet onto Towns, giving up a foot in height and at least 50 pounds in the post just to avoid Baynes having to cover. This is not the first time Baynes was outmatched defensively, and it won’t be the last. And the trouble is, defense is supposed to be his specialty.
Six — Weak: Most nights, the Raptors can turn to Chris Boucher to cover for Baynes. But this also an off-night for Boucher, especially on the defensive end. The Timberwolves drove straight into Boucher’s chest and got to the basket at will, and the offensive glass was also wide open. On the other end, Boucher was not nearly as productive in the pick-and-roll as he usually is. Nurse even sprinkled in a hint of Stanley Johnson as a smallball center, but that is almost always a losing strategy especially when matched against a prolific scorer like Towns. Boucher has exceeded all expectations as a change of pace player off the bench, and has saved the Raptors game after game, but the Raptors need a proper starting center, and that has been their Achilles’ heel all season.
Seven — Compete: The bigger issue is that the Raptors just didn’t compete with the requisite energy, which seems to happen with alarming regularity in their temporary home. Minnesota’s first basket was a straight line-drive layup, and that set the tone for the entire game. Even with Boucher and Baynes struggling, and with Towns returning to the lineup after being sidelined with COVID-19, the Raptors were not unequipped to handle the assignment. What they needed was to play with patience on offense, and to put in a disciplined effort defensively. In truth it was a show of arrogance by the Raptors, who have been under .500 all season, to take their opponent so lightly.
Eight — Scouted: It can’t be a coincidence that every opponent is making a concerted effort to pump fake at the three-point line. The Raptors are ultra-aggressive defensively and will willingly leave their feet to close out, which worked brilliantly last season as the Raptors allowed the lowest three-point percentage in the league. This season, the Raptors have slinked to the bottom 10, which isn’t entirely bad luck. Teams are specifically game planning for the Raptors by having their shooters pump fake what look to be open looks, trigger the fly-by, before either side-stepping into the open look, or driving past and collapsing the paint.
Nine — Needed: The Raptors badly missed the defensive abilities of OG Anunoby and Yuta Watanabe. Without a reliable defensive anchor at center, the Raptors need as many defensively-sound forwards on the floor as possible to give them flexibility in their defense and to help corral the defensive glass. Both players were slated to return for this game, but Nurse also gave the same promise throughout the week.
Ten — Difficult: The road ahead will make or break the season. The Raptors went 10-5 after starting out 2-8, and had a missed chance to return to .500 with their loss to Boston. Two games against Minnesota were the only offers at respite between games against the Bucks, Sixers, and Heat. If the Raptors play with intent and lock in defensively, they can compete with the East’s best teams. But whether they can actually summon that effort with any type of consistency is very much up for debate. A few key wins could push the front office to add a center to bolster their run, whereas a string of lopsided losses could signal that the Raptors need to retool.
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