The Timberwolves never trailed in this game. If you just look at the final box score, this might seem unusual since overall there didn’t seem to be a whole lot separating these teams: the Hawks shot 49%, 46% from 3, and 81% from the line while the Wolves shot 46%, 53% from 3, and 77% from the line. Rebounds were nearly even, the Hawks had 3 more blocks and the Wolves had 4 more steals. If you want to point to any overall stat that tells the story, it’s probably turnovers, where the Wolves limited themselves to 10 while forcing 16 on the Hawks who gave up 19 points on those turnovers.
But if you look at the scores for each quarter, you can see the Wolves beat the Hawks handily in the first half, held it even in the third (a rare feat for them), and then held on in the fourth (where they were outscored 32-23) to win. Basically, this game was won in the first half, where the Wolves shot 49% plus a frankly unbelievable 63% from deep while the Hawks could only muster 42% from the field and a Wolves-esque 30% from behind the arc. Throw in Kirilenko’s pair of 3s down the stretch …
… plus Dante Clutchingham’s impressive jumper and steal sequence that iced the game …
… there you have it.
So let’s play Little Things, Big Things, Other Things.
Pretty quickly when Rubio checked into the game, he attempted a signature Ricky pass, reaching his arm way out to the side around the defender, looking to bounce the pass to a diving Pek with a healthy dose of English. Except it bounced off John Jenkins and trickled into the backcourt.
So Rubio scooped the ball back up, then went right back and tried it again with Pek. This time, the ball snaked through and got Pek to the basket where he was fouled on the shot by Teague.
It was kind of reminiscent of those times when a player will take a jumpshot that misses and the rebound comes right back to him. The feedback that told him why he missed it—too much arm, not enough leg—is right there in him at that moment, so he lines it up and drills it.
Rubio has often looked a step slow this season, like he can’t eke out that extra sliver of space that lets him deliver on those threaded passes, so it was great to see him blow it and then get right back on the horse to try again.
Time and again after the game, everyone from acting head coach Terry Porter to Kirilenko to Williams to Pekovic talked about how the way they started this game was a direct result of the way they finished their last game against Portland.
Porter said, “We talked about it pregame, just building on what we did against Portland in the last 8 minutes. Coming out with a lot more aggressiveness, more focus offensively and being more sharp offensively. We did a great job of moving their defense and getting more chances to attack them after moving the ball from side-to-side.”
Kirilenko echoed him, saying, “Before the game, we were talking: last game we came in and we start slow. I think tonight, right from the beginning we were in an aggressive mode. We start attacking and playing defense and we got that lead right away,” and Williams added, “In the Blazer game, the fourth quarter gave us a little more momentum into this game.”
It’s worth noting because as casual (or even pretty serious) watchers of basketball games, it’s easy to fall into viewing each game as its own sovereign event. We watch a game, draw our conclusions, and then move on with our lives. When the next one comes up, we might remember the last one, but for us there’s a certain inherent lack of continuity.
But for the team itself, for the players and coaching staff, this is their job. The games are the visible manifestation of their work, but between each game they’re still on the job. So while we see a failed comeback against the Blazers as any number of things—an indictment of coaching strategies, a failure of starters to step up, a sad referendum on how much the team needs a closer—the team can learn something simpler from it: come out strong. Now of course there’s more to coming out strong than just deciding it. But a loss like the one to the Blazers helps make that decision easier the next game, helps put the whole team on the same page.
The other big thing here was pretty simple: This game showed how you need balance, a sympathetic push-pull between your long-range shooting and your post game to make both parts work. When I asked Williams about his success shooting the 3 (3-5 in this game, 53.8% over the last five games), he said, “It’s really helping that Pek is holding his own down there on the block and it’s really helping all of us get open for 3-point shots.”
And then when Pek was asked about his success down low (25 pts, a career-high 18 rebs), he said, “I mean, you hit a few—only a few—3-pointers, they make my life easier. Then they must contest them, they must close out on them. They get space. If they’re missing everything, it’s going to be a long night.”
This is not rocket science. Shooters making 3s opens up the paint. Big men working down low opens up the arc. And players like Williams making their shots opens up lanes for them to get to the basket. Check out these two Williams baskets, first a 3-pointer and the second a driving layup:
When he hesitated on the first shot, I was sure it wasn’t going down. But you can see Pachulia’s closeout is pretty lackluster, and Williams drills it. On the second play, he’s established himself as enough of a shooting threat that he can get by Tolliver and to the hoop.
It seems simple, but it’s deceptively difficult to get these oppositional things working in balance on a consistent basis. But Williams averred that shooting—both good and bad—can spread like a disease. “If everybody’s missing shots it can be a little contagious, but I just tried to come in and knock down some shots I know I could make,” he said. “As long as we stay contagious, it’ll be all right.”
In other news, I finally got a look at Pek’s new tattoo, which is the reason he’s been wearing a compression sleeve. It’s a pretty giant grizzly bear on its hind legs that covers his left forearm, which is itself a pretty giant forearm. It looks not unlike this. Asked about it after the game, he explained, “It’s a big scary animal.”