It’s hard to tell what’s worse: how badly the Wolves were beaten on their home floor tonight by the Denver Nuggets (who had won just 3 of their previous 22 games, and accordingly just fired their coach) or the lack of a good excuse for the loss. The Wolves had yesterday off; Denver did not. The Wolves had their healthy starting five, which is supposed to be a competitive group. After jumping out to a 19-12 lead with a nice mix of Andrew Wiggins baskets leading the way, Kevin Garnett checked out of the game. There was 5:04 to play in the first quarter when Payne subbed in for KG, and the Nuggets proceeded to go on a 14-8 run to close out the quarter.
The second quarter?
Denver won that one 34 to 16. (!)
Flip got T’d up walking off the floor for halftime, just for good measure, so the Wolves trailed by 18 when the ball was first inbounded to open the second half.
And things never really got competitive. There was a stretch where Gary Neal Hero Ball looked like it might lead a comeback, and a Zach LaVine three got it within 9 at one point, but there were never enough defensive stops; specifically, there were never enough defensive rebounds. Kenneth Faried celebrated Brian Shaw’s recent termination by breaking out of a slump for 18 pounds and 14 rebounds. Jameer Nelson led a Nuggets second unit that just ran the Wolves off the floor, and – in the halfcourt, broke them down time and time again with spread pick-and-roll action. Nelson had 12 points and 9 assists off the bench in +19 action.
A telling stat was Kevin Garnett’s +5 in 21 minutes of action, compared to Gorgui Dieng’s -15 and Adreian Payne’s -12. The defensive positioning of the Wolves second-string bigs is all over the place, right now. It was much less how great KG was than it was how undisciplined his backups were. Gorgui is getting barked at by just about everybody right now; even Ricky yelled at him when he expected a ball screen that wasn’t arriving like it should. After the game, in brief remarks, Flip seemed perplexed about Gorgui, and why he is a step slow on rotations. He wondered if he was hitting a “wall,” which is tough to interpret, considering Gorgui is not a rookie and hasn’t been playing heavy minutes this year (averaging 29.1). I don’t know what has stunted Gorgui’s development after such a promising first season, but he is struggling right now in certain ways that he has not in the past.
Along with their defensive struggles, the Wolves really played poorly on offense tonight. (It was possibly the worst game of the season, if you take into consideration that they had their entire starting five healthy, at home, against a struggling opponent.) Too many possessions had Ricky stationary dribbling and Martin or Neal running around in a Kyle Korver impression. The Wolves are at their best when Rubio is creating on the move, utilizing his unique vision and passing skills. Mo Williams was perfectly capable of executing the sets the Wolves ran tonight. That was disappointing to see. Martin shot 3-15 from the field. Neal shot 6-13, converting some difficult jumpers in a game-worst batch of -19 minutes.
Rubio had a points assists double double, with the minimum 10 and 10 of each. Wiggins actually played pretty well, perhaps joining KG as the only Wolf who could say that at game’s end. He was honored before tip-off for his fourth straight “Rookie of the Month” award. His Rookie of the Year honor is an inevitability at this point, and he continues to impress with different scoring moves.
Aside from Wiggins playing well, the silver lining was tanking-related: Denver was a sneaky contender to tank the rest of the season out, having quit on their last coach and losing so many games in a row. By beating the Wolves tonight, they move 8.5 games ahead of the Wolves which is pretty much out of reach. The Wolves should finish the year with the third or fourth worst record (and therefore the third or fourth best draft lottery position) depending on whether they catch the Lakers who are 3 games ahead in the standings right now.
The Wolves play next on Saturday, against a Portland Trailblazers team that is much better than the Denver Nuggets. Flip assured the media that there’d be a much better performance next game. I guess we’ll see.