Tonight’s loss at Memphis accentuated what many believe will be a season-long theme:
This Timberwolves team has a LOT of players.
Over the course of the season this will cause effects both positive and negative.
On the plus side, a deep rotation is insurance against injuries and excessive fatigue. If one player is struggling, maybe his replacement will get hot. There was some of this in tonight’s opening game.
On the negative side, it makes Flip Saunders’ job difficult. If certain players are taking over the game in the middle of the fourth quarter (all hypothetical of course:)) should he ride them to the finish? Or should he put the starters back in, with a predetermined plan to close with slightly-more savvy vets? There was also some of this in tonight’s game.
The game at Memphis was hard fought, with Memphis holding a single-digit lead, most of the way. Zach Randolph was a matchup nightmare for Thaddeus Young, who otherwise played fabulous basketball. Z-Bo finished with 25 points on 12-16 shooting, operating in the deep low post against Young. Thad had 26 of his own points, mixing square-up drives to the cup with perimeter jumpers and hustle-junk buckets around the hoop.
Things got exciting during the fourth quarter when Minnesota’s Class of 2013 crew — Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and Anthony Bennett — dominated for an extended stretch that saw a 9-point deficit turn into a 2-point Wolves lead. Shabazz was crashing the boards on both ends and converting a variety of shot types. He hit his patented lefty hook, but also a cutting layup (off a nice feed from Gorgui) and a corner trey. Bennett ran the floor for a huge dunk, and buried a couple of jumpers off the catch. Gorgui, the team’s plus-minus champ (+13, second in the game only to Mike Conley’s +15) was combining help defense with rebounding like we all hope to see from him, going forward. (We all had a scare when Gorgui suffered a hand injury in the first half that appeared serious. X-rays were negative and he played even better upon his return.)
But after ill-advised jumpers by Bennett and Chase Budinger led to the Grizzlies re-taking the lead, Saunders called timeout and subbed out the youngsters for Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer, and Nikola Pekovic. Thad Young checked in for Budinger, who was a non-factor during his time on the floor.
It’s impossible to know how the game would’ve played out with the “hot hands” on the floor down the stretch. We only know how it went with the starters out there. The Wolves lost by 4, and they struggled to contain Randolph without the uber-aggressive Muhammad and Dieng attacking the defensive glass.
The game was ultimately decided in frustrating fashion. Down two, defending with under 10 seconds to go and the shot clock about to expire, Rubio closed out too hard on Vince Carter. There was contact, it wasn’t clear who initiated it, and the ref called it on Ricky. Two free throws later, and the game was decided.
All things considered, a close loss at The Grindhouse is a favorable first showing for this uncertain ballclub. But moral victories get old quickly and if the Wolves actually have the chops to hang in games like this one, we’ll quickly begin to expect better execution in the details. Tonight, that seemed like recognizing the ways that Gorgui and Bazz were thriving in physical play and — on the flipside — how Pek looked out of shape and confused, and Thad Young couldn’t hold his ground down low against Z-Bo.
Some bullets to wrap this up, as Game 2 is coming at us quickly, tomorrow night at Target Center against the Pistons:
* I haven’t mentioned Andrew Wiggins yet. The rook had a quiet first half, and ended the game with 6 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals and 2 turnovers in 19 minutes of action. The Wolves had him operating out of the post quite a bit, which I found interesting. On Day 2 of the Waiting for Wiggins series, I wrote a little bit about his potential as a post scorer, as it shows up in his scouting tapes. He was aggressive hunting buckets from there tonight, and had some success – both converting one shot over Tony Allen, and drawing a foul on another attempt. He probably would’ve played more minutes, but in this physical contest, Shabazz was having a huge night.
* Pekovic looks really out of shape. Memphis attacked him at will in ball-screen action, and his game-worst -17 reflects how he looked on the floor. For tonight and — if it is a conditioning issue — for the foreseeable future, Gorgui might be the better center option. The Wolves need a good Pekovic this year if they want to remain competitive. His poor play tonight was a deciding factor in the game’s outcome.
* Marc Gasol was brilliant, scoring 32 points to go along with 9 rebounds and 3 assists. I’d highlight the ways he dominated Pek but that would feel like piling on.
* Mo Williams has looked really, really good in a Wolves uniform. Tonight was no different from preseason. Mo had 18 points on 9 shots, along with 4 assists in +10 action. Other than a weird flagrant foul he put on Conley in the open floor, Mo had it going all night.
* Anthony Bennett had a slew of nice plays in short sequence, but looked a little bit jittery on offense. He jacks up the 20 footer right off the catch without a hint of hesitation. To his credit, he made a couple of them (and he showed in preseason that it seems to be a shot he can hit with some consistency.) But very long two’s with a lot of time on the shot clock are generally bad shots and he’ll need to sharpen up that decision making, or at least extend his range back to the three line (where it would be an efficient shot choice, assuming his percentage stays close to the same). His dunk as a transition trailer was the highlight of the game.
That’s about it for this one. I didn’t write much about Rubio, who had up and down moments. He had way too many turnovers, but his shot looks better and he created good opportunities for teammates, too. The Grizzlies have always been hard on Rubio…and just about every other guard in the league. They’re a collective monster, defensively.
Pistons come to town tomorrow night. Until then.
Season Record: 0-1