Last night’s win over the Suns was one of the season’s most fun games, for a few different reasons.
First and most obvious: It was a close game, involving a whole bunch of fourth quarter lead changes, and the home team pulled it out in the final minute. Specifically, the Wolves’ biggest basket came on a Rubio-to-Wiggins pick and roll where the next Rookie of the Year showed off his athleticism and poise by absorbing contact and finishing in traffic. Anytime the Wolves beat a decent team on a big play involving Rubio and Wiggins, the vibes will be positive.
Second, the fans came out and the arena had new energy. This was presumably, in large part, due to the Garnett-trade news. There was a period of time between when the trade was announced and the confirmation of when KG will debut here (next Wednesday, not last night) and I can only imagine that a lot of fans bought tickets for the Friday night game hoping it might be the first one with The Big Ticket back in the lineup. Garnett is not yet back in Minnesota, but the team made sure to play a bunch of promo videos on the big screen which was the crowd’s consolation prize (well, along with the big win). But there was a bigger-than-usual turnout last night, and the fans clearly enjoyed the show that Ricky and Wiggins put on. This team is 12-42 right now, mind you. This sort of win/loss record, which is unfortunately common, has traditionally not led to good crowds in the second half of the season. Last night was an exception.
Third, and most perhaps most under-the-radar, Ricky Rubio’s minutes restriction has been lifted and he’s back in full duty. Rubio played 37 minutes of really good basketball, last night. He had the Jason Kidd-style stat line, approaching a triple double with 10 points, 14 assists and 8 rebounds. Ricky had so much control over this game. Kevin Martin was hot early, so Ricky got him the ball. When Wiggins was feeling left out, Ricky chucked a 50-foot pass up the floor, forcing the youngster to chase it down and reward himself with a layup. Later in the game, again after some Martin shots went up, Ricky made a concerted effort to get the new guy, Gary Neal, some touches. He even looked off Martin to make sure this happened. He’s got that “pure point guard” brain that calculates the flow of the game in real time and understands where the ball needs to go to keep everyone happy and — more importantly — to keep the points coming. Ricky’s plus-minus of +14 was the game’s best by a 6-point margin.
All in all, it was a good win against an undermanned, but plenty competitive Suns team.
Some other Timberwolves issues, looking ahead:
* Anthony Bennett is about to enter a two-front battle for his Timberwolves future.
First, he’s competing against newcomer Adreian Payne for power forward minutes. Last night, both guys played. Bennett got the start and played okay (2 points, 4 rebounds, +6) but injured his leg less than 9 minutes into the game, and did not return. Payne made his debut off the bench, which was a little shaky. He committed 5 fouls and struggled with defensive positioning in his mere 13:30 of playing time. He was 0 for 5 from the field. Payne is playing his very first NBA minutes right now, so he deserves some slack before we rush to judgments. But make no mistake: the Wolves trading for a power forward sent a message about how they feel about Bennett, and those two are going head to head for playing time.
Bennett’s other battle is against his own contract, which is higher than his production deserves because he was the number one pick in the draft. The Wolves picked up Bennett’s third year option for next season, so he is under contract for another year. He’ll earn about $5.8 Million next year. But they have to decide by October 31 (basically opening night of the 2015-16 season) if they want to pick up his fourth year option that would pay him about $7.3 Million for the 2016-17 season. Even with salary cap that is projected to rise significantly that year, the Wolves might not want to pay that much money for a guy who has struggled a lot so far, and who plays the same position as the newly acquired Payne, and possibly the same position as the Wolves next lottery pick – if they end up taking somebody like Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky as many experts expect.
These final 28 games are huge for Bennett, in other words. It isn’t a stretch to say that he’s literally auditioning for another year’s salary of over $7 Million. I hope his injury isn’t serious, because that’d be a bummer of a way to miss out on what would be his best chance at playing time, with Thad Young out of his way and gone to Brooklyn. I’m a bigger fan of Bennett’s potential than most seem to be, and I am curious to see how his game might develop not only with Garnett on board as a motivator and teacher, but also with shooting coach Mike Penberthy, whose services could seemingly be utilized for players besides Ricky Rubio over the next couple years. The “one and done” era of the NBA Draft is still relatively new, and I remain convinced that outside-the-box thinking in player development (like some of the things we’ve seen from Flip Saunders this year) might lead to unexpected improvement from players initially written off as busts. This goes for Bennett and LaVine both, as well as Shabazz Muhammad, who was drafted high but had to pay his dues in practice much more than a lot of lottery picks do, on last year’s Wolves team.
* Late-game Offense
Last year, the Wolves had the following offensive ratings (points scored per 100 possessions), by quarter – with league rank in parentheses:
That was as frustrating to watch as the stats suggest. So many winnable games were lost down the stretch, in part because the Wolves offense would fall apart. The central theme of last year’s halfcourt offense was Kevin Love at the elbow, either scoring or passing to baseline cutters. Neither of those options worked well against late-game, fully-focused defense.
In the unfortunately-small sample size of Ricky Rubio-led action this year, we’re seeing a different look. Rubio takes more gambles, like the wild pass he slipped to Pekovic in traffic in the closing moments of last night’s game (Pek converted the basket to give the Wolves a 3-point lead with 1:12 to play) but at least he makes the defense shift, and there’s a clear-cut “reward” next to whatever risk he takes. The aforementioned pick-and-roll with Wiggins was another example of offense that looked better than last year’s.
The Wolves 4th Quarter O-rating this year is 106.1, much better than last year’s, but that’s probably due in part to the number of games they’ve been blown out and facing a relaxed opponent in that period. But Rubio hasn’t played in blowouts, and his 4th Quarter rating (#SmallSampleSizeAlert – just 10 games) is an eye-popping 126.8. For late-game success to prove sustainable, Rubio is going to have to continue to threaten defenses as both a passer and scorer. His late-game shooting heroics in that big win over Memphis were an exaggerated version of what he needs to do, but that’s a good example. When defensive discipline tightens up, sometimes the guy handling the ball just needs to take a shot off the dribble. If Ricky can do that well, the Wolves can say goodbye to those fourth quarter struggles that cost them a playoff spot last year.
* Garnett in Minnesota
It’s become apparent to me that KG is a bigger deal in this state than I even realized. I think this is because I’ve been a basketball junkie almost since I could walk, and I loved pre-Garnett Wolves like JR Rider at a young age. So KG wasn’t “the reason I got into watching the NBA.” He was just the first (and in some ways, the “only”) truly great Timberwolves player I’ve ever watched.
As this news of Garnett’s return continues to buzz around town, and even my office (where nobody usually cares much about the T-Wolves) I’m realizing that for a lot of Minnesotans, Kevin Garnett IS the Timberwolves; at least the Timberwolves that they are willing to buy tickets to watch. The organization is going to make a lot of money off this decision to bring him back.