Against the Minnesota Timberwolves on what was the seventh annual Canadian Armed Forces night at the ACC, the Toronto Raptors (20-18) managed to hold their lead wire to wire without ever truly being comfortable. Even in the game's dying moments, it was only a Kyle Lowry three with 14.9 seconds remaining (to give the Raps a seven-point cushion) that cemented what would go on to be a 94-89 triumph.
Dressed in their signature Armed Forces camo jerseys and in front of a capacity crowd, the Raptors kept the T'Wolves in check with some strong perimeter defence and a big night from Lowry, who led all scorers with 24 points and made six of his nine attempts from three-point range.
The 'M-V-P' chants that greeted the Raps' point guard during a late game trip to the charity stripe were a little much, but Lowry merits credit for one of his best games during a stretch that has been full of them. As the 27-year old has gone, so, too, has the team. And so when Lowry was able to take advantage of a weak opposing defender in Ricky Rubio for 24 points on 7-12 shooting along with six assists and five rebounds, it's no surprise that the performance proved to be the impetus for Toronto's solid win.
Standout Defensive Play (Again)
Off nights from DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross (combined 11-31) contributed to what was a streaky, inconsistent shooting night for the Raptors, in which they left several openings for Minnesota to step in and take control of the game. On the defensive end, however, Raps defenders made sure that didn't happen. From hounding Kevin Love (7-19 shooting) to pressuring a ball-handling Kevin Martin (three turnovers) to contesting shots from the arc (Minnesota shot 3-18 from three-point range), the Raptors were all over the Timberwolves' offence. In the end, they held Minny under 90 points, just the fourth time that the T'Wolves haven't scored 90 but the seventh time in the past 10 games that a Toronto opponent has been held under the mark.
Death by Trey
Led by Lowry's six threes, the Raptors once again made their opposition pay from beyond the arc. In stark contrast to Minnesota's 3-18 performance, the Raps made 11 of their 24 attempts from long range. In doing so, they enjoyed their fifth consecutive game of 11 or more three's.
I suppose Friday's performance by Greivis Vasquez was no better or worse than most of his recent efforts. He's still a stable ball-handling presence who probably shouldn't be relied upon to provide much offence. But there was something about seeing another 1-6 shooting night (he's shooting 32.8% from the floor since joining the club 18 games ago), coupled with the fact that there really weren't many things to belabour about Friday's effort, that offered cause to gripe about the back-up PG's performance.
You could sense an added buzz in the air last night, whether it was from the sellout crowd or the Armed Forces theme to the evening, in which those who serve and protect our country were welcomed with free tickets (many of which were donated by season ticket holders), free pizza and an on-court photo opportunity after the game. All in all, it's become fun once again to attend Raptors games.
It's hardly an injury bug, but Friday saw Tyler Hansbrough miss his eighth straight game with a slow-to-heal left ankle sprain and John Salmons left the game with back spasms. Given the team's currently set big man rotation, Hansbrough won't be rushed back. As for Salmons, look for Landry Fields and/or Steve Novak to claim his minutes if he can't go against the Lakers on Sunday.
Yes, I know that Minnesota would be neck-and-neck with the Raps if they resided in the East, as opposed to their currently 11th-place standing in the West. But let's not mince words - there are plenty of issues with this Timberwolves' club. They already have 12 members of what is a sub-.500 roster signed through next season and their four most expensive players (Love, Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger) on the books through 2015/16, leaving limited flexibility to improve as Love, their franchise star, closes in on unrestricted free agency. On top of that, their much-hyped franchise point guard has been flashy, but also can't shoot or defend worth a lick. And then you have their 2013 draft, where they traded No. 9 pick Trey Burke to Utah for No. 14 Shabazz Muhammad and No. 21 Gorgui Dieng. While it's far too early to accurately evaluate the deal, Burke is an early ROY front-runner with the Jazz, while Muhammad is in the D-League and Dieng is averaging just five minutes of playing time while seeing action in 21 of the team's 39 games.
For the first time I can remember, the Lake Show comes to town on Sunday (1:00pm, TSN) with more buzz focused on the home team that the visitors.
Prediction: Raps 99, Lakers 91 (22-8 this season)