SLC Punk’d (The Curse of Salt Lake City Edition)

The Wolves have not won a game in Salt Lake City since 2009.

The Wolves have not won a game in Salt Lake City since 2009.

After rolling over the Utah Jazz (14-28) 98-72 at home on Saturday, the Timberwolves (19-21) are in Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz in the second game of a rare home-and-home involving the Wolves.

On Friday, everything that could’ve gone right did. They got off to a 9-0 start, and led by as many as 36 at one point. Nikola Pekovic carved up Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and any other challengers on Utah’s front line en route to 27 points and a season-high 14 rebounds in just 29 minutes; Good Kevin Martin came to play, tallying 20 points; and Kevin Love had 18 and 13, totals that would’ve been higher had the Wolves needed him to play more minutes. (He played 29.)

On the Jazz side, what was already arguably the worst team in the NBA was without its best player, Gordon Hayward, and the team had a historically-bad shooting night, going a franchise-worst 28.8 percent (21 of 73). With 18 points, Alec Burks was the lone Jazz player in double-figures. For one night at least, the Wolves quieted some of the naysayers who’ve loudly criticized their decision not to select Trey Burke with the ninth pick in last summer’s draft. Ricky Rubio clearly outclassed Burke on Saturday night, holding the rookie to 9 points–almost five below his season average–on 2-10 from the field and two assists. Burke also had three turnovers.

Tonight’s game in Utah figures to be a more difficult win for the Wolves than was Saturday’s laugher for two reasons: Gordon Hayward and the Delta Center EnergySolutions Arena.

Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward is scheduled to come back tonight, though reports differ on whether or not that will happen. (See here and here.) The Jazz have no reason to rush Hayward back–they’re Riggin’ for Wiggins, Sorry for Jabari, or whatever your favorite expression is for full-on tank-mode–other than possibly to showcase his health if trading him is imminent. (Eds. Note: There have been Interwebz rumors recently that Boston is positioning itself to acquire Hayward, who played for Celtics golden boy coach Brad Stevens at Butler, to reunite player and coach in Beantown. But even if Utah decides to move Hayward, getting a deal done probably isn’t especially urgent – the trade deadline isn’t until February 20th).

Hayward is Utah’s best player. If he plays tonight, expect a different Utah Jazz team from the one we saw Saturday night. If he doesn’t the Wolves should win by a comfortable margin again over a Utah team that is hapless without its lone real playmaker.

The Jazz could look like a different team if Gordon Hayward returns from injury tonight.

The Jazz could look like a different team if Gordon Hayward returns from injury tonight.

Frankly, I hope that Hayward plays, for two reasons.

First, Hayward is he a joy to watch, as the video below shows.

If you care about entertainment value, you want to see Hayward play. I think he’s the most dynamic young wing in the NBA not named Paul George.

Second, the Wolves have struggled against quality opponents this season. Now, even when Hayward is in the fold, Utah isn’t the first team that comes to mind as a strong NBA squad. But still, the additional degree of difficulty involved in getting a win over a Hayward-led Utah team would mean a lot more than a(nother) hollow win over an over-matched Utah team.

The Curse of Salt Lake City

One reason to curb your enthusiasm about tonight’s outcome, regardless of Hayward’s status, is the game’s location. The Wolves have lost many a game in Salt Lake City that, on paper, they arguably should’ve won. Delta Center EnergySolutions Arena has not been friendly to the Wolves the past few seasons. To put this in perspective, the last time the Wolves won a game in Utah was in calendar year 2009. The Wolves have been SLC Punk’d.*

Last season, the Wolves got drubbed 106-84 on January 2nd, a game in which Kevin Love played but shot only 4-14 from the floor. The Jazz also beat the Wolves in Utah by a score of 107-100 on April 12.  In 2011-12, they beat the Wolves 108-98 in a January 21, 2012, tilt in the SLC, and again on March 15, 2012, in a 111-105 overtime heartbreaker.

I can’t emphasize enough how much a win in Utah would mean to the Wolves, if only to relieve the psychological burden of a multiyear losing streak there.

Miscellany

  • ROAD TRIP!: Tonight is the kickoff of the Wolves’ first four-game road trip of the season, which will run through January 27 in Chicago. Their next home game is eight days from now, on January 29 against Nola. Starting then, they’ll play seven of their next 10 at Target Center.
  • The Century Club: The Wolves are 1-9 so far this season when they’ve scored fewer than 100 points. That lone win came Saturday night over the Jazz.
  • Pek’s continued dominance: Nikola Pekovic continues to play like the absolute beast he is. In his last 15 games, Pek is averaging 21.9 points on 55.5 percent from the floor, and is collecting 10.1 boards per contest during that stretch.
  • Ronny Turiaf and the second unit: Ronny Turiaf has by far the best +/- statistic on the Wolves’ second unit, at +8.7 per/48. Alexey Shved is the only other backup who regularly gets rotation minutes and also has a positive +/- stat, at +1.3. Ronny obviously hasn’t played that many minutes and his +/- will likely regress to the mean, but having him available seems to make a big difference from the period in which we had no real backup center, given that Rick Adelman has shown time and again that Gorgui Dieng was not going to play regular second-unit minutes.
  • The more important +/- issue: Much has been made of the Wolves’ favorable +/- differential this season and their unfavorable W/L differential, including this piece (Insider; sorry) by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Even with this fact in the back of your mind, it’s astonishing that we’re below .500, yet we lead the League both in 20+ point wins (with 9) and in the number of games in which a team has built a lead of 30 points or greater. These stats just reinforce how miserably bad the Wolves have performed in close games, with, of course, a bit of bad luck sprinkled in.

That’s all for now. Let’s hope the Wolves can break the Delta Center EnergySolutions Arena curse and start the road trip with a win tonight.

Here’s some gratuitous Jeremy Evans dunkage to pregame to.

Enjoy the tilt.

*If you haven’t seen the excellent SLC Punk, you’ll wanna get on that. Here’s the trailer.

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2 Comments

Filed under Previews, Timberwolves

2 responses to “SLC Punk’d (The Curse of Salt Lake City Edition)

  1. Jeremy

    I wouldn’t call this a “must win” game, but yeah, a little bit. That stretch after this of @GS, @POR, @CHI, NOLA, and Memphis (with Gasol back) – a loss tonight could lead into a really ugly stretch looking something like 2-8 or 3-7 dating back to January 12th. I’m fearful of a tailspin on the front side of the trade deadline, because Panic Mode Flip sounds scary to me.

    Still, looking forward to what will hopefully be a fun game. I love Hayward’s game and hope he plays. I also expect to Burke to play much, much better tonight, and we will for sure revisit the stupidity of not drafting him.

    • I’m with you on pretty much every point above. Especially concerning Burke–I think what we saw at Target Center was more an anomaly than a reflection of his true ability or Ricky’s ability to shut down point guards of his caliber. (Like everyone else, I dig Ricky as a defender, but you just can’t really expect him or anyone else to shut down opposing point guards in today’s NBA because of the hand-check rules and prevailing style of play.) I’m glad we’re playing Utah again so soon after the Saturday throttling so we can see how both teams respond to what was a pretty weird game in many ways.