10 things: Fred VanVleet explodes for 29 points in triumphant return

William Lou
NBA reporter

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 122-112 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

One — Grind: This was a classic trap game, and it took a professional effort by the Raptors to pull it out. No, the Timberwolves on a five-game losing streak are hardly world-beaters, but that’s usually when you lose focus on the second night of a back-to-back. There was a fair share of defensive lapses and some comically sloppy sequences on offense, but the Raptors got it together at halftime and seized control.

Two — Prompt: One of the greatest attributes about Kyle Lowry is that he just cares more than anybody else, and that’s an excellent mentality from your leader. Lowry took it upon himself to assert control over this game, and that translated to a 17-point explosion in the third quarter. The exact sequence where the Raptors ran away with this game came when Lowry snuck behind a screen for a three, then picked off a pass which launched Norman Powell for a fast-break layup. That forced the Timberwolves to call timeout, and the Raptors never looked back. Lowry finished with 28 points in 28 minutes, and similar to the Nets game, he took particularly pleasure in punking the opposing team.

Three — Fresh: Sitting out the last two weeks has done wonders for Fred VanVleet, who played one of his best games of the season. VanVleet matched a career-high with seven threes (sorry, Bucks fans) and was relentless in looking for his offense. The full arsenal was on display — VannVleet nailed pull-up threes, he was automatic on catch-and-shoot opportunities, he used a heavy dose of english on his layups to finish over taller defenders, and tracked down every loose ball for four steals. VanVleet and Lowry were masterful in running the offense so that there was no dip when the reserves came in, and at times they were matching each other shot for shot. That’s the element that has been missing for the past few weeks.

Four — Impact: VanVleet resumed his role as the starting shooting guard, alongside the usual four of Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol. VanVleet was on a minutes limit, and it was a 20-point blowout for most of the fourth, so there wasn’t that much of a time crunch, but this is already leading to changes in the rotation. Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka were the first two off the bench, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Pat McCaw, and Terence Davis filled out the 10-man rotation.

Five — Consistency: There will undoubtedly be complaints about McCaw receiving twice the number of minutes as Davis, even though Davis struggled while McCaw was at least positive on defense. Nick Nurse has a soft spot for McCaw, but nights like these aren’t surprising. The reality is that Davis is inconsistent, and there are nights like tonight where he gets lost on defense while also not hitting his shots. And when that happens, it shouldn’t be a surprise for McCaw to get more burn. The upside with Davis far exceeds that of McCaw, but the downside is also lower. Sometimes, Nurse just cuts his losses.

Six — Patience: It’s clear after four games that Siakam will need a bit of time to return to his All-NBA level performances. Siakam delivers brilliance in bursts, but his motor isn’t running on max as it normally would be, and that translates to missed opportunities on both ends. The good thing is that he’s not forcing himself onto the team. Instead, Siakam is playing within the offense before his conditioning returns.

Seven — Explosive: It’s gotten to the point where you’re surprised whenever Powell misses a shot. Powell continues to be locked into his game, and he’s elevating the Raptors offense from good to elite. Powell’s reads continue to be sharp, and Nurse is calling his number more often after timeouts. It’s especially encouraging that Powell was able to hit a few shots off the dribble, as that’s one area of his game that remains a weakness.

Eight — Clear: The Raptors have scored 130, 140, and 122 points in the three games since Gasol’s return. Not only is Gasol hitting more shots and facilitating ball movement as usual, but there’s just so much more space on the floor. With Gasol lifting centers out of the paint, the Raptors’ wings are just parading to the basket. Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Hollis-Jefferson and Siakam got to the rim at will tonight, although that also is just a reflection of how bad the Timberwolves are on defense.

Nine — Annoying: Karl-Anthony Towns does not look happy. There’s not much reason for joy to be found in losing on a January night in Minnesota, but he threw tantrum after tantrum while his teammates genuinely tried to compete. It just screams bad leadership from a player who returned from injury, only to chuck bricks from deep, not compete in the paint, while also refusing to play defense.

Ten — Ascent: With the win, the Raptors have climbed into the No. 3 seed ahead of the struggling Boston Celtics, who have lost five of their last seven games with a healthy roster. The regular-season Bucks are running away with the first seed as usual, but second in the East is attainable and that should be the goal. Toronto sits 1.5 games back of the Miami Heat (who dropped games against the Wizards, Nets, Magic, and Knicks this month).

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