Beating Bulls & Hawks, Wolves Reshape Hopes…Expectations?

On Saturday the Timberwolves won in overtime at Chicago. They beat a Bulls team that won 50 games last season, and had just beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder the night before, in the primetime TNT game. Andrew Wiggins had 31 points. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks. This came as a surprise, as the Wolves had just lost a one-sided affair on their home court to the Miami Heat and did not show signs of being able to compete with the likes of the Bulls, especially on the road.

Tonight, the Timberwolves won at Atlanta. The Hawks won SIXTY games last season, and came into tonight’s contest with a 7-1 record; the best in the East. This morning in his weekly power rankings, Marc Stein of ESPN listed them third in the NBA. This time Wiggins had 33 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He dominated crunchtime on offense. Karl-Anthony Towns again had 17 points, this time with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. He dominated crunchtime on defense.

Just four nights after that expectations-lowering egg they laid on Target Center floor against the Heat, the Timberwolves have fans excited again.

Not about the future, we’re pumped about the future no matter what. Eventually, a team with this much talent will be good. But fans are going to be excited about the present – the basketball being played right now – if this Wolves team can go on the road and win at Chicago and Atlanta in back-to-back games. They’ll be doubly excited if these wins are coming on the backs of Wiggins and Towns (and Rubio, whose overall play continues to lead the team) instead of the older vets like Prince, Martin and Garnett. The vets are helping, don’t get me wrong, but the heavy lifting is being done by the Timberwolves that figure to be here for many more years.

This game tonight in Atlanta was a crazy one, as everybody who watched it knows. The Wolves played FLAWLESS basketball in the first half and led by a whopping 30 points at the break. Seriously, it’s hard to emphasize enough how perfectly the Wolves were playing on both ends of the floor. Along with the usual defense and passing from Rubio, scoring from Wiggins, and the interior presence of Towns, the Wolves were getting unexpected contributions all over the place; nowhere more significant or unexpected than Zach LaVine who might’ve played better than any of his teammates through halftime.

While some type of Hawks comeback was plenty foreseeable, I think most would’ve expected Atlanta to show some veteran pride, cut the Wolves lead down to 15 or even 10, before running out of gas before the game got too close.

Not how it went.

Atlanta blew the Timberwolves off the floor in the third-quarter (42 to 21), dramatically upping their defensive pressure (to the point that they were probably committing fouls, and certainly daring the Wolves to attack the hoop, which they didn’t) and increasing their offensive focus and intensity to generate the efficient shots that they’re known for taking. The Wolves lead — at one time as high as 34-points — was eventually eliminated completely. The Hawks even led by a point with three and a half minutes left in the game after a Paul Millsap layup.

It was after that bucket, and that ever-so-brief Hawks advantage, that Andrew Wiggins took matters into his own hands.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 10.03.14 PMThe story of how this lead was blown, and how it was rebuilt, is a pretty simple one. The Hawks were playing balls-out perimeter defense, daring the Timberwolves to blow past them and challenge their defense in the paint. Instead of doing that, the Wolves — particularly their second unit backcourt players — played soft with the ball, looking horizontally instead of vertically, and turned the ball over before frantically trying to stop more Hawks points. There were times on offense when it seemed LaVine or Muhammad almost handed the ball right to a Hawk. There were times on defense when two Wolves were defending the same player, before the Hawks even began attempting to run a play. The Hawks crowd was into it, the refs were letting em play, and the Wolves were folding up under pressure.

This changed suddenly, late in the game, when the offense began to run exclusively through Wiggins. Instead of looking sideways, he looked at the hoop, and started blowing past his man and either scoring himself, or drawing fouls, or finding open teammates. (That one Prince miss in the pictured play-by-play came off of a beautiful Wiggins feed.) Wiggins was unstoppable, scoring 7 crucial points in a 4-possession stretch from 3:10 through 1:30 to play in the game. After that, and some Hawks temper flares (Jeff Teague either slapped or punched Nemanja Bjelica, and was amazingly called for no foul whatsoever, let alone the mandatory ejection) the victory was in hand.

It’s hard to overstate how nice it is to see a WINNING TIME performance like this. Without getting too corny about it, this two-sided crunchtime play is a testament to Flip Saunders and his vision that he articulated right after the trade that landed Wiggins. He talked about getting guys who do it on both ends, and it sure seems like that’s exactly what he’s got – not only with Wiggins but also with Towns. While Wiggins was knocking down shots and dunking over Hawks, Towns was walling up drive lanes, and — if the opponent was feeling foolish — swatting shots away, with authority.

This is an exciting time to be a Wolves fan. When I asked Ricky at Media Day if he felt this team could surprise people, he didn’t agree with the phrasing. He said that he felt this team could be good, but that it wouldn’t be a surprise; as if to say, this team should be expected to win games. (Nevermind the gamblers out in Vegas who pegged their wins over/under at just 25.5, which is about half the wins they’d need to make the playoffs in the West.) Ricky mentioned the recent Suns team that surprised the league with 48 wins as an example that he felt this group could follow.

This makes sense, in some ways, because the Wolves have always played competitive basketball when Rubio is healthy. From a feet-on-the-court perspective, Ricky doesn’t really relate to terrible basketball performance. That’s the one thought I can never escape when trying to estimate what might be possible for this group. Now that Wiggins and Towns are blossoming into stars before our eyes, it’s easy to get pumped.

A few bullets to wrap this up:

  • Mitchell continues to limit Rubio’s minutes. Tonight, despite the meltdown taking place in the 3rd Quarter with LaVine leading the second unit, Mitchell kept Ricky on the bench for an extended stretch. He subbed in Andre Miller for his first serious minutes of the season to try to get things under control. Rubio ended the game with just 27:29 of action. In that time he had 10 points, 8 assists and 3 steals in +4 action.
  • LaVine played outstanding in the first half. He scored and passed and played decent defense. Mitchell explains that this is going to be a long process with LaVine, and he’s probably right. Every great performance is nice to see.
  • Shabazz did not respond well to the Hawks pressure defense in the second half. He showed an egregious lack of basic fundamentals when, passing from the left wing to the center against pressure D, he threw it with his left hand across his body and right across the defender’s hands. That’s basic fundamentals 101, and Bazz won’t impress anybody if he makes turnovers as careless as that one was. Maybe they need to show some Robbie Hummel Basketball Skills tapes if those rotation passes don’t get crisper!
  • Bjelica continues to do things that help the Wolves as a passer, rebounder, defender, and shooter. Tonight, one of the few things that went right during the 3rd and early 4th was Bjelica hitting a couple deep treys. A dead horse I find worth beating is that he too often catches a pass open behind the three line, but instead of shooting he fakes, shuffles his feet, and then drives. The Wolves need more floor spacing than they need more turnovers. Shoot it Bjelly! They don’t call you Professor Big Shots for committing stupid traveling violations. But overall, he’s been good and it’s nice to have a 4 man who can log big minutes. That was a question mark entering this season.
  • Kevin Martin was great in the first half, when he was red hot shooting. He was bad in the second half, when his soft, prioritizing-weak-foul-draws style was punished instead of rewarded.
  • Wolves come home and play again tomorrow night against the Charlotte Hornets. Let’s all show up and give Al Jefferson a welcoming cheer during intros, and then see another Wolves win.

Until then.

Season Record: 4-2

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