Raptors won’t be caught sleeping again
The Toronto Raptors play host to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, and the Raptors should be hungry for a bit of revenge.
In the final game before the All-Star break on Feb. 10, the Raptors mistakenly took their foot off the gas. The result had a vacation-ready Raptors team watch a 13-point halftime lead quickly deteriorate, ultimately resulting in a 117-112 Minnesota victory.
“They kicked our butt,” head coach Dwane Casey said at shootaround Wednesday. “I’d like to use another word but I can’t. We totally got dominated.”
The Raptors were perhaps guilty of looking ahead to the time off or underestimating a young, spry Wolves outfit. Casey sounded confident that won’t happen again.
Step one: Figuring out Karl-Anthony Towns
The biggest impediment to the Raptors bouncing back is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, an obscene mix of size, skill, speed, and shooting. He’s essentially matchup-proof, too, with the ability to step out and face up larger frontcourt opposition and take smaller, quicker bigs onto the block.
“I said in New York, I thought Porzingis was gonna be like Dirk [Nowitzki], and this kid can be like Garnett,” Casey said. “Probably more skilled out on the perimeter than Garnett.”
Towns scored a career-high 35 points on 12-of-19 shooting when the teams last met, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking three shots, too. Casey’s assertion is right, as Towns went 6-of-10 with Luis Scola on the floor and 6-of-9 opposite Patrick Patterson. Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo are options to try to check Towns, too, but assigning them to do so could pull them away from the rim and create a mismatch for Gorgui Dieng against a four.
“His versatility, his physicality, his feel for the game,” Casey said. “He’s still a rookie but he’s advanced.”
James Johnson might be the team’s most interesting option to throw at Towns, but that’s committing to going small, something the Raptors have done far less with DeMarre Carroll sidelined.
All eyes on the birthday boy
With Andrew Wiggins returning home a day after his 21st birthday, he was met by the expected hoard of media at shootaround. Wiggins isn’t much of a talker, but the Raptors were willing to sign his praises, giving a deserved nod to his sophomore improvements.
“He’s definitely gotten better,” said Canadian national team teammate Cory Joseph. “His leadership, I feel like, has definitely taken another level. He’s more confident, you know, playing very well.”
Wiggins’ numbers don’t pop off the box score just yet, and so it can be necessary to step back and realize just how young he is in NBA terms. He’s averaging 20.7 points per-game, but some have been discouraged by muted production on the glass, from outside, and as a creator.
One thing at a time. Wiggins’ primary function on the offensive end is creating for himself and learning to be a scorer, and once he’s got a handle on that part of his game, the rest might come. Offensively, he’s not following a dissimilar path to that of DeMar DeRozan, who worked tirelessly to become a shot-maker first, then added other elements of his game in later seasons.
“Being comfortable, getting stronger, being more confident in the moves and the shots that he’s starting to take,” DeRozan said of Wiggins’ growth as a shot-maker. “As he continues to play in this league longer and longer, he can’t do nothing but get better.”
The comparison between DeRozan and Wiggins in their second seasons – DeRozan was half a year older in his – is actually quite interesting.
Wiggins has a more refined 3-point stroke at this point and is getting to the line even more. Even if his passing never comes along quite like DeRozan’s has, it’s an encouraging comparison.
DeRozan, winning now and winning big
DeRozan, after all, is now the Raptors’ all-time winningest player. That means something in terms of longevity, and it’s a standing that DeRozan doesn’t take lightly.
“It means a lot, just to be in the record books,” DeRozan said. “To have that and have the chance to continue to grow on that every single night, it’s definitely a blessing.”
Of course, nobody is confusing regular season success with bigger picture success. For DeRozan (and Kyle Lowry) to challenge Vince Carter and Chris Bosh atop the all-time franchise hierarchy, they’ll need to eventually win a playoff series. Or two. Or even three.
“The conference? Winning, period,” DeRozan said when asked if winning the conference is a goal. “We can’t put limitations on just that. We have a chance to do something special and we’ve gotta use these next 28, whatever how many games, to build on that.
“We’re not just playing just to get in the playoffs, not to win the division. We’re playing for it all.”
Casey acknowledged having the top record in the East is something they’d like to do but stressed that it’s far more important to simply remain on message, on point, and on edge as the season enters the dog days.
“I’m not falling for all the ‘No. 2 in the conference’ and all that,” Casey said. “We’re not good enough to feel that way.”
Games like Wednesday against a lottery-bound Wolves team are a good test for their ability to do just that.