The Wolves three-game road trip — began on Friday, ends tomorrow night — spans the entire NBA spectrum. Friday night was at San Antonio, where the Spurs are the league’s gold standard of consistent excellence. Tonight was at Memphis, last year’s Western Conference finalist that has a new coach (Minnesota’s own Dave Joerger, who replaced Lionel Hollins) and –importantly — does not have the services of Marc Gasol, who is out with a sprained knee ligament. Tomorrow night is at Boston, where the Celtics are playing above their heads with an 11-14 record. Boston has a rebuilding roster and — despite the early success of Coach Brad Stevens — seems like a lock for the lottery. The mini tour includes the upper, middle, and lower classes of the current NBA, and in descending order.
The Spurs were 17-4 heading into the Minnesota matchup. Despite a stellar Kevin Love performance (42 points, 8-9 3pt field goals) the Wolves came up short. Love ran out of gas, trying to carry his team and go blow for blow with the Spurs Offensive Machine. Tony Parker, rested relative to Love, went to work in Winning Time. He navigated the Wolves defense to the tune of 12 points in the final 7:35. Parker scored 29 in the game and dished out 6 assists. When facing San Antonio — by far the league’s best-executing team offense — it’s always difficult to tell if they’re that good or you’re that bad. On Friday, the Wolves clearly struggled to defend. Their offense, without any help from so-far superstar scorer Kevin Martin (more on this later), was almost enough. But allowing 117 points will rarely result in a victory. The Wolves lost by 7. It was a splendid game to watch, but with a bittersweet result of defeat that seemed like wasting a special Kevin Love performance. The loss dropped the Wolves record down to 11-12, once again below .500.
Tonight was a far different matchup. At Memphis, the Wolves faced a Grizzlies team that was 2 games under .500 and struggling without its team MVP and leaguewide Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol. Behind more Kevin Love domination and a J.J. Barea scoring surge, the Wolves build a lead as high as 19 in the second quarter that fell down to 10 at the half. Barea was playing his usual style (dribble-happy, improvisational) and it was working for a while. He had 13 points on perfect 4-4 shooting (3-3 from downtown) in the first half.
Things got uglier in the second half, but the Wolves never quite surrendered their lead. It dropped to just 2 points more than once. Mike Conley was having his way on offense (28 points on 12-20 shooting) before injuring his knee and leaving the game with just 3:54 to play. I don’t know the extent of the injury, but he did go to the locker room. It was 95-92 with just over two minutes to go when Pek — on consecutive possessions — drew fouls on Zach Randolph. Each time he converted both free throws. Paired with some timely defensive stops, the win was sealed up.