After a disappointing effort on Wednesday night against the Celtics in Boston, the Toronto Raptors return to their home court on Friday to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sporting an 18-20 record and currently four games back of the eighth seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Timberwolves find themselves stuck in no man’s land. This has led to frustration on the part of star forward Kevin Love, who has publicly called his own teammates out for sulking on the bench and contributing to a losing environment.
The infighting has certainly contributed to Minny’s losing record, but the bigger problem is the team’s porous defence, which gives up 102.7 points per and has allowed opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field.
For their part, the Raptors have boasted the second-best defence in the league since trading away Rudy Gay, giving up 97.2 points per 100 possessions and holding opponents to 42.7 percent shooting.
That all bodes well, however Toronto should still be wary, as Minnesota’s double-barreled offence is capable of hanging 30 points or more on a team in a single quarter.
Kevin Love is undoubtedly one of the top power forwards in the NBA. The UCLA product ranks fourth league-wide in scoring (25.6 per) and second in rebounding (13 per), all while shooting solid percentages from the floor (46) and from deep (39), and sporting a PER of 27.46 (the third-highest mark in the NBA).
So dominant is Love that he manages to overshadow one of the most imposing figure in the NBA, teammate Nikola Pekovic. Standing six-foot-11 with the physique of a small apartment building, Pekovic is having a career year in 2013-14, averaging 18.2 points and 9.1 rebounds and shooting 53 percent from the floor.
Combined, Love and Pekovic might be the best big man combo in the entire league, particularly with the Grizzlies’ duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol battling injuries and underperforming.
Needless to say, Raptors bigs Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are in for a tough night, holding little in the way of advantages beyond quickness. Love, in particular will be troubling as his ability to step outside and knock down three pointers will take Johnson and Valanciunas out of their rim-protecting comfort zone.
Though the battle up front may be the most headline-worthy, the matchup at the point will likely be more important.
The Wolves’ Ricky Rubio and the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry are rare commodities in the league—point guards capable of guarding their own position. Each approaches the task a little differently—with Rubio using his length and lateral quickness to stay in front of his man and Lowry using his strength to bully opponents—but both are ball hawks capable of igniting fast breaks.
For the Raptors to be successful, Lowry will need to find ways to slow Rubio down and prevent him from getting out in the open floor. He’ll also find success going under screens in the half court as Rubio shoots a dreadful 35 percent from the field.
Riding the pine
The Timberwolves have one of the worst second units in the Association, averaging just 24.9 points per game with an offensive and defensive rating of 99.5 and 100.7, respectively.
By comparison, since the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors’ bench has posted offensive and defensive ratings of 101.8 and a remarkable 95.1.
While the entire bench deserves credit, Raptors reserve Patrick Patterson is owed a special shout out. Filling in the rotation spot normally reserved for Tyler Hansbrough, Patterson has made the most of the opportunity, scoring 13 points, collecting 5.7 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the floor and 50 percent from deep in the seven games that Hansbrough has missed with injury.
Hansbrough’s status is questionable for Friday night’s game.