Game Two Preview: Wolves at Raptors in the Air Canada Centre
So the Timberwolves won a game in which Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love were in suits, Nikola Pekovic had nine points and five rebounds, the team shot 36.8% from the field and just 2-of-17 from the 3-point line?
What the what?
Now there are two possible reasons for this:
1) The Timberwolves’ defensive effort was spectacular. Yes, there were lulls in the focus in the third quarter and they should have built up a 25-point lead in the first half with how things were going for Sacramento. However, the Wolves were in position nearly the entire night. They frustrated DeMarcus Cousins inside and forced him to shoot jumpers he thinks he can hit but most people know he won’t. They challenged Tyreke Evans at the rim, forcing him to make just 3-of-11 shots in the restricted area. They just swarmed wherever the ball was headed.
2) The Kings suck. That team was horrific in transition defense. By the time they turned their heads to look at where the ball was, JJ Barea was already at the basket. Barea told me after the game it was something the coaching staff specifically told him to do. Push the ball against the Kings and if it isn’t there, then you pull the ball back and run the offense. The Kings also seem to be trying to take the most difficult shots possible for their skill set.
I’m not sure the Wolves can keep up this kind of defensive performance against better offensive teams. It could have just been a perfect storm of crappy decisions by the opponent and good communication and effort by the Wolves. However, Pek also isn’t going to meet strength like that inside most nights and the Wolves probably won’t shoot 11.8% from the 3-point line all season long. We have just one game to look at so far, but there were a ton of things to be positive about.
For today’s 3-on-3, I called on a couple Canadian friends of ours, Holly Mackenzie and James Herbert. Holly is a new Raptors reporter for SportsNet, a Canadian sports network. She’s also written at SLAM and Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo. James writes for Hardwood Paroxysm and is the brilliant producer for HoopSpeak Live on HoopSpeak.com. These two know their Raptors basketball about as well as anybody, and are extremely excited about the direction the Toronto Raptors are headed.
Let’s do this.
Holly Mackenzie, SportsNet: It’s been really fun to see how the perception around Jonas has changed since draft night when people were nervous/worried/unhappy with the pick. As people learned more about Jonas — that he’s a big man who plays like a traditional big man, wants to be at the rim, isn’t scared of contact and is truly in love with basketball– people started to fall in love with him. Off the court, he makes it extremely easy to root for him. He’s pleasant, personable and is working really hard to adapt to the NBA game and to life away from Lithuania. He’s played in exactly one NBA game and you can already tell that he’s a keeper.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: The fans love Valanciunas because they’ve been dying for a 7-footer who plays the way he does. He’s all effort, energy, enthusiasm. Valanciunas is the anti-Andrea Bargnani — while Bargnani often looks emotionless on the court, Valanciunas is expressive, demonstrative. While Bargnani needs the ball and operates on the perimeter, Valanciunas is content to get garbage buckets, block shots, set hard screens and roll to the basket with Gortatian intensity. The organization and his teammates love him because he’s a hard worker, he has a great deadpan sense of humor and he’s not lacking in confidence. I honestly didn’t expect him to start and have a double-double in his first NBA game and am still a tiny bit worried about expectations getting too high for his rookie season, but there’s a lot to be excited about with him. Read Holly’s profile and try not to root for him, I dare you.
Zach Harper, A Wolf Among Wolves: Jonas has been the great unknown for about two years now, hedging onto the pick-and-roll defensive scene quickly as he exploded into the basketball world. He has great hands, is a defensive wizard, and is a fantastic free throw shooter for a big man. The possibilities with a guy like that seem endless. For a Raptors organization that hasn’t had a ton of consistency from their big men before and since Chris Bosh’s departure, getting a young guy like this just makes everything more fun. You can tell the fan base has instantly taken to him because he fits what Dwane Casey wants to do so perfectly. I’m excited to watch him against Pekovic today.
2) How much do you think Kyle Lowry embraces the identity of what Dwane Casey wants the team to be?
Mackenzie: Dwane Casey is careful to say that Kyle Lowry wasn’t brought in to be the identity he wanted this team to have, but to add to the identity this team was building last season, but it’s obvious that the Raptors are going to go where Lowry takes them. He’s tough, fearless and intense. It’s been a long time since the Raptors have had a brash and bold player like this at the helm, and you really see a difference in how they play with him on the floor. As for Lowry himself, he doesn’t say a lot, but he has acknowledged that he wanted the opportunity to be given the keys and in Toronto both Casey and Bryan Colangelo have made it clear since day one that he’s in the driver’s seat.
Herbert: 100%? Is that an okay answer? At the end of last season, Casey said he wanted to push the pace, add some outside shooting and sustain if not improve the defense. Lowry addresses all of this. This franchise has never had a better defensive point guard than an engaged Lowry. He’s tough, he will annoy the crap out of the player he is guarding and he had five steals in his first game. His three-point shot helps space the floor, he’s great in the open court and the fact that he attacks the paint off of the pick and roll is a huge change of pace for a Raptors starting point guard. Casey motivated the hell out of last year’s team but it always felt like the guys were a bit too “nice” for a real Casey club. Lowry helps to change that.
Harper: In a taped interview that was shown during the Raptors’ first game, Casey described Lowry as having “swag… he’s got that pitbull swag.” I hate the overuse of the word swag, but I can’t think of a better description for what Lowry brings to the table. He’s still one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He can score, he can distribute and he’s arguably the best defensive point guard in the league. Seeing what Casey did in Dallas (don’t want to go back to his days here because he wasn’t given a fair shake) as an assistant and last year in his first year with Toronto, Lowry absolutely embodies everything his coach wants the team to do.
3) How can the Wolves exploit the Raptors defense?
Mackenzie: Right now the team is still learning each other and the defensive schemes. With three new starters in the starting lineup (Landry Fields, Lowry and Valanciunas) along with two sub-par defenders in DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani, it’s actually the second unit who is able to execute best defensively. This is evident as the Raptors have given up monstrous first quarters throughout the preseason. Attacking the rim and challenging a rookie defender who is still getting used to adjustments/rotations and will foul quickly should be a common approach by opponents and it’s one the Raptors will have to deal with while Valanciunas pieces everything together.
Herbert: FEED THE PEK. Then feed him some more. If it’s me, I’m trying to get Valanciunas in early foul trouble. Then, if Bargnani’s on Pek, put him in pick and roll situations. If it’s Amir Johnson or Ed Davis on him, exploit the size advantage. If Aaron Gray is on him, then Aaron Gray is in the game! That’s what the Wolves should want, so that’s what the Wolves should do. #iwillneversurrender
Harper: The 3-point shooting has to be good today. As good as the Raptors should be defensively, they’ve given up 3-point shooting in their first two games. Teams are shooting over 40% from downtown against them. The Wolves brought in better wing players that should be able to burn teams from the perimeter. Whether that means dribble penetration opens up the 3-point shot or the 3-point shot opens up dribble penetration doesn’t matter. It just matters that both are working in a symbiotic way today. I’d like to see Chase bust out and drop in three or four 3-pointers to really put pressure on Toronto’s rotations.
Place: Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.
Time: 5pm Central Time
Viewing and listening pleasure: FS North, NBA TV, and you can listen to it on 830 WCCO.
Records: Wolves are 1-0 and Raptors are 0-2.
YEEEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH BUDDY! Back to five full Darkos on the confidence meter. I know some people are confused by what this means, but the important thing to note is the Wolves are fun right now. And it wouldn’t shock me if they start the season out 2-0 here. They can’t let Lowry and Jose Calderon dictate the tempo and execute on the perimeter. Continue to protect the basket, get Pek going inside, and we should see the undefeated campaign continue.