Last year’s Timberwolves were the first in years to play consistently competitive basketball. Before Ricky Rubio went down with a knee injury the Wolves had a winning record that included impressive victories over the defending-champion Mavericks and perennial contender Spurs. But the games that probably meant the most to fans, Miami, LA, Boston, and yes, Oklahoma City… they came up short. Entering this season the Wolves had not beaten the Celtics since they traded Kevin Garnett to them in 2007. They haven’t beaten the Lakers for years. They haven’t beaten Miami since LeBron and Bosh took their talents to South Beach. And they have not beaten the Thunder since the Thunder became good. Entering last night’s contest the Wolves had a 12-game losing streak to their rivals to the South. The last time they beat OKC, the Thunder had a terrible 5-31 record and Westbrook-Durant was tantalizing potential with very little yet realized. Along their rapid road to improvement, the Thunder have not only bullied the Timberwolves but reached a conference finals in 2011 and an NBA Finals last year. They have the best record in basketball and were riding a [regular] 12-game winning streak as they tipped off on TNT Primetime at Target Center. By winning this game–in commanding fashion, never trailing, nonetheless–the Timberwolves can mark off a yet-to-be accomplished task en route to becoming “for real.” Having soundly beaten the best of the best, on the biggest [regular season] stage, they’ll carry a healthy amount of swagger that seasoned Rick Adelman will undoubtedly manipulate to be an advantage rather than a problem. For now, with two days off until a fun Christmas Eve Eve matchup with the Knickerbockers, let’s just enjoy a great win.
A few keys:
Alexey Shved & The Bigs
The opening quarter showed off the premier attributes of Alexey Shved, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic. At the same time. Give Shved a ball screen, get Pek thunderously (!) rolling to the hoop, and pop K-Love behind the three-point line, where he is the reigning contest champ. As he often does, Shved added just enough flair to make those pick-and-pops look as cool as they were effective, tossing one or two right over his head and his defenders. Love shot 9 treys last night and made 4 of them. My favorite Kevin Love is the one that jacks it up from downtown in volume. Provided his hand and shooting release are healed up, it’s the best way for him to exploit what is a comparative advantage over his power forward peers. Can a big man pulling defenders to the perimeter win a championship? Yes it can. A big reason for the killer spacing that allowed Pekovic to wreak havoc in the paint was Love’s ability and willingness to stretch the floor by hitting threes. Love and Shved exchanged many assisted baskets last night. Shved had a career-high dozen dimes and Love had 7 of his own.
Ricky not right, but still defends.
It’s going to take some time for Ricky to get back his full arsenal of offensive weapons. Despite rocking Target Center with 9 assists in his opening, 18-minute performance against Dallas, it looks like some of that came from the adrenaline of being back on the floor. He isn’t all there yet. But while we should clearly be patient with a player recovering from serious injury, we can still appreciate the defensive chops he shows off on a bad leg. Nobody in the world can stay in front of Russell Westbrook penetration. But Ricky sure made Russ work for anything he got in the times they matched up last night. Some like to downplay the importance of point-guard defense in the NBA, essentially conceding that it’s impossible to stay in front of quick guards due to the hand-check restrictions and ball screen sets. Until you’ve watched Ricky play, that’s a reasonable take. But Rubio (along with perhaps Jrue Holiday and a very-short list of others) has such great energy and instincts that he really does prevent point guard penetration more than he allows it. Between Ricky, the pleasantly-surprising-on-defense Shved, and Andrei Kirilenko, the Wolves have a wall of perimeter defenders that does one helluva job at running opponents off the three line yet staying in front to invite a pull-up, inefficient attempt from the mid range.
I like to talk about “Good J.J.” and “Bad J.J.” Rarely do you get something well in between. Last night, the Wolves got UNBELIEVABLY-AWESOME J.J. His 18 points in 23 minutes were as big of a reason for this win as any other. I don’t usually enjoy his style of play and how it disrupts the wonderful things this team can otherwise do on offense, but it’s undeniable that it sometimes works–and can work at the highest levels. The 2011 NBA Finals will be remembered as the last time LeBron failed and Dirk finally getting a ring. Just don’t forget that little J.J. Barea played a key role in the Game 5 and 6 wins–scoring 15 and 17 points and assisting 5 times in each. For his faults, which are well documented here, he doesn’t back down from anybody whether it is Dwyane Wade in the Finals, Kevin Love on the sidelines, or Kevin Durant in last night’s game.
Awesome game, one of the most fun I’ve been to at Target Center.
Season Record: 13-11