The Wolves dropped both games in their weekend back-to-back.
On Friday at Chicago, they faced an undermanned Bulls team that was missing Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, and lost Taj Gibson to an ankle sprain less than ten minutes into the contest. Despite the health advantage (to be fair, the Wolves were without Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Bennett, and Robbie Hummel, but none of those players are even as good as Gibson, let alone Rose or Gasol) the Wolves could not pull this one out. A theme throughout the game was a Timberwolf playing overaggressive defense, and being burned by a sharp backdoor cut, or spin move, or other intelligent counter that allowed an easy basket to a player who probably wouldn’t create a good shot by himself against disciplined defense.
In some ways, the Bulls game felt like the Wolves let one slip away. The final score was 96-89.
Saturday’s game was a more fun contest for two reasons: the Wolves played well, and they went down to the wire against a legit title contender; the same Grizzlies team they beat at Target Center a couple weeks ago behind Ricky Rubio heroics.
The Wolves opened last night’s game with a distinct defensive identity set by Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett. They forced turnovers on 7 of the Grizzlies first 14 possessions. (The Grizz ended the game with 24 turnovers.) Of those 7 turnovers, 3 were Garnett steals, and 2 were Rubio steals. Watching this team defend with these two on the floor at the same time makes me wish the Wolves had pried Garnett from the East Coast a couple years ago. In the 34 minutes that Rubio and KG have played together, the Wolves have an absurd defensive rating of 79.7. They led 24-18 after the first quarter. Hot Grizzlies shooting combined with poor Timberwolves bench play in the second quarter (LaVine struggled like it was December 2014 or something) swung things, and the Grizz led by 5 at the half.
In the second half, the Grizzlies set the tone early, with punishing defense that forced the Wolves to settle for difficult jumpers; jumpers that did not fall. On offense, they had Marc Gasol scoring on Pekovic, and then when Pek went to the bench (he did not return, citing foot pain) Gasol went to work on rookie Adreian Payne. Gasol ended the game with 27 points and one of the best all-around performances we’ve seen at Target Center, this year. The newsworthy event of the game happened in the midst of a big Grizzlies run, when KG was hit with his second technical foul and was ejected from the game. Bennett Salvatore saw Garnett slam the ball on the ground and interpreted that as showing up the ref. According to Flip after the game, KG was mad at himself. In any case, the fans who came out to see KG play only got 2.5 quarters of it. He was done for the night. The technical foul call seemed unnecessary, putting it mildly, but it was also an embarrassing look for Garnett, who is here right now primarily for veteran leadership.
The early portion of the third quarter was disappointing, because the Wolves allowed themselves to be bullied by aggressive defense. That changed when Andrew Wiggins started attacking, drawing a pair of fouls that sent him to the free throw line. Payne also helped turn the game’s momentum by crashing the offensive glass. He kept two possessions alive that ended in Wolves points. The defense tightened up when Gorgui was assigned Gasol, and the Wolves turned a 15-point deficit into a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter. Payne’s stint following the Garnett ejection was the best ball he’s played in his short Wolves tenure. There is a lot that I don’t like about how his game looks right now (funky shooting form, poor defensive awareness, turnover prone) but when he simplified his approach and crashed the boards, he was effective.
Memphis pulled the game out down the stretch, largely because Gasol was such a difficult one-on-one matchup. He only missed 3 shots all night. Gorgui drew a “hooking” foul on one Gasol post up, which led to Marc getting a technical of his own. After that, Gasol knew he was getting the benefit of the doubt star treatment, and sure enough Gorgui was whistled for light contact on the next possession. Kevin Martin hit a pair of threes to make things interesting, but missed a third one — wide open after he head faked in the corner — that would’ve likely forced overtime.
Now that this team has (most of) its health back, I don’t really think moral victories in home games are possible. They play like a good team, and good teams should expect to win at home. That’s an encouraging sign for next year. Andrew Wiggins, who I have barely mentioned, had 25 points last night and looks like he’s quickly approaching star-caliber play. With Wiggins on the wing, Rubio at point guard, and at least three solid big men between Pekovic, Gorgui, and KG, the Wolves should have high expectations from now on.
Some scattered jottings on other Wolves happenings:
* Gary Neal looked great, last night. He provided the burst of scoring off the bench that every team wants from its third guard. He finished with 16 on 4-8 shooting (3-5 from downtown).
- Before those two threes, Martin had one of his worst games in a while. He has been good since he returned to action in late January. In his 10 games leading up to last night’s, he averaged over 22 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting. Last night, he finished 5-18 from the floor, and had a game-worst (-15) plus/minus.
The Wolves’ final 24 games will involve some important auditioning for the future forward roster spots. Let’s assume that Kevin Garnett will be extended for another season or two, since that’s been widely reported and makes logical sense for the purpose that they traded for him. But KG is not a real starting player – he can’t play that many minutes or even a full season’s slate of games.
After KG, for possible power forward minutes, they have Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne, and Robbie Hummel. Nobody thinks Hummel has starting power forward potential (not even me, one of his biggest fans) and he is an unrestricted free agent too. It’s unclear if the Wolves will bring him back, but I think he serves a useful role as a guy who can come in at either forward position at a moment’s notice, and provide decent bench minutes. Flip said before yesterday’s game that Hummel is eager to get back in the lineup now that his hand fracture has healed. It remains in a splint because he’s having range of motion problems, and he was seen shooting left handed shots before last night’s game. Flip also mentioned a conversation he had with Hummel’s agent on Friday. I’m sure he’s worried about what the future holds for a player who some might feel is on the fringe of NBA worthiness. (I personally think he’s better than a lot of NBA players, including a handful on his current team.)
Payne and Bennett have team options that the Wolves have to pick up by October 31st, else they each become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2016. Right now, the smart money is on the Wolves picking up Payne’s ’16-17 option for two reasons: (1) It’s cheap, just $2.0 Million; and (2) They just gave up a first round pick for him. They aren’t going to turn around and effectively cut ties with his future after doing that.
Bennett is a much tougher question because he has struggled this year (despite significant improvement in shooting percentage, assists and turnovers from his disastrous rookie year in Cleveland) and because his ’16-17 salary is much bigger than Payne’s. If his option is picked up, he’ll earn $7.3 Million two seasons from now. By that time, the Wolves should definitely be in a playoffs-goal mode, and they will not want to fill so much of their salary cap room with a player who cannot help them. The reason for exercising that option would be that Bennett has high potential, and that if they pick up the option they retain control of him not only for that 2016-17 season, but also his restricted free agency after his rookie contract. In other words, if he becomes a very good player, they’ll effectively be able to keep him for about 6 more years, instead of allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
Aside from the play of Bennett and his current playing-time rivals for the remainder of this season, there are other factors bearing on that team-option decision. The Wolves will have a high draft choice this summer. A lot of people expect them to draft Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky, if possible. Towns is a power forward. If they go that route, expect Bennett to be traded or at least to not have that option picked up. If the Wolves instead draft a backcourt player (D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay) then continued investment in AB makes more sense. If they draft a center, like Jahlil Okafor, it’s a closer question, because they might talk themselves into big lineups that include Gorgui Dieng at the power forward.
For the time being, Bennett is out with a leg injury and Payne is getting his audition. Unless that injury is worse than expected, I think Bennett will significant minutes upon his return.
Clippers come to town tomorrow night for what should be another competitive game. Until then.