Timberwolves 104, Pacers 91: Optimists Primed
Even the most optimistic Timberwolves fan probably didn’t expect the hometown squad to dominate one of the top teams in the NBA as thoroughly as Minnesota dominated Indiana on Wednesday night. True, the Pacers were on the second night of a back-to-back, and the Wolves were fresh after having a full week off thanks to the All-Star break. But this is Indiana we’re talking about, owners of a 41-12 record (at the beginning of the night), rolling along with the game’s next superstar (Paul George) and sporting the league’s best defensive rating. How did Minnesota, short two of their three best offensive options (Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin), manage to handle Indiana so convincingly?
Not surprisingly, Kevin Love had the most to do with it. He set the tone early by knocking down two three-pointers in the game’s first two minutes and displayed intensity on the defensive end as well. No matter who the Pacers threw at him – David West, Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi – Love found a a way to be effective, nailing jumpers, hook shots and putbacks, his usual barrage of offensive tricks working nicely against the league’s premier defense. He finished the night with 42 points on 22 field goal attempts, tallying 16 rebounds in the process.
Ricky Rubio was the other star of the show, the peanut butter to Love’s jelly. His line was as Rubio-esque as it gets: 9 points on 2-of-10 shooting, with 7 rebounds and 17 assists, leaving him tied with Pooh Richardson, Chauncey Billups, Stephon Marbury, Michael Williams and Sidney Lowe for the most in a single game in franchise history. He threw outlet passes, circled under the hoop to distribute to big men in the paint, drove and kicked to open three-point shooters, and hit cutters in stride for easy finishes at the rim. The Pacers simply never deterred him from getting to where he wanted to go on the floor, and he made them pay, dearly.
Even the Wolves’ second unit was pretty good – early in the 4th, they withstood Indiana’s rally, which cut the lead to 5, and wound up extending the lead back to 12 by the time Kevin Love re-entered with 7:11 to go in the game. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute didn’t do much that shows up on the stat sheet, but was effective guarding the Pacers’ wings in his limited time on the court and also helped on the offensive glass. Dante Cunningham cracked double digits, contributing 10 points. J.J. Barea, the subject of trade rumors beginning on Monday night, had his second consecutive solid game, shooting 6-of-10 from the floor and dishing 3 assists.
Barea was also at the center of two of the more entertaining plays of the night, the first being a C.J. Watson flop that will almost certainly earn him a phone call from the league office:
The second was an absolutely gorgeous reverse layup featuring more English than the cast of Downton Abbey (cue trombone):
Other than a few quirks and a couple of short spurts of Pacer rallies, the Timberwolves controlled the game, wire to wire. In a rather curious strategical move, Corey Brewer insisted on doubling off of Paul George, even when it was abundantly clear that George was the Pacers’ only real offensive threat. This led to a few uncontested threes, easy cuts to the rim, and poor rotations by Wolves’ defenders attempting to pick up the slack. Other than that, it was a sound effort by Minnesota defensively. Their ball pressure helped force 21 Indiana turnovers, 7 by Paul George alone.
Another encouraging tidbit from this one: the Pacers came out in the second half with the intention of being physical with the Wolves, but Minnesota didn’t blink. “They were trying to bully us,” J.J. Barea said after the game, “but we didn’t let that happen. I’m pretty proud of that… we were aggressive for 48 minutes.” Both teams were slightly miffed at the officials for stretches of the game, but Minnesota allowed themselves to play the victim, as they’re prone to do on some nights.
If the Timberwolves want to get back into the playoff race, it’ll take approximately 20-22 more nights just like this one. As Steve McPherson pointed out yesterday, such an occurrence is extremely unlikely, unless 1995 Michael Jordan magically appears in the Minnesota locker room. The Wolves now embark on a five-game road trip (they don’t play at Target Center again until March 5th) and their visits to Utah, Portland, Phoenix, Sacramento and Denver are vital to continuing their uphill climb.
At the trade deadline, it’s easy to forsake the present for future concerns; it’d be best to avoid such thinking. Nothing will happen with Kevin Love for awhile. The roster is the roster, and maybe they won’t exist, as presently constructed, for much longer than a year. That’s the nature of the business. There are nights they can play entertaining basketball, though, and those nights deserve to be celebrated – even if the overall product falls short of preseason expectations.