MINNEAPOLIS — So that’s what the real Toronto Raptors look like.
They didn’t have a ceremony when Fred VanVleet strolled out to centre court at the Target Center as part of the starting lineup, but they could have.
For the first time this season, the Raptors didn’t have a single player injured. In what has been a season-long game of whack-a-mole, where one player’s return to health would seem to trigger another going down, VanVleet was able to take the floor after missing five games with a pulled hamstring and not have his presence mean the Raptors owed the universe a groin pull, or a fractured finger.
Moreover, VanVleet was able to do it in style, scoring a game-high 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting in his 29 minutes of playing time as Toronto cruised to a 122-112 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“It looked like it was just like riding a bike for him,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He was really good. He finished, made some fabulous finishes, he really shot the ball great.”
His return seemed to spark Kyle Lowry as well, as the Raptors’ engine added 28 points. Combined, Lowry and VanVleet were 12-of-16 from three. And all of that came without cutting into Norman Powell’s hot streak as he scored 20 points in 25 minutes off the bench.
The Raptors’ third-straight win improved their record to 28-14 with their next game coming Monday afternoon against the bottom-feeding Atlanta Hawks.
Toronto took an 89-85 lead into the fourth quarter and built on it with a 10-5 run in the early moments, giving the Raptors their first 10-point lead of the game, and then they kept coming. They put the clamps on Minnesota defensively, forcing the Timberwolves into six turnovers in the first five minutes of the fourth and limiting them to two made field goals.
A VanVleet triple — his sixth on seven attempts at that point — pushed the run to 21-6, and Minnesota into a hole that was 20 points deep. It was over.
If there is a note of caution, it’s that the Raptors’ offensive surge over the past three games — they are averaging 130.6 points a game in their streak — hasn’t exactly come against a murderer’s row of defensive lineups. The team-record tying 140 points Toronto put up Friday night came against the Washington Wizards, the NBA’s worst defensive team. The Timberwolves are middle-of-the-pack, but have been sliding.
Still, 51.6 per cent shooting with 25 assists is some healthy offence.
VanVleet was watching from the sidelines as his teammates were eased back into the lineup over the last few games, and couldn’t wait to join them.
“I know what I bring to this team and obviously that was missing,” said VanVleet, who tied a career-high with seven made triples on eight attempts in the win, while also snagging four steals. “But the guys did a hell of a job when I was out, they played their butts off and the last two or three games I was seeing the offence find its way back, especially with [Marc Gasol] out there, and I couldn’t wait to join the party.”
The Timberwolves – looking up at a playoff spot in the West, as usual, after wasting a fool’s gold quick start to their season – came out with a bit of jump on a cold night in a not-quite full arena, and on the second night of a back-to-back to boot.
Leading the way was Andrew Wiggins, the enigmatic wing from Vaughan who has a knack for finding a way to engage and elevate his play against his hometown team. Heading into Saturday’s contest, Wiggins’ 23.1 points per game career-scoring average when facing the Raptors was his second-highest against any team, trailing only his performances against the Cleveland Cavaliers — who traded him the summer he was drafted.
Fittingly he recorded his first career triple-double against Toronto, posting a line of 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. It also gave Wiggins the honour of being the first Canadian to put up a triple-double against a Canadian NBA team.
Was he auditioning for Nurse, who also coaches the Canadian men’s national team?
Possibly. The invitation to join the team for this summer’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament — and hopefully beyond — is open.
“We could [use him], yeah, we’re trying to get all the best Canadian guys and it looks pretty good,” said Nurse before the game. “Most of them are already on board and excited about playing. It’s a heck of an opportunity, right, it’s a chance to go to the Olympics and you get to play the qualifier in your home country and when we get to that we’re going to be really excited about addressing it down the line a little bit.”
Wiggins put up a quick 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting in his nine first-quarter minutes as the Timberwolves sprinted out to a 39-32 lead. Minnesota was able to shoot 59.1 per cent from the field as the Raptors’ defensive intensity was lacking.
Fortunately, Toronto wasn’t exactly struggling to find their offence as they shot 60 per cent from the floor overall. But they were a mere 1-of-6 from three compared to Minnesota going 5-of-11 from long-range.
Who was going to play defence first, was the relevant question. The Raptors answered that pretty definitively as Minnesota ended up shooting just 40.4 per cent from the floor despite their hot start and were limited to 10-of-25 in the fourth quarter.
The added benefit is that the Raptors were able to do all their work without challenging any of the minutes restrictions their recently returned players are on: VanVleet played 28:30, Powell played 24:32, Gasol played 20:17 and Pascal Siakam clocked in at 24:23.
That in and of itself was a mini-triumph for VanVleet, who chafed at the training staff’s advice when he missed five games with a knee injury earlier this year.
“I think with the first minutes restriction I had with my knee there I probably had the wrong approach with it,” VanVleet said. “I was fighting it too much, pushing it too much. Me and [Raptors director of sports science] Alex McKechnie went back-and-forth a bit. It was a different injury, obviously, but I wanted to come back full-force and it affected me. I was thinking about it when I was out there — I was thinking about [the minutes] when I was coming out rather than just playing.”
VanVleet certainly didn’t look like his layoff hindered him at all. He hit his first two shots in the first quarter and then heated up when he checked back in for the second, which seemingly sparked the Raptors. He tied the game 46-46 with his third triple and ended up scoring 11 of his 16 first-half points in the period.
It’s been the same story with nearly all of the Raptors’ injured players — they return looking as ready as ever.
“You go hard every day when [you are out] and [when you are back] you go out there and you let your instincts take over,” said VanVleet. “The best thing that most of us have done is trust the training staff and do the work and — no matter how good you feel — take the time. Take the extra time, the extra games and come back feeling pretty good about yourself and you can go out there and let loose.”
The Raptors didn’t make it easy on themselves late in the first half, at least. Siakam and Gasol picked up technical fouls after what looked like a fairly bogus charging call on Siakam.
Because of that, Minnesota got five free throws in the final minute of the half, making all of them. Combined with a missed Powell lay-up on one end that came back as a fast break alley-oop by Wiggins to Karl-Anthony Towns, and Minnesota took a 61-58 lead into the half-time intermission.
The Raptors more or less dominated from there, looking like a team in full for the first time, and one that’s optimistic about where that can take them.
“It’s hard not to use last year as a reference point,” said VanVleet. “For most of us, that’s what we’re doing: Keep pushing, keep plugging. Stay healthy, obviously, but keep pushing, keep plugging and put ourselves in a good position at the end of the year to be in position to be successful. Hopefully we keep building and practising and growing and the sky’s the limit for us. Internally, we don’t care about outside expectations.”