The Wolves lost by 5 to the Blazers tonight. For a recap of sorts, I’ll do this one Good/Bad/Ugly style which is an inherently more sensible structure following a Timberwolves loss.
The Good: Everything about how the night started.
In the days leading up to tonight’s game the Timberwolves put out the word that fans should try to be in their seats early, and in time for the tribute they planned to remember Flip Saunders. By the time Tom Hanneman grabbed the mic at center court, Target Center was nearly filled to capacity. Hanny said a few words before turning it over to the jumbotron, where they showed a series of touching testimonials from both around the NBA and then within the Wolves organization. There was live music accompanying a bunch of old Flip photos and videos. The whole thing was done spectacularly well; so much so that not only were there few dry eyes in the arena stands, but on the floor as well. Karl-Anthony Towns was seen crying during the tribute, and later admitted that it may have drained some of his energy for the game.
Bravo to everybody involved in putting tonight’s events together. If you missed the FSN telecast and were not in the arena, much of the tribute is available or viewing at timberwolves.com.
Along with the Saunders tribute, the opening to the game falls decidedly in the “good” category. Whether it was due to extra hype, playing for Flip, or just sound execution of a gameplan, the Wolves first unit came out strong against the Blazers. They built an immediate 7-point lead after a couple of quick baskets from Towns. Ricky Rubio made three pull-up jumpers, and the second unit even came in and kept things rolling. The Wolves were up by 17 points late in the first quarter, and maintained a 13-point lead as late as 7:07 to play in the second.
From that point on, things just didn’t go their way.
The Bad: Coach Mitchell’s Rotations
It’s not unfair to second guess Sam Mitchell’s rotations, tonight. Zach LaVine was completely overmatched by Blazers star guard Damian Lillard (34 points on 15-24 shooting), and was left on the floor in that matchup too many times. Rubio, the Wolves best current player, came oh-so-close to a triple double (12/9/9) but for some reason played less than 32 minutes of action. (The Wolves did not play Saturday or yesterday, and do not play again tomorrow or Wednesday, so limiting his minutes does not make sense from a rest perspective.) Of backcourt players, Rubio led the Wolves in +/- (+3) and LaVine came in last (-8). The noticeable stretch when Rubio should’ve absolutely been on the floor was the opening of the fourth quarter. They had just allowed 30 third-quarter points to the Blazers, and had a chance to turn the game around (they trailed by 3 when the period began) with Dame taking a rare break. Instead, Sam continued with LaVine at the point. Instead of taking a clear chance to steal the lead with Lillard on the bench, the Wolves treaded water, trading baskets. When Rubio and Lillard checked in, about 4 minutes later, the Blazers lead had actually increased by 2. They never trailed again.
I think it’s more than fair to question why the Wolves best player, on a game that was preceded and followed by two days rest, played less than 32 minutes when his backup struggles so much, and he himself was an inch short of a triple double.
The Wolves have a bigger-picture rotation problem, in that they have too many players who expect a lot of minutes. Mitchell is struggling to find time for reserves like Shabazz Muhammad (17:22 tonight, consistent with his first two games) and Gorgui Dieng (21:06 tonight, which probably cut too much into Towns’s minutes). Somehow Andrew Wiggins only played 23:25 tonight. (His field-goal shooting continues to be a struggle, but he managed to grind out 16 hard-earned points, to go along with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He has yet to make a three-pointer. Once that starts to happen, his offense should open up a bit.) Until somebody is traded (Martin would seem like the logical candidate if long-term development is a priority; LaVine or Muhammad might become trade-block candidates if they chop down the “nucleus” to Rubio/Wiggins/Towns) this will be an ongoing struggle. But if the Wolves want to win games instead of lose them in front of capacity crowds, then Rubio should be playing more minutes than he did tonight, and LaVine — particularly as a point guard — should be playing less of them.
The Ugly: The late-game officiating
There were so many bad and/or strange calls down the stretch of this game it is hard to keep them straight. I was in the arena, which makes it more difficult to assess what is a good or bad call compared to watching on TV with instant replays and DVR-pausing and rewinding. But the first bad call — waiving off a game-tying Wiggins tip-in with 54 seconds left — seemed clearly wrong as the ball was outside the cylinder. He made a great play, the refs took it from him. Later on, there was confusion about a 24-second violation that ended with a jump ball. Later, Towns was called for a foul during a jump ball. On the last play of the game, Martin attempted a game-tying three, only to be hacked on the shot – no whistle.
I think Towns might’ve gotten away with one foul of his own amid all of this, but it was a terrible job by the refs down the stretch. Given that 2 points were directly taken from Wiggins and Martin probably would’ve made all 3 free throws based on his career percentage, it’s possible the stripes swung the outcome.
In any event, it was quite a night in remembering Flip Saunders and seeing a long game go down to the wire.
Next up is the Miami Heat on Thursday night, again at Target Center.
Season Record: 2-1