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Lewenberg: Wing production is key in Raptors win over Wolves

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Josh Lewenberg
4/6/2013 12:33:09 AM
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They've lost their share of barnburners throughout a disappointing 2012-13 season that is nearing its anticlimactic end.

Lady luck gave the Raptors (29-47) a rare break Friday night when Ricky Rubio -- a 79 per cent free-throw shooter -- missed a potential game-tying shot at the line in the dying seconds to give Toronto a 95-93 comeback victory over the hosting Minnesota Timberwolves (28-47).

Rudy Gay scored a game-high 26 and DeMar DeRozan contributed 25 points -- each shooting 12-of-23 -- for the Raptors, who won their second straight after dropping seven of their previous eight contests.

After trailing by as much as 11 points in the third quarter, Toronto fought back and came out on top following a back and forth final period that saw the two teams -- both at the bottom of their respective divisions -- exchange the lead on four occasions in the final minutes.

Down by one with just over two minutes to play, DeRozan gave Toronto the lead, converting a three-point play before Gay piled on with a 10-foot turnaround jumper to extend the advantage. The Timberwolves, who missed three free throws during that final stretch, hoped to even the score and the send the game to overtime until Rubio's freebie rimmed out.

Fast Breaking Points

- Dynamic Duo

The Raptors never led by more than three points on Friday night but the team's star wing duo came through with the game on the line, something that bodes well for the franchise if that level of production can be carried over into next season.

This is a different team when both Gay and DeRozan are clicking, taking pressure off of one another and forcing the defence to split its focus. However, the jury is still out on whether they are the ideal pairing. Neither player is an especially gifted three-point shooter -- they were a combined 1-of-4 from downtown Friday -- and they put even more pressure on themselves to hit tough mid-range shots when they're not getting to the free-throw line, where they attempted just two shots against the Wolves (more on that below).

That said, both players got better as the game went on, more notably Gay, who scored 10 in the final quarter after being held without a point in the first.

Gay has been battling a bad back for over a month and was playing with a sore right ankle that he jammed in Wednesday's 88-78 win over Washington. Toronto's leading scorer was held to just six points in 26 minutes that night but responded with a bounce-back effort, as he has been known to do during his brief tenure in Toronto (he's rarely quiet in back-to-back outings).

After a subpar month of March that saw DeRozan score 20 or more just twice (in 15 games), the Raptors' guard has now exceeded the 20-point plateau in two of three games to begin April. DeRozan was locked in once again, pouring in 25 points for the second straight game but getting to the line continues to be an issue, in that he's not. His first and only free throw attempt came on the three-point play in the closing two minutes of the game.

DeRozan is the only Raptors player to start every game this season, logging more minutes than he has in his four-year career, which could factor into his decreasing attempts from the stripe. After getting to the line seven and a half times a night in February, his attempts dropped to five per game in March, perhaps a sign that fatigue has him settling for more jumpers from the perimeter.

The Stat: Gay and DeRozan each registered 20 or more points for the sixth time in their 27 contests together.

- Rookie of the Month

Just prior to Friday's game the NBA named Jonas Valanciunas the Eastern Conference's Player of the Month for March. The eighth Raptors player to win the award and first since Jamario Moon in 2008, Valanciunas averaged 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last month.

It's a well deserved honour for a player who has taken his game to a whole new level and may be the lone bright spot for the Raptors during the stretch run. Valanciunas had a quiet(er) night 48 hours after registering a career-high 24 points on 16-18 shooting from the line against the Wizards. The rookie centre scored 12 on Friday but did get to the stripe 10 more times.

Matched up against Nikola Pekovic -- the unmovable object who had 24 points on 12-of-16 from the line --Valanciunas faced a tough test, one that exposed the area of his game many feel will be a focal point for him during the summer; his strength.

The physically stronger (than most) Pekovic attacked the Raptors' rookie early and often, getting him in quick foul trouble and imposing his will in the paint. Although Valanciunas has come a long way over the past month, he'll need to bulk up to take the next step and excel in match-ups like this.

The Stat: Valanciunas has scored in double figures in 14 of his last 15 games.

Notables

The Raptors sweep the season series, taking both games against the Timberwolves this year. They've won seven of their last eight trips to Minnesota. ... Friday's game was the Raptors' last against Western Conference opponents this season. Toronto went 12-18 against the West, the team's best record since 2007-08. ... Dwane Casey returned to Minnesota for the first time as head coach of the Raptors. He coached the Timberwolves to a record of 53-69 from 2005-07. ... Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman remains one win shy of becoming the eighth to reach 1,000 career victories. ... Guard Kyle Lowry (11 points, seven assists) has recorded seven or more assists in each of the last six games, setting a new career high.

Up Next

The Raptors visit the Milwaukee Bucks (36-39) in the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday.

Rudy Gay and Andrei Kirilenko (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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