TORONTO — The Raptors have kept their winning streak alive in a variety of ways over the past few weeks.
On Monday, they did so without a traditional center and while withstanding the debut of D’Angelo Russell in a Minnesota Timberwolves uniform.
Russell finished with 22 points and five assists in 32 minutes Monday, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Toronto, led by 34 points from Pascal Siakam, from beating Minnesota 137-126 to extend the Raptors’ winning streak to 15 games, the second-longest such streak in the NBA this season.
“Well, first of all, it didn’t feel like it was a win going away for quite a long time,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said afterward.
“I think we’re getting everybody’s A-plus game. They were really good, I thought, for a lot of stretches. We just had to try to figure some things out.”
The Wolves, who snapped a 14-game losing streak of their own on Saturday at home against the LA Clippers, continued to hang around throughout this one, including using a 12-2 surge to open the fourth quarter and move to 108-106 with 9:10 to go.
But just when it looked like the Raptors might finally stumble, they ripped off a 24-7 run over the next six minutes to take a 132-113 lead with three minutes remaining and ensure that their winning streak would last until at least Wednesday in Brooklyn, Toronto’s final game before the All-Star break.
“A lot of credit to them,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “There’s a reason they’ve won 15 in a row.”
A big reason Toronto’s win streak remains intact is that the Raptors were able to shut Russell down after a productive opening three quarters in his Timberwolves debut.
Russell, who averaged 23.6 points for the Golden State Warriors before being traded to the Timberwolves on Thursday in exchange for Andrew Wiggins, a 2021 first-round pick and a second-rounder in the hours leading up to the NBA’s trade deadline, didn’t waste any time getting into the action. He missed a pull-up jumper on the game’s opening possession, then drove to the hoop and scored on a layup at the 11:04 mark of the first to open the scoring for Minnesota.
“It was great,” Russell said. “Super excited about this group. We know what Karl[-Anthony Towns] does and what he brings to the table. Just the group in general and coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this challenge to figure out what we can do to get better every day.”
Russell scored nine points in the first quarter, 16 in the first half and 22 through the first three quarters while going 7-for-12 from the field, all while showing off the kind of shotmaking — including a 31-footer from the right side of the court in the first quarter — that caused Minnesota to so aggressively chase him this summer as a free agent and again leading up to the trade deadline. He also showed good chemistry with his close friend Towns, whom he is living with until he gets settled in Minneapolis, in the pick-and-roll.
“That’s my brother,” Towns said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know if he’ll ever have a teammate that loves him as much as I do, has his back more than I do.’ I’d die for that man, and I know he would do the same for me.”
After those blistering first three quarters, Russell’s production tailed off in the fourth. He had just one assist and two turnovers in 7:15 of fourth-quarter action, failing to take a shot in the period as Toronto was able to blitz him and get the ball out of his hands.
“[We] really tried to press up on him, make him drive it,” Nurse said. “We sat back, sat down too much, and he’s going to make those no matter where he is on those. We did try to trap him out of the timeouts a lot when we got the right matchups on him, and we turned him over twice out of timeouts for layups, which was huge.”
Towns, meanwhile, had 23 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists against a Toronto team playing without its two traditional big men, Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Serge Ibaka (illness). That forced Nurse to turn to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7, 217-pound forward, to try to stop the 7-foot, 248-pound Towns.
It worked well enough, with Hollis-Jefferson going for 21 points and six rebounds in 33 minutes while doing his best to slow Towns.
“It’s definitely different,” Hollis-Jefferson said of trying to match up with centers. “The battle [is to hold] your own ground, but they’ve got 5 inches on me [and] 30 or 40 pounds on me.
“It’s definitely about being mentally tough. … I love a challenge at the end of the day.”
In addition to Hollis-Jefferson and Siakam, the Raptors finished with their five starters — Hollis-Jefferson, Siakam, OG Anunoby (25 points and 12 rebounds), Kyle Lowry (27 points and 11 assists) and Fred VanVleet (16 points and seven assists) — combining to score 123 of the team’s 137 points on the night.
With the victory, Toronto moved to within three wins of the NBA’s longest winning streak this season — an 18-game stretch by the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks from Nov. 10 to Dec. 14. If Toronto can win its next three games to match that streak — Wednesday in Brooklyn, Feb. 21 against the Phoenix Suns and Feb. 23 against the Indiana Pacers — the Raptors will have a chance to eclipse Milwaukee’s streak by beating the Bucks at home on Feb. 25.