Where to begin?
The game itself, I guess.
The Wolves opened up the game with some predictable nerves. And as nerves often do in basketball, they seemed to help on defense and hurt on offense. Washington built a 13-1 lead and the Wolves did not make a field goal until a Pekovic layup with 5:27 to go in the first. While that technically broke the seal, the offensive struggles persisted through the end of the opening period. Adreian Payne committed three turnovers in short sequence, and the score was 20-11 Wizards after one.
Things turned around in the second, for two main reasons: (1) the Wolves defensive motor continued to run hot, and with appropriate rotations and discipline; and (2) Kevin Martin got hot. He had 16 points in that quarter alone (he ended with 28), mixing his crafty foul drawing skills with jumpers off the move, and an open corner three for good measure. Rubio made some uncharacteristically poor decisions, botching a contested layup on a 2-on-1 next to Wiggins, and then throwing the ball into the stands on the next possession. I did like one play he made with Garnett that was a little bit reminiscent of Celtics KG action – Garnett set a down screen like he used to for Ray Allen (I think this one was for Martin, but cannot recall specifically) and when both defenders hedged toward the cutter, he pivoted for position, and Rubio slid a bounce pass through traffic to him. He was then fouled on the layup attempt. KG’s a great screener — often accused of an illegal screener — and that action will be there with a heady point guard like Rubio surveying the floor.
The defensive effort and focus continued throughout the second quarter, and by the time Martin’s scoring work was done, the score was tied at 42s at the break.
Chemistry isn’t built overnight and certainly not in one half of a game, but the Timberwolves passing was GREAT in the third quarter. Garnett, holding the ball higher than any defender could do anything about at the top of the key, zipped it into a cutting Wiggins for a one-handed dunk. After Rubio converted a running bank shot to keep the defense honest, he then slipped in a long bounce pass to Garnett for a short hook shot to give the Wolves a 53-48 lead, and momentum was palpable. Rubio threw a lob to a half-open Wiggins, who leaped high enough to at least get fouled. The passing to Pekovic was sharper than we’ve seen since his high-low partner, Kevin Love, was traded to Cleveland. Garnett is at least as good a passer as Love, and Pekovic took the refreshed opportunity to root defenders right underneath the rim for the best position possible and the best moves in his arsenal. Pek ended with 15 points and 13 boards. The offense was flowing.
Washington finally got some jumpers to fall, but that was immediately countered by Andrew Wiggins heating up with a pair of his favorite moves: the step-back jumper followed by the spine move, finished with a soft jumper plus the foul. KG stood up and asked the crowd to do the same. Of course they obliged. Wiggins ended the game with 19 efficient points and tied Pekovic at +16 for the game’s best plus-minus.
Rubio generated some points via dribble flopping fouls when the Wolves were in the bonus. I’d be shocked if that wasn’t intentional. You may have noticed this habit in recent games – where the second the Wolves enter the bonus, Ricky dribbles toward a defender, shields the ball as he’s anticipating a steal, and flops hard to bait a call. It’s working for him.
After some exchanged baskets, the Wolves ended the third quarter up 74-60.
The lead held mostly steady in the fourth quarter and the outcome was never really in doubt. Gorgui Dieng got in on the action with three straight shots – his favorite bank from the flat wing, followed by a 13-footer from a nice LaVine dish, and then a strong finish in the lane off a pump fake; a rare (lately, anyway) pump fake by Gorgui that was a good decision. He’s gotta stop faking so much.
When newbie Payne got scored on twice in a row by Nene — a monster dunk followed by a backdoor alley-oop layup — Flip called timeout to sub KG back in. The 82-68 lead was pumped up to 20 by night’s end. Garnett was able to check out to a standing ovation with 1:49 to play. It must’ve been the tenth of the night, for different Garnett-related reasons. The final score was Timberwolves 97, Wizards 77, sending the Target Center faithful back out to the frigid Minneapolis night with smiles on their faces. The Big Ticket and his teammates made the event a special one.
Some other takeaways from a big night:
- Flip could not have been happier in his post-game presser. He compared the Target Center atmosphere to a college game at Williams Arena against Ohio State for the Big Ten championship. He said no other NBA regular season game that he’s been a part of could compare to tonight’s atmosphere. He couldn’t hide the pride in himself for concocting and executing the Return of KG. I can’t imagine there has ever been a happier coach of a team winning less than a quarter of its games.
Garnett stands out for so many different reasons. It’s not only the fans showing out to worship him, but that’s obviously a big part. KG is so tall, with such long arms on the court, and he’s so, SO much more verbal and animated than his teammates. The young guys are quiet, and still learning. Rubio and Pekovic have their own respective charms, but it’s easier to forget that English is not their first language. Garnett’s endless and just plain loud communication must be a shock to this team’s system. And KG is so smooth with his interviews. He knows the big media personalities well and feels right at home answering questions. It might not be his favorite part of the job — far from it, I imagine — but for someone like me whose media experience has been limited to young, inexperienced teams, Garnett is in another galaxy. His last question of the night was how he felt, and he instinctively said, “Feel like shit!” and he stood up and left.
Payne has not impressed me so far. In his first game, he was 0 for 5 with 5 fouls in 14 minutes. In his second game, he shot 4-15 (but with 10 rebounds, to his credit) and a rough (-15) plus/minus. Tonight, he had 5 turnovers and struggled on defense in 17 minutes off the bench. It’s still (very) early, but his first impressions haven’t been too good.
LaVine gave the Wolves solid minutes tonight. He showed off great defense on an isolation set that ended with a loose ball and Wiggins dunk in transition. He made a catch-and-shoot three pointer. He drove in the lane and made smart passes.
The Wolves collectively, but led by Rubio, did a great job containing John Wall tonight and limiting his impact in dribble penetration. The superstar guard shot 2-10 from the field.
* This has been true since Rubio returned from injury, but especially so tonight with a huge crowd and a 20-point win with Kevin Garnett: This team seems pretty good when it’s healthy. Next year, they will not be thinking about their new lottery pick or even Zach LaVine as much as they probably were for most of this season. With Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, and some combination of Muhammad, Garnett, Pekovic, and Dieng, the Wolves will enter next season with playoff hopes. Unlike this year’s, these might not be irrational either. The passing and defense that we saw tonight in the second half, with Rubio and KG on the floor, was not only excellent but contagious.
I’m really excited to watch this team play again.