Combining a little bit of opponent-injury luck, a shorter playing rotation, and a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves have won two games in a row against playoff-bound competition. On Wednesday night, playing in ESPN’s late-game slot, the Wolves beat the LA Clippers at Staples Center. This came fresh on the heels of a very disappointing loss in the same arena to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers. The 108-102 victory over the Clips is less impressive than it first seems, because Blake Griffin is sitting out with a busted hand. However, the Clips had won their 4 games heading into that matchup, and are surprisingly able to withstand an injury to Griffin due to their roster makeup, and the way Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan function as a combo, with JJ Redick spacing the floor with white-hot shooting. The Wolves won that game with late-game execution, Wiggins scoring 31 points, and Tayshaun Prince holding Redick to just 1 of 9 shooting from the field.
Last night, the Wolves were not on TV due to Minnesota’s hockey-day theme on FSN. However, it didn’t seem to matter to the Wolves’ collective effort level, as they beat the Chicago Bulls 112-105, which means a season sweep against Fred Hoiberg’s squad. As with the Clippers matchup, the Wolves opponent was battling significant injuries. Chicago has been and will remain without Joakim Noah for a long time. But last night against the Wolves they were also missing All-Star wing, Jimmy Butler. Like the Clippers, though, the Bulls are able to field a pretty strong lineup even without their best guy – they had Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavey, and Derrick Rose — whatever shell of his old self he is now — all in the lineup last night. A Wolves win was far from a foregone conclusion and didn’t necessarily seem likely, given their struggles against decent competition for much of this season.
Against the Bulls, Karl-Anthony Towns (26 points, 17 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Gorgui Dieng (24 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists (!)) did the heavy lifting. Coach Sam Mitchell played each of Dieng and Towns 41 minutes, and after the game explained that when they are both playing so well, it’s hard for other players (cough, Nemanja Bjelica, cough) to crack the rotation. Mitchell always goes out of his way to praise Dieng, and last night he said that Gorgui is ahead of KAT as a defender, because of his experience level and understanding of concepts. He also mentioned that the two State-of-Kentucky college stars have become buddies off the floor and enjoy playing with each other. Interestingly, Mitchell used three-point shooter Damjan Rudez as his backup power forward, instead of Bjelica or Adreian Payne. Bjelica logged a DNP-CD.
Wiggins started off cold, going scoreless until a jumper finally fell with 2:28 to go in the first half. He ended strong, however, sliding back into that “Go-To Guy” role that he so awesomely filled in the early part of this NBA season when the Wolves were the surprise breakout team of the league at about the 1/5-mark of the season. Wiggins scored 17 second-half points to end with 21, and hit three straight shots with under two minutes to go; the first putting the Wolves up 1, then 3, then 5, which was a dagger jumper over two Bulls defenders. As the last jumper went up, Garnett could be heard yelling “ALL DAY! ALL DAY!” from behind the Wolves bench, before the shot fell.
We’re five days from All-Star Weekend. Before that, the Wolves play against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans (Monday) and the Toronto Raptors (Wednesday). Both games are at Target Center. The Pellies game is one that the Wolves can definitely win. They’re just 18-32 and have lost their past 4 games. The Raptors game will be much more difficult, and if the Wolves could somehow win it, it would rank among their best wins of the season.
A few random Wolves stats to wrap this up:
- The Wolves remain dead last in the league in three-point shooting. The make 4.9 per game. Second to last are the Bucks, who make 5.5 triples per game. Golden State makes 12.9 per game. Those 8 points (assuming the Wolves generally make a 2 when the Warriors make another 3) account for a good chunk of the two teams’ offensive-efficiency disparity. (Warriors score about 113 points per 100 possessions, whereas the Wolves score about 103.)
- Ricky Rubio gets 10.3 assists per 36 minutes. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns only get 1.9 and 1.8 per 36, respectfully. Over time, the Wolves will do better if those three share more of the playmaking duties. Part of that will require Rubio to be a player who can make shots, too.
- Towns is shooting 54 percent from the field. Wut.
- Wiggins has his game dissected more than any other Timberwolf for a number of reasons, some better than others: He was the number one pick, and with that come high expectations. He is freakishly athletic which projects a huge upside, but is only 20 years old, so he doesn’t always play well. His scoring stats are better than his non-scoring stats, which can ignite all sorts of straw-person arguments about how “highly rated” he is. Sometimes advanced-stats-only types criticize Wiggins beyond what’s reasonable for people who look at the game beyond just numbers. One area that Wiggins struggles is rebounding. He only pulls down 3.8 per game. For some athletic-wing comparisons, Jimmy Butler averages 5.2 boards per game, and Kawhi Leonard averages 6.6. Hopefully Wiggins will increase his overall activity level as he turns 21, 22, 23 years old. That’ll help both rebounding and scoring in transition. But as far as rebounding goes right now, the Wolves rebound better — both offensively and defensively — with Wiggins on the floor (25.7% offensive, 76.0% defensive) than they do when he sits out (21.7% offensive, 74.7% defensive). The Wolves actually rebound at their worst rates when Wiggins is on the bench, for whatever that’s worth. Rebounding is a team exercise, which depends on a number of factors including how much help needs to be sent at the shooter, and how well everybody boxes out their man. Since Wiggins is going to be criticized for poor individual rebounding stats, it seems only fair to point out that they rebound better with him on the court than they do when he’s off it.
- The Wolves have 3 players who are above average in both PER and win shares/48 minutes: Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, and….. Gorgui Dieng? Yes, Dieng has a PER of 16.6 and WS/48 of .116. Dieng also stands out a bit in the team’s “net rating” rankings, measuring plus-minus per 100 possessions. Rubio is the best on the team (of high-minute players) as is always the case. Prince is next, which has been documented and makes sense in some ways if you’ve watched this team. After Prince is not Towns or Wiggins, but instead is Gorgui Dieng (-2.3). (Wiggins is (-2.5) and Towns is (-2.9). This is extra impressive because Gorgui has only played 531 minutes with Rubio, whereas Wiggins and Rubio have played 1,326 together, and Rubio-KAT have 1,203 minutes on the floor together. This is some evidence in support of Mitchell’s season-long tendency to heap praise on Gorgui for doing what the coaches ask of him.
Mitchell intimated that we’ll see more of the Gorgui & KAT combo in the games to come. They probably aren’t an ideal pairing long term, but they are two of the best players on the current Timberwolves, each on his rookie-scale contract, and it makes sense to get each as much experience as possible.
Season Record: 16-36