Hanging on, back over .500 (WOLVES 108, Nuggets 105)

I think there is an old adage in sports that when two teams with the same winning percentage match up, and the home team has had 4 consecutive days off to rest and the away team has played 2 road games in the past 3 nights, the home team should win.  If that isn’t an old adage, then it should be one.  Despite whatever distractions or internal strife was caused by Adrian Wojnarowski’s column about Kevin Love, the Wolves had a decided advantage in this game for the simple reason that they were rested and the Nuggets were–or should have been–tired.  But even with advantages of home court and fresh legs, it was hardly a win to be taken for granted.  Denver has already come away from Target Center victorious once this year–with Love in the lineup, no less–and they’ve given the Wolves enough fits in recent years to have an uneasy feeling about this game.  With the exception of the early-to-mid 4th Quarter, the feeling lasted throughout most of the contest.

The opening quarter was dominated by Denver’s push-ahead passes for transition buckets.  Cheering for the Wolves, it was largely painful to watch them not get back on defense.  But from my vantage point, the lower-bowl corner behind it, it was also damn impressive.  Kenneth Faried and Corey Brewer streak down the floor the instant they see a teammate corral the rebound or loose ball.  If the primary throw-ahead isn’t there, it’s Ty Lawson blowing through the middle of the floor with options everywhere.  To get an idea of what led to a 29-21 Nuggets lead after one, just check out Kenneth Faried’s shot chart.  Manimal was a beast all night, scoring 26 and rebounding 14, 5 of them offensive.  He outplayed his counterpart, K-Love, who struggled for much of the night.  Love pulled down his usual 14 rebounds (also 5 on the offensive end) but shot just 3 for 17 en route to 8 points.

After the slugging start, the Wolves began getting back on defense and their second-string backcourt of J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved helped get the offense clicking.  Andrei Kirilenko added a steady supply of steals, leak-outs, and backdoor cuts.  But in winning the middle quarters by a combined 56-41 no Timberwolf had a bigger impact than The Godfather.  Nikola Pekovic had 22 points on just 10 shots tonight, many of the tip-in variety after his 5 offensive rebounds.  Denver had problems with interior defense for much of the night, either due to Faried’s lack of size, McGee’s lack of discipline, or Kosta’s inability to play without fouling (he used 5 in just 22 minutes).  Pek was able to capitalize throughout and put together his best all-around game in some time, maybe all season.

The elephant in the room for why this game went Minnesota’s way is Andre Iguodala.  The star wing player shot 1 for 9 from the floor and scored just 2 points.  While the Wolves broke down plenty of times when trying to stay in front of Ty Lawson, or trying to recover to help on McGee or Faried, they did an excellent job of inviting dribble jumpers from Iggy.  In what became a very-close game, Iggy’s struggles more than compensated for the tremendous performance turned in by his cohort, Danilo Gallinari.  Gallo had 24 points on just 13 shots, connecting on 4 of 5 treys.  His clutch shooting nearly propelled Denver to a wild comeback win.  But two really bad bonus fouls, one on Faried about 35 feet from the hoop, and the other by Brewer in the closing minutes, were pivotal mistakes that barely allowed the Wolves to hang on.  Ty Lawson’s buzzer-beating three-point attempt would have forced overtime.  I don’t understand not fouling in that situation, but the Wolves don’t seem to do it that way when up by 3 points.

Some bullets:

* Dante Cunningham made all 5 of his shots, some of them his patented just-behind-the-elbow jumpers.  His missed free throw with 5 seconds left almost allowed overtime though.

* Alexey Shved was 0 for 3 from downtown, stopping his recent surge of hot perimeter shooting.  But he did have 5 assists and 0 turnovers and played a heady floor game.  Adelman’s decision to sub out Shved with 3:59 to go was a little bit questionable, and the game got very close in the final minutes.

* It bears repeating that Barea was a key player in this game.  He had 17 points and 8 assists and dominated most of the 2nd Half.  It was “Good J.J.” tonight.

* Derrick Williams played a little bit tonight, and was tied with Pek for a team-best +8.  Williams played some small forward, and was isolated on the block against smaller Jordan Hamilton.  It led to a basket on one possession and a foul draw on another.  Maybe we’ll see that in small samplings this year.

* Briefly looking around the league, the Warriors won at Miami tonight and are officially “for real.”  They’re 15-7 and haven’t had Andrew Bogut yet.  You can slot them in the playoff picture, until Steph Curry’s ankles tell us otherwise.  That means the new race for a playoff spot is between the Wolves, Mavs, Nuggets, Lakers, and Jazz.  3 of those 5 will get in.

* The Wolves next 6 games can be divided in 3 and 3.  The first 3 are very winnable.  They play at New Orleans on Friday, home against Mavericks on Saturday, and then at Orlando next Monday.  The 3 after that are very losable.  The play at Miami next Tuesday, home against the Thunder next Thursday (Primetime TNT!) and at the Knicks the following Sunday.  With tonight’s win pushing the Wolves over .500 for the first time in a while, it’ll be important to get these next 3 before that murderer’s row that follows.

* The Kevin Love story will remain “the story” for at least a few more days.  My friend Tim emailed me an interesting theory that could explain the odd timing of Love’s decision to sit down with Woj.  I’ll just quote from his message:

Isn’t it reasonable to ask whether this was calculated to coincide with all of the Pau Gasol rumors in L.A.?  The Wolves have been involved in those discussions forever, and the articles have consistently suggested that the Lakers would be thrilled to trade for Love.  Maybe he thought that rattling some cages up here, when the timing seems right for a Gasol trade, might push the Wolves to consider sending him home to the West Coast, to immediately contend for a championship.

Hmmm….

Season Record: 10-9

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