TORONTO – The best case scenario at the Air Canada Centre was simple: Toronto’s own Andrew Wiggins comes home and puts on a show and the Raptors still pull out the win.
That’s how you send 19,800 people home happy.
It all worked out as the Raptors held off the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 114-105 victory Wednesday night.
Wiggins did his part. He played the best game of his brief career at the ACC, finishing with 26 points, four rebounds and three assists on nine-of-19 shooting, though most of his damage came in the first half and he did have six turnovers.
And the Raptors? They did their part too, though not without a lot of anxious moments – like about 48 minutes worth. A pair of threes by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan gave the Raptors a six-point lead with 1:51 left and another triple by Lowry with 53.8 seconds left sealed it as the Raptors point guard scored 12 of his 21 points in the final nine minutes of the game.
The win improved the Raptors’ record to 38-18 and gave them nine straight wins at home – just the second time that’s happened in one season in franchise history – as the Raptors remained three games behind Cleveland for first place in the Eastern Conference. They host the Cavaliers on Friday.
Lowry was aided by DeRozan’s 31 points – eight in the fourth quarter – to lead all scorers.
So, a good night then.
There should be more coming. Even though Minnesota will only play in Toronto once a season, the clubs will be rivals of a sort as long as Wiggins plays for the Timberwolves and Raptors fans (and executives) can wish that one day he’ll be home for good.
It won’t be anytime soon, so for now the question is how long it will be before the T-Wolves arrive in Toronto as favourites, given their talent – and that’s taking nothing away from the trajectory the Raptors are on as one of the East’s best teams. The T-Wolves, with Wiggins as part of the whole rather than the signature piece, could be putting together something special.
"They’re good man," said Lowry, who not-so-long ago was going to be traded by the Raptors so they could tank with an eye towards drafting Wiggins, who went No. 1 in 2014 and has lived up to expectations. "They got some talent over there and when they get it together they’re going to be a force. They’re good, simple as that."
The game appeared to be decided when the Raptors put together a 10-2 run midway through the fourth quarter that gave Toronto an eight-point lead they should have been able to nurse home.
But the T-Wolves aren’t that kind of bad team. They compete.
"We like our growth so far," Minnesota head coach Sam Mitchell was saying before the game. "It’s been great in that we’ve had very, very few games where we’ve just had our butts handed to us. Probably two, maybe three. Other than that when we’ve been down, we don’t give up, we keep fighting."
That was evident Wednesday night. The Raptors were in tough from the first minute and started the fourth quarter leading 87-86 and with increasingly vital sixth man Terrence Ross in the locker-room after getting tossed for going after the ref for a bad call late in the third quarter. He mimed throwing the ball at the referee, a no-no.
While the fans might have been pleased with both the Wiggins show and the result, you didn’t have to wait until Raptors head coach Dwane Casey’s post-game press conference to know that he wasn’t and with good reason. The Raptors are a dangerous team when they hold teams to less than 100 points – 30-3 on the season – but the T-Wolves broke 100 with 3:48 left in the game as super-rookie Karl-Anthony Towns – all 6-foot-11 of him – pulled down a rebound and dribbled the length of the floor to set up a Zach LaVine dunk that tied the score 101-101.
To his last breath, or the moment he’s being fitted for a championship ring, Casey will be proclaiming his team’s flaws before accentuating their strengths. Being perpetually concerned is how he remains vigilant in the face of complacency.
"I’m not satisfied. I’m not comfortable, I’m not going to get comfortable," Casey said, scoffing when someone called the Raptors’ 5.5-game lead on third place in the East a cushion. "I’m not going to fall into the trap where we are where we need to be, because we’re not and this team showed us we’re not.
"The only time we can beat good teams is when we’re on edge."
That lack of edge is what Casey feels cost his team when they blew an 18-point lead in the second half against Minnesota when the two teams met before the all-star game.
But Minnesota is a pretty compelling team, too, even if their 18-40 record suggests they are a long way from being a group that should give the Raptors all kinds of trouble on their home court.
They are though. While Toronto has built itself into a playoff team with continuity and over time, the Timberwolves have pure talent spilling off their bench in buckets thanks to years of being terrible. They have the longest playoff drought in the NBA, dating back to 2004-05, but are now showing the outlines of a contender, as long as things break the right way.
When will they break through?
"I don’t know what it’s going to take, or I’d have done it already," said Wiggins of his team, which features eight players born in the 1990s and four born since 1995. "[But] the chemistry is building everyday."
The Raptors looked like the team lacking in chemistry early on, especially defensively. Minnesota hit 11 of their first 15 shots to start the game and finished the first half shooting 57.5 per cent.
"We can’t wait to get kicked in the teeth like that to get going," said Casey after the game.
That the Raptors were leading 61-58 after 24 minutes is a reflection that playing a high level of cohesive team defence is something that eludes most young teams and Minnesota in particular, as the Raptors shot 55 per cent and held the lead thanks to five-of-10 three-point shooting, converting 10-of-12 from the line running effectively after five T-Wolves turnovers.
But Wiggins was front-and-centre, even after being held to just 13 first-half minutes after picking up two early fouls. Since Feb. 1 the Timberwolves have been the NBA’s most prolific offence, averaging 113.1 points/100 possessions and Wiggins has been a big reason, averaging 23 points on 49-per-cent shooting over the eight-game span, including 40 per cent from three.
But Wiggins isn’t alone. A healthy Ricky Rubio has organized the T-Wolves from the point, fellow second-year player and dunk champion LaVine is making huge strides – he’s shooting 43 per cent from three this month and has improved his numbers across the board from his rookie year.
Meanwhile Towns, taken No.1 overall last June, has been a revelation and came into the game as the runaway favourite to win NBA Rookie of the Year honours with averages of 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds on 53-per-cent shooting and 36 per cent from three.
"He’s the best rookie there is this year, I don’t think it’s even close," said Wiggins, who was able to celebrate his 21st birthday at home in Thornhill, Ont., on Tuesday. "He’s doing stuff that no one else is doing. Near the top of the league in doubles-doubles; double-doubles in nearly every game. He’s a dominant force for us."
For Mitchell, who took over as the T-Wolves boss after Flip Saunders died of cancer before the season started, it’s a slow-building process but one with the potential for tantalizing results, particularly since Minnesota will likely be in the draft lottery again in June.
The only question is when it will all come together.
Will the growth be all at once, or incremental? The Oklahoma City Thunder went from 23 wins in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s 20-year-old seasons in 2008-09 to 50 wins the following season.
It’s a tall order, but Mitchell doesn’t rule out the possibility when he looks at the talent that he can roll out on the floor.
"You have those light bulb moments when you make up your mind and become a pro," he said of Wiggins and the rest. "And the thing I like about our young guys is every day you can see them grow with confidence and understand the league better."
The Raptors are ahead of the game for now, benefitting from age and experience and a core that has been together for three seasons.
But the next time Wiggins returns to the ACC, the crowd might not be heading home so happy.