The Wolves win over the Lakers was an exciting and gratifying one for a few different reasons. It came by just one point, as Lou Williams’ shot narrowly missed at the buzzer. The Wolves trailed by double figures for much of the night, including by 15 points midway through the third quarter, and rallied for a big comeback in the fourth. Ricky Rubio had one of his best career games, scoring a career-high 28 points and dropping 14 assists next to just 1 turnover. He was clearly the game’s most valuable player and showed off a skillset that would elevate him to the bona fide stardom that many of us think is within his realistic potential.
But, of course, this win was most gratifying because of the circumstances under which it came. Flip Saunders was on everybody’s mind in the days leading up to this game, right up through the pregame routine when the Lakers wore shirts that said “FLIP” on the front, and held a long moment of silence for his memory. After the buzzer sounded, Rubio and Kevin Garnett were emotional, each pointing to the sky for an obvious reason.
Beating this Lakers team is not a big accomplishment in and of itself. Neither of the teams playing tonight will realistically contend for the playoffs in the West. But after arguably the toughest week in the history of the franchise, it felt appropriate to get this win, and that’s what the Wolves did.
Since it’s (very) late, these are a few quick reactions of mine to this game:
- Ricky Rubio is the big story. He made jumpers, driving layups, great passes, and — as always — played great defense. There is not much else to say beyond, “Let’s hope it continues!”
- The Wolves second unit was atrocious in the second half of the first quarter. The Wolves led 17-10 with 5:13 left in the first when Shabazz checked in for Wiggins and LaVine checked in for Rubio. Shortly before this, Bjelica checked in for KG and Martin checked in for Prince. Shortly after this, Towns was replaced by Gorgui. The Lakers proceeded to end that quarter on a 21-5 run, leading by 9 after one. On offense, there was no passing. On defense, nobody had a clue – it felt like watching last year’s team. This group collectively played much better in the 2nd Half, when Martin drew a whole bunch of fouls (he finished with 23 points in large part due to 11-12 free throws), Shabazz had a stretch of buckets (10 points on 3-5 shooting in 19 minutes), and they took their defensive assignments much more seriously.
- Kevin Garnett was doing his bully routine on Lakers basically-still-a-rookie forward, Julius Randle. This was fun to watch because Randle has the look of a #BMF and had no interest in backing down from Garnett. You might have seen recently when he had a similar encounter with KG’s rival for league’s best trash talker, Draymond Green. In any event, KG’s intensity was a game saver for the Wolves tonight, it helped turn the momentum in their direction more than once. Garnett tied Rubio for the game’s best plus-minus (+12) and it came in under 13 minutes of action. We can only hope that youngsters Wiggins and Towns can learn this intensity while they live and work with it, because KG can’t play nearly enough minutes to make a season-long impact. But when he’s out there, he’s still good.
- Andrew Wiggins had a poor game and was apparently bothered by back soreness. He drifted around on offense for most of the night, and when the Wolves tried to force feed him the ball, he resorted to difficult, contested two-point jumpers that almost never went in. He made a few nice offensive plays down the stretch to draw fouls, including a great baseline cut that Rubio was happy to accommodate with a brilliant pass. Instead of the Rudy Gay isolation stuff, Wiggins would be smart to develop chemistry with Rubio who could set him up for much easier, more efficient shots. On defense, he did a solid job defending Kobe down the stretch. Bryant missed a lot of shots, helping ensure his team’s fate.
- Karl-Anthony Towns had a really solid NBA debut. He had 14 efficient points and pulled down 12 rebounds in 31:53 of +4 action. He goes hard after rebounds on both ends of the floor. More than once, his work on the offensive glass was rewarded not with any statistics but with possession-saving fouls committed by opposing Lakers. Towns dove on the floor and called a late-game timeout. He stuck a turnaround fadeaway of the KG variety, right in front of Garnett cheering on the bench. He was pumped up after the game, interviewed by Marney Gellner. All in all, Towns had a very positive first showing.
- The second unit has a great deal of difficulty defending ball screens. In the second half, Mitchell put Martin on the point guard, which seemed to be less bad than LaVine on the front spot. But they double team too often when it shouldn’t be required, and sometimes when Gorgui hedges, he allows the dribbler to go around him – meaning two Timberwolves allowed one opponent to dribble through for 5 on 3. Not good. The Wolves first unit has a much easier time, primarily because of Rubio and — when he’s out there, KG.
I’m sure I left a bunch of things out, but those came off the top of my head, reviewing the box score. Up next are the Nuggets at Denver on Friday, and then the Blazers at Target Center on Monday. Those are both winnable games, so it’s possible the Wolves could get some nice momentum going if they can pull out another win or two in the next few days.
This one was fun, though. #RIPFlip
Season Record: 1-0