The Wolves dropped both games in their weekend back-to-back.
On Friday at Chicago, they faced an undermanned Bulls team that was missing Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, and lost Taj Gibson to an ankle sprain less than ten minutes into the contest. Despite the health advantage (to be fair, the Wolves were without Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Bennett, and Robbie Hummel, but none of those players are even as good as Gibson, let alone Rose or Gasol) the Wolves could not pull this one out. A theme throughout the game was a Timberwolf playing overaggressive defense, and being burned by a sharp backdoor cut, or spin move, or other intelligent counter that allowed an easy basket to a player who probably wouldn’t create a good shot by himself against disciplined defense.
In some ways, the Bulls game felt like the Wolves let one slip away. The final score was 96-89.
Saturday’s game was a more fun contest for two reasons: the Wolves played well, and they went down to the wire against a legit title contender; the same Grizzlies team they beat at Target Center a couple weeks ago behind Ricky Rubio heroics.
The Wolves opened last night’s game with a distinct defensive identity set by Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett. They forced turnovers on 7 of the Grizzlies first 14 possessions. (The Grizz ended the game with 24 turnovers.) Of those 7 turnovers, 3 were Garnett steals, and 2 were Rubio steals. Watching this team defend with these two on the floor at the same time makes me wish the Wolves had pried Garnett from the East Coast a couple years ago. In the 34 minutes that Rubio and KG have played together, the Wolves have an absurd defensive rating of 79.7. They led 24-18 after the first quarter. Hot Grizzlies shooting combined with poor Timberwolves bench play in the second quarter (LaVine struggled like it was December 2014 or something) swung things, and the Grizz led by 5 at the half.
In the second half, the Grizzlies set the tone early, with punishing defense that forced the Wolves to settle for difficult jumpers; jumpers that did not fall. On offense, they had Marc Gasol scoring on Pekovic, and then when Pek went to the bench (he did not return, citing foot pain) Gasol went to work on rookie Adreian Payne. Gasol ended the game with 27 points and one of the best all-around performances we’ve seen at Target Center, this year. The newsworthy event of the game happened in the midst of a big Grizzlies run, when KG was hit with his second technical foul and was ejected from the game. Bennett Salvatore saw Garnett slam the ball on the ground and interpreted that as showing up the ref. According to Flip after the game, KG was mad at himself. In any case, the fans who came out to see KG play only got 2.5 quarters of it. He was done for the night. The technical foul call seemed unnecessary, putting it mildly, but it was also an embarrassing look for Garnett, who is here right now primarily for veteran leadership.
The early portion of the third quarter was disappointing, because the Wolves allowed themselves to be bullied by aggressive defense. That changed when Andrew Wiggins started attacking, drawing a pair of fouls that sent him to the free throw line. Payne also helped turn the game’s momentum by crashing the offensive glass. He kept two possessions alive that ended in Wolves points. The defense tightened up when Gorgui was assigned Gasol, and the Wolves turned a 15-point deficit into a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter. Payne’s stint following the Garnett ejection was the best ball he’s played in his short Wolves tenure. There is a lot that I don’t like about how his game looks right now (funky shooting form, poor defensive awareness, turnover prone) but when he simplified his approach and crashed the boards, he was effective.
Memphis pulled the game out down the stretch, largely because Gasol was such a difficult one-on-one matchup. He only missed 3 shots all night. Gorgui drew a “hooking” foul on one Gasol post up, which led to Marc getting a technical of his own. After that, Gasol knew he was getting the benefit of the doubt star treatment, and sure enough Gorgui was whistled for light contact on the next possession. Kevin Martin hit a pair of threes to make things interesting, but missed a third one — wide open after he head faked in the corner — that would’ve likely forced overtime.
Now that this team has (most of) its health back, I don’t really think moral victories in home games are possible. They play like a good team, and good teams should expect to win at home. That’s an encouraging sign for next year. Andrew Wiggins, who I have barely mentioned, had 25 points last night and looks like he’s quickly approaching star-caliber play. With Wiggins on the wing, Rubio at point guard, and at least three solid big men between Pekovic, Gorgui, and KG, the Wolves should have high expectations from now on.
Some scattered jottings on other Wolves happenings: