Raptors’ tenacity provides blueprint for identity-deprived Timberwolves

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) celebartes his three-pointer with teammate Patrick McCaw. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The Minnesota Timberwolves were in town to play the high-flying Toronto Raptors and it felt like the right time for some compare and contrast:

The Timberwolves might be the lowest-functioning team in the NBA – like the New York Knicks, less the ever-simmering controversy.

But their single playoff showing in 16 seasons (and counting) is always the ultimate truth.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have a championship streak of one and a winning run of 15 straight games. Whatever the Timberwolves are, the Raptors are not.

The Raptors can play hurt, play short-handed, play on short rest and still play without excuses.

“I think we can win, right? I think these guys have proven enough that they can win,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said in trying to explain something that isn’t easily reduced to a single thing.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries this year, but they just keep stepping up and playing and we’ve just gotten used to it. You at least have to go out and give a great effort, give yourself a chance to win, and don’t let them play harder than you. If you think you’re under-talented or undersized or whatever, then you’ve got to take your energy and toughness up a notch and I think we’ve done that most nights.”

They did it Monday night against a team that has done it oh-so-rarely over the scope of its existence.

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Minnesota is the franchise that employed Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett for 11 years and advanced past the first round of the playoffs once. It also had two first-overall picks in the starting lineup for the past four years and had one winning season in that span.

The Raptors? They won a title without a lottery pick on their roster, an NBA first.

No wonder Minnesota swung the biggest at the NBA trade deadline last week, remaking their roster with seven new players – four of which were in the starting lineup against the Raptors Monday night – after two deals headlined by moving one-time cornerstone Andrew Wiggins to the Golden State Warriors for D’Angelo Russell, who made his Timberwolves debut against Toronto.

No wonder why there are many NBA watchers that believe getting out of Minnesota could be the best thing that has ever happened to the kid from Thornhill, Ont.

It’s telling that the Timberwolves were so eager to end the six-year Wiggins era that they attached a lightly protected first-round draft pick from what is supposed to be a deep 2021 draft. They exchanged him for Russell, who has a reputation for a lot of empty calories of basketball himself.

These are problems the Raptors can’t relate to – unless we’re going back a decade or two. The Raptors are in their seventh year of making water into wine, or undrafted free agents into borderline all-stars.

As the Raptors were trying to extend their winning streak to 15 games — the longest winning streak by any Canadian-based franchise in any sport — the T-Wolves were one game removed from a 15-game losing streak with decades of under-achieving lottery picks to look back on.

The Raptors’ harder-than-it-looked 137-126 win was a nice parting gift to fans at Scotiabank Arena who won’t see their team at home for nearly two weeks.

The Timberwolves’ new losing skid now stands at one and the Raptors’ winning streak is at 15 with one game left – Wednesday night in Brooklyn – before the NBA All-Star break.

Things didn’t always go perfectly, but it helped that Raptors all-star Pascal Siakam wanted to push this thing over the hump as he took over down the stretch. He scored 14 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, including nine straight in a two-minute burst as part of the 24-7 run that split open the game.

Ho-hum. The Raptors barely feel like they’re on a roll.

“Obviously I see it on Instagram or something,” said Siakam who was 14-of-21 from the floor and 6-of-8 from three. “But for us, it’s just about every single day coming in and taking every game one at a time and making sure that we go out and execute every single game, have a game plan go with it and whatever happens, happens.”

But it was a team effort – and that’s no cliche. Four of the Raptors’ makeshift starting lineup had at least 20 points and Fred VanVleet had 16 points and eight assists as Toronto shot 57 per cent from the floor and 51 per cent from three with 30 assists on 51 made field goals.

The Raptors’ streak is due to all kinds of factors – a fairly easy schedule among them. But as a whole, it’s evidence of a positive team culture at work. They simply don’t take many – if any – nights off.

The Timberwolves should take notes.

“I’ve always given this team a lot of credit for … their compete level,” said Nurse. “We do have smart guys and the care factor is up there and they’re competing almost every night to try to win and figure out, one way or another.”

Those habits were tested in an uncharacteristically sloppy first half for Toronto. It’s worth pointing out that the Minnesota broke its losing streak by putting up 142 points against the Los Angeles Clippers a couple of nights ago, so it wasn’t a complete shock that they outscored Toronto 75-74 after two quarters.

Somewhat surprising was Toronto’s 14 first-half turnovers – matching their season average (they only made four in the second half). It was a big reason the Raptors could shoot 64 per cent from the floor and 60 per cent from three and still trail.

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Toronto simply flipped the switch, which they believe they can do, almost to a fault.

“I think we’re used to it at this point, and we could get a little lackadaisical sometimes as you see,” said VanVleet. “But I think that it’s a huge tool for us to be able to use in certain situations.”

Put the Raptors’ temporary woes up to one more new starting lineup. While the new-look Timberwolves were still getting everyone’s names straight, Toronto’s lineup was in its typical injury-riddled, paint-by-numbers state. Kyle Lowry returned after missing only one game from whiplash, but out was Serge Ibaka due to flu-like symptoms, joining Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Norman Powell (finger) on the sidelines.

Start six-foot-seven Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at centre? Sure, why not?

That Hollis-Jefferson was able to credibly guard T-Wolves star Karl Anthony-Towns (who finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, but failed to dominate the matchup) while chipping in a season-high 21 points seemed inevitable, even it was almost spontaneous.

“He does guard just about everybody,” said Nurse. “But he didn’t find out until late. We didn’t know Serge wasn’t playing until very late in the day. We didn’t even decide that until late, in the walk-through at five o’clock. That’s when we finally made a decision.”

Toronto’s iffy start would put to the test one of the Raptors’ other traits: the ability to adjust as games go on.

It has set the Raptors apart over the streak — their ability to adapt as they adjust to different, injury-depleted lineups while finding ways to win games regardless.

It hasn’t been without hiccups. The Raptors have looked shaky but held on in wins against the Hawks, Knicks and Cavaliers. They had to mount a furious comeback from down 10 with 2:27 to play against the Indiana Pacers to set the franchise record with their 12th straight win last week and then barely held onto an 18-point third-quarter lead against the Brooklyn Nets for their 14th win on Saturday.

Their offence has been flawless – heading into Monday night, the Raptors were first in offensive rating over their undefeated stretch – but defensively they have slipped a little bit, giving up 107.8 points per 100 possessions compared to 103.8 before it started. Toronto ranks 28th in defensive rebounding percentage over the streak, too.

Both tendencies were on display in the first half.

Defensively, the Raptors finally began to look more like themselves in the third quarter as they held Minnesota to a more-than-tolerable 19 points over 12 minutes on 33 per cent shooting by turning up the activity on defence, switching almost all pick-and-rolls and then double-teaming Russell as the half wore on as well. Toronto forced six turnovers in the third, maintained their own offensive crispness and gained separation with a 10-0 run that put them up 106-94. Having OG Anunoby go off for 16 of his season-high 25 points in the frame on seven shots was helpful, too.

The Raptors eventually figured it out. They always do. The Timberwolves are just one more example of a franchise still trying to find their way.

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