That was an unusual Timberwolves game.
They won, but that’s not the weird part. It happens half the time, after all. The strange thing about tonight’s win over the Chicago Bulls was how the Wolves won.
They scored 95 points, which doesn’t seem so odd until you consider that the Wolves average 114.1 points per game in wins (a stat that includes tonight’s game bringing it down). They won by 9, which is just a titch more than half of their average victory margin of 17.0 (again, including this game). The Wolves are one of the league’s best offensive rebounding and second-chance points teams, but tonight they pulled down only 5 boards on their own end.
Most importantly, the game’s outcome seemed to turn when the Wolves upped their defensive intensity.
That never happens.
Let’s quickly rewind to the beginning of the game.
Two important injury reports to note. Joakim Noah was sick and did not play. So the Wolves had a big advantage. (Chicago is already without Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich, and they just traded away Luol Deng.) But that advantage was lessened considerably when Nikola Pekovic left the game with a sore Achilles tendon after playing just 6 minutes. We’ll call No Noah and Practically No Pek a wash. This game was no longer a “must win” or gimme once Pek was out.
The Wolves led by 3 after one and by 8 at the half.
Kevin Love did mostly good things in the first half. He made jumpers and ended up scoring 17 points. But his crafty, normally-effective foul-baiting tricks went unrewarded at the United Center. Multiple possessions ended with Love complaining as the Bulls pushed the ball down the floor.
The bench that cost this team a realistic chance at winning in Portland played well in the 2nd Quarter. They began with Kevin Love still on the floor, who obviously helps smooth out the transition for a group that too often looks lost. On one early play in the second, Love dropped a dime to Ronny Turiaf for a dunk. A few possessions later, Alexey Shved flicked a lob at the rim for rolling Ronny to lightly dunk in. And a few possessions after that, J.J. Barea found Ronny on a similar pick-and-roll alley oop. Turiaf scored an efficient 11 points in the first half, which felt like playing with house money.
But the halftime lead was *only* 8 points. The Bulls, even without Joakim Noah, played like the Bulls. They stayed in their lanes on defense and played physical in every way that NBA players in 2014 are allowed to play physical. (In some instances, they just plain got away with fouls, which happens too.) Jimmy Butler made some nice shots. Their bigs crashed the offensive glass.
The contest was, unfortunately, far from over at the half despite the Wolves getting a plus performance from their enigmatic second unit. That was cause for a little bit of concern and placed extra importance on the beginning of the third quarter. Given this team’s front-running nature and inability to grind out tough, close victories, it seemed crucial that they open the second half strong.
The opening minutes of the third had a happy-go-lucky feel to them. Corey fumbled away a layup but Ricky followed it up with a put back. Rubio scored two more times in the next four possessions. When Ricky scores, everyone is happy. Love scored on one of the other early possessions.
The only problem was that nobody — other than maybe Ricky — was playing a lick of defense. Offense is fun, the Wolves star players enjoy playing offense, and they decided that playing offense was enough for a win in Chicago.
But things were less fun when the scoring stalled.
From the 8:44 mark to 2:32 in the 3rd Quarter (6 minutes, 12 seconds of action for any math majors reading this) the Wolves scored just 6 points. This from a unit (well, minus Pek) that typically scores a lot of points in just about every non-crunchtime situation. The lead was down to 5 when Gorgui Dieng checked in the game. (!) (Again, Pek was out. This wasn’t Rick making a real rotational change.)
Adelman kept Brewer on the floor with Gorgui and they teamed up for some active — sometimes overactive — halfcourt defense that got much-needed stops that sometimes led to fast-break offense.
[Gorgui Tangent: I enjoy watching Gorgui Dieng play defense. He is not a great NBA defender at this point. (He's barely played!) But he has an interesting combination of length and lateral quickness. He runs with an awkward gait and he does not jump very high, but that lack of spring might actually help him out. He doesn't go flying for stupid block attempts very often. (Though he did bite hard on one head fake tonight.) Do you remember how the late Eddie Griffin would block and disrupt shot attempts by using length, quickness and instincts, but not really by jumping? I see some of that with Gorgui. He's out of position sometimes, but it's usually a result of being too active; not the old Mike Beasley-style out of position, in other words. (Eds note: Love you Beas!) Anyway, back to the game.]
After Dieng (and Budinger) checked in, the Bulls possessions went:
* Boozer missed jump shot
* Snell missed 3pt shot (Love fouled Mohammed who made 2 free throws)
* Snell missed 3pt shot & Butler missed jump shot
* Augustin turnover
* Mohammed missed reverse layup
* Mohammed missed jump shot
* James missed jump shot
* Dunleavy missed 3pt shot
* Snell turnover
* Boozer missed jump shot
* Augustin missed 3pt shot
* Augustin missed layup (blocked by Cunningham)
In 12 possessions, the Bulls shot 0-11 from the field against the worst field-goal defending team in the NBA. They scored 2 points on free throws and committed a pair of turnovers.
After that stingy defensive stretch the Wolves finally allowed a basket — an Augustin trey — and when Gorgui fouled Mohammed on the next possession Adelman pulled him out.
But the entire feel to the game changed. Adelman obviously got excited by this new thing called defense, because he even subbed in his new defensive specialist (who normally does not play) Luc Richard Mbah a Moute:
Adelman got drunk on defense in an Old School "once it hits your lips" sorta way during the Brew & Gorgui stint. Sends in Mbah a Moute.—
Punch-Drunk Wolves (@PDWolves) January 28, 2014
The starters came back in, continued the improved defensive energy and focus, and closed out the win.
I don’t plan to take anything toooo meaningful away from this one. Not like the win at Oracle. But it was kind of cool to see the team adapt to Chicago Style Defense and even — for one extended stretch — adopt it as its own.
But for now, I just hope Pek is okay. This is an offensive team first, second and third and they need their 20 & 10 low-post machine to keep firing on all cylinders.
Next game is Wednesday, back at Target Center. Anthony Davis and the Pellies come to town. (Speaking of the Pelicans, do yourself a favor and read netw3rk’s hilarious goodbye to Pierre the Pelican, New Orleans’ disastrously scary-looking mascot that is no more.)
Season Record: 22-22