No one expected much from the Timberwolves on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, where they were set to play the red-hot Thunder, winners of 11 of 12 coming in. Not only had Minnesota played the night before, the starters logging big minutes in a closer-than-it-needed-to-be victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, but Corey Brewer would miss the game (for the happiest of reasons – his son was born on Tuesday), and Nikola Pekovic would again sit due to his (ongoing) ankle bursitis issues. Twenty minutes before tip, it was confirmed that Kevin Love, the conduit through which the entire Wolves’ offense flows, would not dress due to a stiff neck. The writing was on the wall: Wednesday night would be a loss.
When the Love news came down, all I could think about were the new, interesting lineup possibilities and offensive strategies Rick Adelman could employ for the game. Maybe I’m desperate for silver linings, but once I conceded the (likely) loss, I shifted my focus to the little things – would Luc Richard Mbah a Moute get extended minutes? How about Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad? Would Kevin Martin shoot 40 times? Had Robbie Hummel, who’s been wearing suits for a while now, remembered to bring his uniform on the road trip?
Of course, the Timberwolves certainly didn’t behave as though a loss was a foregone conclusion. On the contrary – led by Ricky Rubio, Dante Cunningham and J.J. Barea, Minnesota managed to nearly enter the 4th quarter in the midst of a tie game (more on that later). Rubio, who’s attempted 10 or more field goals in fewer than a third of his career games, tallied 10 field goal attempts in the first quarter alone en route to a 19 point, 8 rebound, 5 assist performance. Cunningham had perhaps his best statistical game as a Timberwolf: 18 points (on 9-of-13 shooting), 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots in 42 minutes. Despite ‘Ham’s heavier-than-usual workload, he still played solid defense and brought his usual amount of hustle and hunger. J.J. Barea was good J.J. Barea, with 11 points and 4 assists in 15 minutes. Ronny Turiaf blocked 4 shots and is averaging 2.5 of those per game since he began playing starters’ minutes.
The Timberwolves trailed by just 2 points (56-54) at half thanks in large part to their ability to take care of the ball (3 first half turnovers) and the Thunder’s inability to hold onto it (11 first half turnovers, which led to 13 Minnesota points). It stayed close throughout the 3rd, thanks to the even distribution of wealth among the starters (everyone scored) and the defensive strength of a lineup featuring four good defenders (Rubio, Turiaf, ‘Ham, LRMAM).
The real turning point came in two sequences – the final play of the 3rd quarter, and the first play of the 4th quarter. Two Alexey Shved free throws with 8 seconds to go in the 3rd tied things up at 77, and Oklahoma City had the ball for the final shot. Derek Fisher airballed a three, but then Gorgui Dieng did something I can’t quite explain (just watch the video). Then, to open the 4th, Chase Budinger fouled Jeremy Lamb in the act of shooting a three (which went in), leading to a 4-point-play opportunity. The Thunder didn’t cash in, but the entire sequence spelled the beginning of the end for Minnesota.
The end of the end was authored by Reggie Jackson, whose 7 points and 5 assists in the game’s final frame kept the Wolves at bay. Kevin Durant had a quiet night, by his recent standards – 26 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists – “only” a near triple double. Minnesota helped off of others to double Durant and attempt to frustrate him, to get the ball out of his hands, but to no avail. Watching Kevin Love on a nightly basis is one thing, but what Durant, the likely league MVP, is doing this season is nothing short of performance art.
The other main talking point to address is the play of the Timberwolves’ rookies, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. When the news of Love’s absence hit, many wondered aloud whether Shabazz would get a long look against the Thunder, and some openly lobbied for it. They were, of course, frustrated by Adelman, who’s stuck to a familiar script when it comes to the first-year man out of UCLA: only garbage time, for him.
Muhammad was drafted based on his pedigree and potential, and is stuck behind a deep group at the wing positions. Dieng, on the other hand, was drafted because he’s NBA-ready – shot blockers can get minutes, period, and especially when a team’s starting center is missing time. Gorgui had a rough night – aside from the gaffe at the end of the 3rd quarter, he committed three fouls and a turnover in 7 minutes on the floor. Though Muhammad scored 6 points (on 3-of-5 shooting) he behaved a bit like a ball-stopper (a huge faux pas in Adelman’s system) and was less-than-impressive on the defensive end.
Through 49 games, the indelible impression I’ve been left with is that Gorgui wants nothing more than to make the right play within the system, whenever he’s on the court. Muhammad hits the floor and wants to attack in an attempt to prove something. That doesn’t make Shabazz selfish – just young. These games aren’t referendums on either rookie – they’re merely part of the evolutionary process of each guy. It’s tempting to draw grand conclusions about both of them, but that would be a mistake – especially when it comes to Shabazz, who plays rarely, and briefly when he does.
The silver lining to this game was seeing the role players get extended time, and that some of them excelled in the process. It was fun, and even a bit refreshing, to see a shorthanded Wolves team give the Thunder a good fight. But as the Grateful Dead proclaimed, “every silver lining’s got a touch of gray.” A loss is a loss, and Minnesota, falling backwards in the playoff hunt (now 4.5 games out of the 8th seed), can’t afford any more nights of silver linings.