VanVleet, Powell rewarded for perseverance in Raptors’ win over Timberwolves

The Toronto Raptors held the Minnesota Timberwolves to just 24 points in the fourth as they came from behind to win 109-104.

TORONTO — Before he gave his post-game speech, Dwane Casey made sure his staff had the play cued up and ready to go.

It was the final minute. His Toronto Raptors were up four. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the ball and they had a favourable situation, as Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, the smallest player on the floor, was switched onto the biggest, Karl-Anthony Towns.

An Andrew Wiggins three-pointer bombed in and rimmed out, producing the kind of rebound Towns puts back with regularity — or at the very least pulls down for a second-chance opportunity. But VanVleet had scrambled to get inside position, and stuck his hips right under Towns’, pushing the Minnesota centre away from the rim as the ball hung in the air.

Towns couldn’t get his hands near it. That meant DeMar DeRozan could, as he gathered the rebound and was promptly fouled, effectively ending Minnesota’s night. As he walked into his team’s dressing room after the game, Casey ran the play on a monitor, and pointed right at VanVleet.

“Here’s a guy who’s six-foot and the other guy’s seven-foot,” Casey said after the Raptors defeated the Timberwolves, 109-104. “And he boxed him out picture perfect.”

Of course, the things VanVleet’s had to do over the last 48 hours have been far more meaningful than box-outs or basketball in general.

Hours after scoring a career-high 25 points against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night, VanVleet’s fiancée, Shontai Neal, went into labour. They arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m., and shortly thereafter a daughter, Sanaa Marie, was born.

VanVleet stayed at the hospital until late Tuesday afternoon, when Shontai was finally discharged. He sent a quick text to Casey, saying he’d be at Air Canada Centre for a game that began in less than two hours. Casey told him there was no rush.

But 10 minutes before tip-off, there was VanVleet, on only two hours sleep as he jogged out to join his teammates for their pre-game warmup. New dad adrenalin is a heck of a thing.

“People that have kids, or went through the process and have kids, they know — they know,” VanVleet said. “It all just kind of feels like one big day.”

Not only did VanVleet go on to log 21 minutes, scoring 10 points and finishing plus-6 — he was asked to run a crucial play with 40 seconds left.

The Raptors have had plenty of trouble getting DeRozan good looks down the stretch of late, as the team’s clutch offence has struggled to shake its predictable patterns in the dying minutes. So, on this night, Casey asked VanVleet to handle the ball and drive at the rim, in the hopes of drawing defenders away from DeRozan, who was always going to get the ball.

“More or less a decoy,” Casey said. “But you’ve still got to move the ball well and find the right person.”

VanVleet did, kicking out to DeRozan who did what he does from mid-range, extending a two-point Raptors lead to four. And on the next play, VanVleet was right under the Raptors basket, boxing out Towns and earning himself post-game video recognition in Toronto’s dressing room.

“Those are game-winning plays,” Casey said. “Those are the things you’ve got to do.”

Back in the rotation

VanVleet wasn’t the only one rewarded for his perseverance Tuesday. After watching three of his team’s last four games from the bench, Norman Powell saw his most run in weeks, thanks in part to C.J. Miles sitting out with a sore right knee.

Powell was the first Raptor off the bench only five minutes in when OG Anunoby ran into foul trouble, and ended up playing 20 minutes, scoring eight points on 3-of-7 shooting. He found ways to contribute everywhere, whether he was stuffing Shabazz Muhammad at the rim or finishing a breakaway dunk with authority off a turnover in the fourth.

“Norm was huge for us — it was really good to see him back out there,” VanVleet said. “We’ve all been there — ups and downs, not playing and whatever else. But we know how hard he works.”

You could see just what VanVleet was talking about midway through the fourth, when Pascal Siakam drove and kicked to Powell, who drained a shot with no hesitation from beyond the arc.

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That put Toronto up six and spurred a Minnesota timeout, which sent Raptors spilling onto the court to greet Powell as he returned to the bench. Walking off with him, VanVleet wrapped his arms around Powell’s head in celebration. (“I’m just glad he got a haircut so I could slap him in his head a couple times and not mess up his hair,” VanVleet said.)

Powell’s been left on the outside looking in of a 10-man Raptors rotation this month, which is partly a product of his inconsistent play, and partly a product of the fact Casey has so many useful players on his roster competing for minutes.

Of course, no one’s given up on Powell, and it won’t be surprising to see him play a bigger role down the stretch or even in the playoffs, especially if another Raptor is injured or not getting the job done when it counts.

There are much worse problems for a coach to have than a shortage of minutes to give to all his deserving players. But that still doesn’t make it any easier for Powell to go through. It sucks. It has to. But Powell hasn’t complained at all (“Norm has been very professional — he’s working his behind off in practice,” Casey said) which is one reason why his teammates were so excited to see him get an opportunity Tuesday.

“Not playing too much recently, going through my ups and downs through the season, it felt good just to go out there and play,” Powell said. “I’m putting in a lot of work. Just continuing to believe in myself. And the team was helping me through it.

“We’ve always been a really close team. Always pulling for each other, whether we’re playing or not. We always want to see each other do really well. I think that’s so good about our unit — our chemistry. Always rooting for each other, always giving words of encouragement if we miss a shot or we’re going through a tough stretch. It’s always good when all guys on the team have your back no matter what.”

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