In Wednesday night's battle between the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves, Canadians were making noise on both ends of the floor.
Andrew Wiggins led the way with 26 points for the Timberwolves, while Cory Joseph had one of his best games as a Raptor. The two had been boyhood teammates and starred together internationally for Canada, but this time they took it to each other, the Raptors surviving the plucky young T-Wolves 114-105.
On a night when DeMar DeRozan led Toronto with 31 points, and Kyle Lowry with 21, Joseph contributed 18 – just shy of his season-high 19 – along with six assists and two rebounds.
Wiggins, playing his second NBA regular-season game in Toronto, got a big cheer at Air Canada Centre when he was introduced. The reigning NBA rookie of the year gave his hometown glimpses of his potential. Such as scoring eight fast points out of the gate. He was also assigned to defend Raptor all-star DeRozan, who drew the Canadian into an early foul. Luis Scola then drew Wiggins into another, and the hometown kid found himself on the bench after five minutes of play.
Wiggins returned late in the second quarter. Within his first minute back, he hit a 15-footer and drew his defender, James Johnson, into a foul. By halftime, Wiggins led all players with 18 points – including a 25-foot running three-point jumper that drew oohs from the crowd. Toronto, had been up by as much as 12, but took a slim 61-58 lead into the locker room.
When asked earlier in the day if playing in Toronto was a special date on the schedule for him, Wiggins played down the homecoming: "It's like any other game, really."
There was Toronto's Joseph, too – scoring big points, including a timely three, delivering big minutes and even bigger defence, especially after Terrence Ross was ejected. The reserve point guard has been a key cog for Toronto recently, closing out games for the first time in his career after starting his career with the veteran-filled San Antonio Spurs.
"[Cory] does a great job for us, we're trying to find him more minutes," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "He does such a great job on both ends of the floor. He was a plus-21 tonight."
The game was tight and physical in the second half. At one point, Lowry fouled Wiggins and the two needed to be pulled apart while arguing. Lowry was slapped with a flagrant foul.
Wiggins turned 21 on Tuesday, and he posted a tribute to late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders on Instagram. The two shared a birthdate – Saunders would have turned 61. The popular NBA coach died of Hodgkin's lymphoma last October, just before the season began. He had been a defining influence on Wiggins in his first NBA season last year.
"There's no one I would rather share a birthday with," Wiggins wrote, along with a photo of the two together.
"Happy birthday, Coach. Hope I'm making you proud."
The T-Wolves sang Happy Birthday in honour of both Wiggins and Saunders. Then the Canadian celebrated his birthday late Tuesday at a Toronto restaurant with some of his Minnesota teammates and family and friends from Vaughan, including his high school basketball coach.
"The publicity that comes along with being a pro hasn't changed him a bit; he gave us a warm hug like always," said Gus Gymnopoulos, who coached him at Vaughan Secondary School. "Nothing changes with him. He's always been gracious. He's well grounded and has a strong commitment to family and friends."
The Canadian currently ranks 16th in the league in scoring (20.7 points a game) and just came off an appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge during NBA all-star weekend. He had accumulated 2,548 points prior to his birthday, becoming one of just 12 players in NBA history to surpass 2,000 points before turning 21.
"He's in his second year; he understands how tough this league is," Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell said. "He understands that when you're a former No. 1 pick and you're rookie of the year, that guys are going to go after you, that you've got to get yourself mentally and physically ready to play."
Joseph and Wiggins embraced at centre court after the rough-and-tumble game was over.
"I said to him 'keep playing hard, keep getting better, stay healthy," Wiggins recounted after the game. "And also that I love seeing him."
This was the ninth-straight home victory for the Raptors, which ties a franchise record. The 38-18 Raptors, second in the Eastern Conference, next get a home showdown with a 40-15 squad, the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers.