You can see pretty easily where things started to work for the Timberwolves in this game by looking at this handy game flow chart, courtesy of ESPN.com.
First, the bad news: Obviously, neither teamed scored 140 points.
But what you can see looking at the first half is a kind of desultory climb up the mountain of this game. Calling what Minnesota did in the second quarter “jumping out” to take the lead is a disgrace to the art of jumping. They nudged. Maybe they jostled out to a lead. But they held it.
And if you’ve been following this season’s Wolves closely, you probably expected their resolve to wilt in the second half as they failed to stem the tide of a comeback by the other team. But you’ve forgotten an important thing: the other team is the Detroit Pistons.
In the third quarter, the Wolves went 7-9 from long range, which would be pretty ridiculous even if this team were not averaging a league-worst 29% from the arc this season. Of the Wolves’ prodigious shooting from distance, Detroit coach Lawrence Frank said, “Of those 14 3-pointers, how many were contested? Not many. We just had so many defensive breakdowns tonight. We let them hit some shots and gain some confidence, and then we just left them wide-open all night.”
I can see how Frank is maybe trying to use this game to teach his team about closing out on shooters, but it’s hilarious to think that just because the Wolves get open 3-point looks they’re going to make them. We know better than that.
But somehow last night it worked for them. Beating Detroit meant that Minnesota won back-to-back road games by more than 20 points for the first time in team history. What does that mean? Nothing, really, especially since those wins were bookends by a terrible home loss to a very physical Bulls team.
The biggest takeaway from this game for me was how important Budinger can be to this team. He’s obviously still rounding into form with his shooting touch (just 2-9 from the field, 1-4 from 3), but look at this play from early in the fourth quarter:
It comes out of one of my favorite sets for the Wolves, where the two bigs set staggered screens down low for one of the wings while the other curls around the screens and the point guard sets up on the opposite side. We’ve seen this work well with Kirilenko distributing the ball, but here, it’s Shved who’s got it. Budinger curls around the screen, but what really caught my attention was how he kept going through the play, even when at first it looked like it hadn’t worked
Khris Middleton (32) chases Budinger all the way around and Viacheslav Kravtsov (55) steps out to impede Budinger’s progress into the paint. Budinger easily could have broken the play off here:
… and stepped back out to get the ball and reset beyond the arc. But he keeps curling around until Kravtsov makes the mistake of shading back to his own man.
Now, Budinger didn’t make the shot, but that’s still a very good play. Budinger knows how to play in Adelman’s system, and this is some very clear evidence of it. When he was taking 3-pointers, they were the right ones, and several times he put the ball on the floor and got to the hoop easily when the opening was there.
His return also restores some balance to the roster. I know we’ve been talking about Budinger’s return for a while now and that some people have felt his impact on the team as a guy who comes off the bench has been overestimated. But while Gelabale has done yeoman’s work on the floor, he’s rarely looked to score. He’s been a placeholder, which is what this team has needed while dealing with copious injuries.
But Budinger adds a legitimate scorer to the bench unit. With a bench lineup that consists of Barea, Shved, Cunningham and Stiemsma, this team should feel a lot better about having Budinger be the fifth guy on the floor versus Gelabale. Nominally, Gelabale and Budinger play the same position, but they do not play the same role, and increasingly in the NBA, building a team is less about positionality than it is about roles. Having Budinger back is a step towards rebalancing the roles for the Timberwolves.
Everything is not in its right place. But a few more of the jigsaw pieces are falling into place.