During Friday night’s stunning win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rick Adelman talked about how he was happy to see that the team didn’t have any lulls throughout their game. It was a reason they were able to match the runs the Thunder went on. It was the reason they were able to topple a more talented team. If you can stay even keeled throughout the course of a game, you’re almost always going to be in great shape to win that game. It’s hard for even the toughest teams to do because the peaks and valleys that occur in the NBA are so commonplace.
Against the Thunder, it didn’t happen to be a problem. Against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday night, that was the Wolves’ undoing. The final score makes the game look like a typical Grizzlies’ blowout of their lesser opponents, but really this was a highly competitive game. Without Nikola Pekovic and without Kevin Love, the Wolves had the daunting task of trying to handle the tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph inside. And I was actually quite impressed with what we saw from the undersized Wolves.
Zach Randolph is one of the best low post scorers in the NBA and he was being guarded by Derrick Williams. Marc Gasol is one of the best overall big men in the NBA and he was being defended by Greg Stiemsma. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Impressively, it wasn’t a disaster at all. Z-Bo finished with 14 points on 11 shots and just seven rebounds. He didn’t have a single offensive rebound, despite leading the NBA in total offensive rebounds and being 14th in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage. Williams was physical with him, bodied him up whenever he needed to, and took advantage of his quickness to make up for his lack of strength.
Gasol had a much better game than Z-Bo. He finished with 21 points on 12 shots, eight rebounds, six assists, and three blocked shots. And yet, I thought Stiemer played him incredibly well. He played a career-high 40 minutes, scored efficiently, had a nice effort battling on the boards, protected the rim pretty well, and was disruptive most of the time. The Wolves’ frontcourt was able to hold their own individually with the Grizzlies’ bigs, and for much of the game the Wolves led.
But the two moments that were the major deciding factors in this game happened at the start of the third quarter and the start of the fourth quarter.
For the first 5:17 of the third quarter, the Wolves held the Grizz to just six points on six shots and forced four turnovers. That’s an incredible start to a quarter against a team that is fighting for the 3-seed in the West and also boasts the best third quarter net differential in the NBA. The problem is the Wolves didn’t score during that first 5:17. Didn’t score at all. And that’s what Memphis does to you. They clamp down defensively, grit and grind (sometimes simultaneously), and they capitalize on your concentration lapses.
The second moment was the first 5:19 of the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies went on a 16-2 run. This was fueled entirely by Memphis’ bench unit of Jerryd Bayless, Austin Daye, Quincy Pondexter, Ed Davis, and Darrell Arthur. It didn’t matter what the Wolves threw at them; they just managed the game perfectly and took down what was in front of them. Granted, there were moments in which the Wolves got good shots and just flat-out missed them. However, the bench unit for the Grizzlies took advantage of whatever favors they did for themselves or had done for them by the Wolves.
The Wolves aren’t going to make the playoffs this season (officially eliminated with 10 games left to play and being 11 games behind the 8th seeded Utah Jazz), but they probably lead the league in moral victories (for whatever that’s worth). And that’s just the kind of season this has to be. Despite the scoring lull in the first few minutes of the third and fourth quarters, I was incredibly impressed by the Wolves over the stretch of what we saw against the Thunder and the first 37 minutes of what we saw against Memphis. These are two of the toughest teams in the league, with very different styles, and Minnesota hung with them.
I don’t think we have to wonder “what if” with a tear streaming down our collective cheek. We can see this is a good team. Since AK, Pek, and Chase came back, we’ve seen incredible growth with the Wolves. Is it enough? It’s not enough to satisfy the collective because it’s frustrating seeing how well this team can play, think about adding the best player back, and knowing this is a playoff team. I had my doubts at the beginning of the season, but I think it’s pretty obvious the talent is there to be a top-8 team in the West. You see the difference with the combinations the Wolves can play when relatively healthy.
I’ve often wondered about the core of Love, Pek, and Rubio, but really the core should include Kirilenko, Chase, and Derrick as well. And from there, it’s figuring out between Luke or Barea, how to keep Cunningham and Stiemsma, and how to develop Shved. While the battles are hard to win right now, I think you can see the strategy moving forward and it’s promising to me.
Final random thoughts on the game:
- Jerryd Bayless had a pretty incredible game, even though he didn’t make a shot. He set the table for Memphis on offense, got to the free throw line, and he was annoying to the Wolves on defense most of the time.
- Ricky Rubio is playing out of his mind right now. Since Budinger returned to the lineup, Rubio’s numbers are 15.1 points per game, 8.1 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals, 2.6 turnovers, 43.8% from the field, 44.4% from 3-point range, and 84.4% from the line (on 6.4 attempts). He’s adopted a scorer’s mentality as of late and he’s accomplishing this feat with pretty good efficiency. By the way, their offense with him on the court is humming at a 104.9 and his true shooting percentage is 57.1%.
- I thought Barea was great in the first half of this game. He set a great tone for the offense and got his teammates great shots they couldn’t knock down. There was a chaotic cadence to it, that I likened to someone winning at Mortal Kombat by just mashing buttons.
- I’m concerned with how little Kirilenko is involved in games lately. I don’t think he’s all that healthy, although his defense has still been really good. He just doesn’t have enough energy to give to both sides of the floor, it seems.
- Dante Cunningham’s hand looked like it was bothering him. A day after knocking down a bunch of jumpers, he just couldn’t get anything to fall.
- Adelman is three wins shy of 1,000. We know there is concern with him not returning next season because of the health of his wife, so just in case he isn’t around, I’d love for him to get those three wins in the Wolves’ final 10 games just to see him do what only seven other coaches have done. The struggles with the team and health have soured his two seasons here so far, but I’m incredibly happy I’ve been able to witness his coaching during this time.