• “North over Everything.”

    Except the Minnesota Timberwolves (and the Portland Trail Blazers). Subtle jabs aside the Toronto Raptors are a very good team. They’ve played with the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas for three seasons now and have become a perennial in the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

    Their slogan of “We the North” and now “North over Everything” has endured the Canadian fan base to this franchise and the team has awarded them with valiant playoff runs in years past.

    The only thing stopping them has been LeBron James and the rest of the Cavs’ crew.

    The Raptors have always been the afterthought in the east. A very talented and fun team, certainly among the best, but never better than the Cavs. They were always one step behind.

    This season looks to be the time for them to make that leap past the Cavs and potentially into the NBA Finals. The Raptors have shifted their style of play this season dramatically and as a result have vaulted themselves into elite status.

    Toronto is the only team in the NBA to rank in the top-four in both offensive and defensive rating (both fourth). In fact only one other team in the NBA ranks both in the top-12 and that’s the Golden State Warriors.

    They have always been a talented offensive team thanks to good individual play from Lowry and DeRozan, but their defense has consistently lagged behind. The key this season has been the shift in pace of play.

    Toronto was always a slow, half-court based and typically isolation heavy offense. They consistently ranked in the bottom 20 in pace of play. This year the Raptors rank 10th in pace and the isolation heavy offense has turned more into a team oriented affair.

    DeRozan is still the leading scorer on the team, but he’s averaging fewer points than last season and more assists per game. As a team the Raptors are averaging four more assists per game, bumping them from dead last to the top-20 this year.

    The energy has carried over to the defensive end as well. The Raptors are generating more turnovers per game and have locked down teams at the rim and beyond the arc.

    The Wolves will have their work cut out for them. They’re in the midst of a tough portion of the schedule having to face off with all of the major teams in both conferences recently, and more to come in the future.

    The Wolves are riding an eight-game home win streak at the moment. This is just a quick pit stop for the team as they will travel out for a west coast rodeo after the conclusion of this contest.

    UPDATE: With Butler and Crawford late scratches the Wolves lose a ton of firepower. This turns into a desperation play. Nemanja Bjelica steps into the starting lineup, Marcus Georges-Hunt likely sees extended minutes and perhaps Amile Jefferson sees some action.

    Key Matchups:

    – Taj Gibson vs. Serge Ibaka

    – Jeff Teague vs. Kyle Lowry

    Since the Raptors acquired Ibaka last year near the trade deadline, their defense has jumped to another level. Though Ibaka will never be the defender he once was back in Oklahoma City thanks to multiple injuries and aging, he’s still a big threat one-on-one and as weak-side help.

    Between him and Jonas, the Raptors are one of the bigger teams on the court most of the time, and with Ibaka’s ability to stretch the floor (1.4 3-pointers per game on 36 percent shooting) they are able to capitalize on the best of both worlds, playing with a stretch four who can guard any power-forward.

    This will be a tough matchup for Gibson because typically he has the offensive advantage when playing against a stretch four, but he won’t have that luxury tonight. He also has to honor Ibaka’s deep shot. Luckily for Taj, Ibaka is no longer a major offensive rebounding threat and his overall athleticism has deteriorated.

    On the perimeter Lowry’s scoring numbers are down but elsewhere he has remained fairly steady with his career norms. His minutes are down and he’s taking three fewer shots per game, though all from inside the arc. He’s still taking just as many 3-pointers as last season.

    Lowry is instead content in finding his teammates for better looks off of drives and pick-and-rolls, or take the long distance shot. He’s cut out the mid range shot from his game nearly completely.

    This gives Teague one of the biggest assignments of the night. Lowry has been a key component in the Raptors’ evolution as a team this season. Teague will have the chance to lock him down and slow the Raptors’ offense to their past years’ levels.

    Lineups:

    Jeff Teague – PG

    Andrew Wiggins – SG

    Nemanja Bjelica – SF

    Taj Gibson – PF

    Karl-Anthony Towns – C

    vs.

    Kyle Lowry – PG

    DeMar DeRozan – SG

    OG Anunoby – SF

    Serge Ibaka – PF

    Jonas Valanciunas – C

    Injuries:

    Jimmy Butler (knee) – OUT

    Jamal Crawford (toe) – OUT

    Fred VanVleet (knee) – QUESTIONABLE

    Where to Watch:

    9:00 ET/8:00 CT on Fox Sports North “plus”

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