Timberwolves vs. Raptors: It doesn’t get any easier

Feb 4, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) dribbles the ball out of the reach of Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) during the first quarter at Target Center. The Grizzlies won 107-99. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 4, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) dribbles the ball out of the reach of Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) during the first quarter at Target Center. The Grizzlies won 107-99. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After winning five of six games, the Timberwolves have now lost four in a row, and it doesn’t get any easier, with the third-best team in the East heading to Target Center on Wednesday night.

A series of impressive wins have been followed by four consecutive losses. There’s no shame in losing in Cleveland of course, as they did to start the streak of futility, but it’s more the manner in which they collapsed in the second half and haven’t recovered. And now, it’s already been a week.

Falling apart late in Detroit on Friday night wasn’t ideal, and dropping home games to a shorthanded Memphis team and the Miami Heat were progressively more frustrating.

And now, the Timberwolves’ reward is hosting the 32-21 Toronto Raptors, led by former Wolves head coach Dwayne Casey. It will be a supremely difficult task, of course. The Raptors actually lost five games in a row earlier this month and are 3-3 since that skid but have won their last two games, including beating the Clippers in Toronto on Monday night.

It doesn’t appear as though the rumored Lance Stephenson signing will be made official in time for him to suit up on Wednesday, but it’s still possible.

Enjoy the preview.

Feb 4, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center. The Grizzlies won 107-99. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 4, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center. The Grizzlies won 107-99. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves Preview

Record: 19-33 (12-16 home, 7-17 road)

Starting Lineup

PG – Ricky Rubio (8.8 PPG, 8.2 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.7 SPG)

SG – Brandon Rush (3.3 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 44.1 3P%)

SF – Andrew Wiggins (22.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.4 APG)

PF – Gorgui Dieng (10.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.9 APG)

C – Karl-Anthony Towns (23.3 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 3 APG)

Key Reserves

The bench has suddenly become a bit depleted. It started with a bruised hand from Kris Dunn and an illness to little-used forward Adreian Payne, and the domino effect following Zach LaVine‘s torn ACL caused Brandon Rush to slide into the starting lineup.

That leaves only backup point guard Tyus Jones and bench mainstays Nemanja Bjelica and Shabazz Muhammad as the only regular minutes-getters. Cole Aldrich will see a few minutes here and there, but Jordan Hill is the only other healthy body wearing warm-ups on the bench. (Of course, that would change if Lance Stephenson is indeed added to the mix.)

Muhammad’s strong play has continued, and Bjelica is playing better of late as well. The minutes that Jones and Rubio have played together have been intriguing, but obviously haven’t added up to wins for the Timberwolves.

Feb 6, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) gestures from the court during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 118-109. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 6, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) gestures from the court during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 118-109. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors Preview

Record: 32-21 (18-9 home, 14-12 road)

Starting Lineup

PG – Kyle Lowry (23 PPG, 7 APG, 4.8 RPG)

SG – DeMar DeRozan (27.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.8 SPG)

SF – DeMarre Carroll (9.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

PF – Pascal Siakam (4.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 BPG)

C – Jonas Valanciunas (12.3 PPG, 10 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Key Reserves

Patrick Patterson is the top player off the bench in terms of minutes, but he’s missed the pass two games due to a knee bruise and is questionable to play on Wednesday.

Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph, and Lucas Nogueira all average more than 20 minutes per game and ultimately receive more run than the starting power forward, Pascal Siakam. Ross is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter and averages 10.4 points per contest, while Joseph is a pure combo guard with a decent shot and Nogueira is a defensive force in the paint.

While so much of the Raptors’ scoring punch resides with Lowry and DeRozan, they have a synergistic roster with a number of outstanding role players. Their bench is solid, and they have a great coach in Dwayne Casey.

Oct 14, 2015; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) blocks Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) in a pre-season matchup at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 14, 2015; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) blocks Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) in a pre-season matchup at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Three Things to Watch

1. The backcourt match-ups. The Raptors have a pair of All-Starts in the backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Timberwolves will have their hands full — especially in the absence of Zach LaVine.

Rubio has traditionally struggled on defense against bigger guards with the ability to bully him on the perimeter and in the post, and Lowry fits that bill. Add in his 41.9 percent three-point stroke and he’s a nightmare to guard.

Expect Andrew Wiggins to check DeRozan while Tom Thibodeau will put Brandon Rush on DeMarre Carroll. But watch DeRozan, Timberwolves fans; he may just be one of the best-case comps for Wiggins in a couple of years.

2. The paint battle. The Raptors don’t have much punch in the paint, with Jonas Valanciunas as the only big man averaging in double figures in either points or rebounds. But that doesn’t mean that Toronto doesn’t have an impact down low.

Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam are both solid paint defenders, and Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica, and Shabazz Muhammad will have their hands full.

3. Ending the streak. The Wolves have now lost four games in a row, right after making what seemed like a ton of progress in the right direction. The playoffs are looking far last likely than they were just a week ago, and the ship must be righted in short order.

Feb 6, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reacts to a call from the sidelines against the Los Angeles Clippers at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 6, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reacts to a call from the sidelines against the Los Angeles Clippers at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Game Prediction

Quite frankly, it’s not likely that the Timberwolves will win this game. Sure, the Raptors have had a poor start to the 2017 calendar year, but the Wolves are without Zach LaVine, on a four-game losing streak, and hurtling back towards the bottom of the Western Conference.

Let’s call this a loss, with the Raptors winning by a 105-95 tally. It’ll be close early but the third quarter issues from early in the season will rise once more.

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