Timberwolves 120, Wizards 98: Down the stretch they start…
For weeks, I’ve been banging the drum of waiting for the turn in the schedule. While inconsistencies have teased our basketball hearts and frustrations have mounted, I’ve preached patience and perspective in this 82-game campaign. Their early schedule was pretty brutal. Lots of back-to-backs on the road and against really good teams. Lots of one game home “stretches” that required a ton of weird travel. The strength of schedule has been tough as well. Heading into tonight’s game against the Washington Wizards, the Wolves are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the third toughest schedule this season.
Of the top 10 toughest schedules in the NBA, only the Golden State Warriors (17-13), Phoenix Suns (17-10), Oklahoma City Thunder (23-5), and San Antonio Spurs (23-7) have winning records despite their tough slate to begin the season. The Wolves had the next best record of the bunch at 13-15. They have been treading water and avoiding going under, even though their inconsistent play has been driving a lot of fans and people around the area crazy. The stink of 10 sad years of basketball has been unfairly placed on this current version of the Wolves, not properly resetting expectations and feelings of what this roster is in the process.
Tread water and get to the much easier stretch of games in January. Then we find out what this team is truly made of for the rest of this season.
The Wolves’ 120-98 win over the Wizards Friday night doesn’t make me right for trying to be patient. That’s not the point of this game recap. Back in November, the Wolves played the Wizards in Washington, D.C. and allowed them to run all over Minnesota in the second half of the game. The Wolves dropped one of the easier games in the early part of their tough schedule; something that has driven Wolves fans a little crazy during the first two months. It’s games like those that we could look back on in April and wonder why they had to drop that contest. It could be the type of game that keeps them out of the playoffs when we get to mid-April.
Correcting mistakes like that is part of the process. We saw the Wolves do it against the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this year — unacceptable road loss to a team that should be beneath them, followed up by a trouncing when they came to the Target Center. The Wolves managed to keep that trend going with a win over the Wizards in convincing fashion. The Wolves were rusty early and down 9-0 in the first 2:30 of the game. The groans started to come out, almost a reflex at this point. Then they got their excrement together.
The Wolves took control of the game the rest of the first quarter (despite ending it down 23-22) and then dominated with a 39-point second quarter. For once, the Wolves found a second unit that is less productive than their own and took full advantage of them. JJ Barea had a great game and Alexey Shved had his best game of the season. He was able to build on his solid play as of late with a Friday performance that was his most active so far. That’s mostly what you need out of him and Barea — activity.
But we knew just a solid half of basketball from the Wolves wouldn’t be enough. It wasn’t enough the first time these two teams met.
“You know, I wish I had an answer for it,” Rick Adelman said after the game when asked about if he felt the team had been impatient on offense as of late. “We’ve looked at the tape; we’ve looked at everything. This group… every group you have is different. But this group just seemed to be there rolling along, so that’s why I was concerned at halftime. We were 14 points up.
I said, ‘now we’ve seen this before. Suddenly, they get a couple baskets. We start going one-on-one. We don’t stay disciplined.’ Yeah, it’s been a real trait of this team and we’ve got to figure that out. We cannot… we just roll along and then boom. We hit a wall and a lot of that is we don’t have guys who can break you down off the dribble. We don’t have somebody like that, so the ball’s got to move as a group. That’s how we’re going to be effective, especially now that Pek’s going. He’s a load inside but we’ve got to have other people doing the right thing for him to get open.”
This is the lesson the Wolves have been trying to learn: build on the strong play. Too often, they seem to take their foot off the pedal and it allows teams to get back into the game and even take control of the game. They’re not the only team to do it; that kind of stuff happens all the time in the NBA with both good and bad teams. The key is being resilient to the run and finding a way to come back at the opponent to reestablish your superiority. The Wolves did that against the Wizards on Friday.
An even third quarter put the team in position to weather the storm of John Wall and his cohorts before stomping the competition in the fourth quarter. Minnesota has been killer in the first quarter of games this season (second best net rating in the NBA), pretty average in the second (14th) and third (13th) quarters, and horrendous in the fourth quarters (28th) of games this season. Friday night, the Wolves survived a shaky first, pounced in the second, played them to a standstill in the third, and capitalized in the fourth to put the game away.
The Wolves were able to keep the minutes down for the starters (Love for 32, Pek for 34, and Rubio, Martin, and Brewer all under 30 minutes). Nobody in the starting lineup recorded a single turnover; the Wolves set their season best for lowest turnovers at four. The team took care of the ball, remained active, and made a ton of free throws to go with a high percentage of made shots. This was the response you wanted to see against a Wizards team that just isn’t in the same class as the Wolves as of right now.
That’s where we get back to the schedule. If this Wolves team is any good (and by that I mean playoff good, which I believe they are), then this stretch of games until the end of December is something they will take advantage of as long as they’re relatively healthy. They have short travel to Milwaukee Friday night to play the Bucks on a second night of a back-to-back for both teams (Bucks lost in Brooklyn Friday night). They’re home for the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. They’re home for the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday and then stay home for a Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder team on Saturday.
After that, the Wolves go to Philadelphia before heading home for the Suns and Bobcats. They go to San Antonio before coming home for the Kings. The 17th and 18th, they have their first back-to-back since the Wizards-Bucks tandem, but it comes in Toronto and then home against the Jazz. Three days later they’ll play in Utah before heading to Oakland, Portland (back-to-back after Warriors) and then to Chicago (weird travel wrinkle). They’ll finish off January with home games against the Pelicans and Grizzlies.
Realistically, the Wolves could go somewhere around 14-4 in this stretch (counting the Wizards win) and catapult themselves well into the playoff picture. This is a stretch that helps them find their rhythm, their continuity, and their identity as a team in both the starting lineup and the second unit. Any patience thrown the way of the Wolves’ season thus far could be rewarded with them cutting out the crap of expecting to beat teams and just going out there to take care of business. Very few back-to-backs coming up and a healthy dose of home games. They’re also not facing a lot of teams that are better than them over the next month.
Now we get to see how good this team is. I don’t think we’ve had the proper slate to find out before this moment. It doesn’t mean they are or aren’t good. It means the season is still a mystery that could unfold before our very eyes over the next 34 days. It’s exciting to finally find out what this is all about and whether or not 10 years of stink actually still applies to these jerseys.