“You knew the Kings weren’t going to go down without a fight…” – Dave Benz
“I thought they might.” – Jim Petersen
The above quotes, offered at the 8:00 mark of the 4th quarter by FSN North’s excellent play-by-play and color analysts, respectively, captured the mood perfectly for the Timberwolves. Minnesota had pushed their lead to 14 after 3 quarters, using a dominant 31-to-14 3rd period to take control after trailing by 3 at the half. The undersized reserve lineup of Barea – Budinger – Muhammad – Mbah a Moute – Cunningham failed to tread water at the beginning of the final frame, and by the time the Wolves’ reinforcements (Love, Martin and Brewer) checked in with 8:34 remaining, the lead was just 7 points.
You knew the Wolves weren’t going to blow another game to the lowly Kings, especially given their current desperate state, right? That the bench wouldn’t be to blame, especially since they’ve been better of late? You knew beforehand that Quincy Acy and Reggie Evans weren’t the same person, correct? That the Timberwolves weren’t going to fail to keep Rudy Gay in check for the second time in a month and a half? And you knew, at some point, the Wolves record in close games would progress to the mean, that they couldn’t just keep losing tight contests in perpetuity?
The answer to all these questions: “I thought they might.”
Instead, Minnesota managed a victory in a game that was much, much closer than the final score indicated. Winners of 5 of their last 6 games, the Wolves have staved off late rallies in each of their past two games, a welcome departure from the season-long norm. Bench problems plagued Minnesota – the starters shot 52% from the field, the reserves just 33%. Every starter sported a double digit ‘plus’ in the plus/minus column, and every reserve was a ‘minus.’ Rudy Gay’s monster first half (22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 4 three-pointers) was followed by a second-half dud (2 points on 0-of-3 shooting), including a missed layup with 1:49 left which would’ve tied the game at 97-all.
So, how did the Wolves manage to pull off the narrow victory? As with everything this weekend, the answer comes from Sloan. On Friday, speaking at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT, former NBA coach George Karl asserted that “the most underrated great play in the last two minutes of the game is the offensive rebound.” Crashing the offensive glass was vital to both teams down the stretch, but especially the Timberwolves, who recorded 4 offensive boards in the final 5:45 of the game. Nikola Pekovic had 7 offensive rebounds of his own, the last of which came with the Wolves clinging to a 2-point lead with 1:27 to go, leading to a foul (and two made free throws) that bailed Minnesota out of another empty possession.
The biggest play of the game, though, was Ricky Rubio’s three-pointer with 0:53 to go. Up by 4, the Wolves’ point guard dribbled out the first 12 seconds of the shot clock before initiating action, a Kevin Love pick and roll to the left side of the floor:
It’s tough to fault the Kings for focusing on the Wolves’ two most potent offensive threats (Love and Martin), though a quick perusal of Rubio’s shot chart reveals something important about this play: Ricky’s now hit more than half of his shot attempts (13-of-24) from the right wing. It’s his one true “hot” zone; Sacramento gave him an open look, and he made them pay. Credit Rick Adelman for the play design, Martin for the nice feed, and especially Ricky for knocking it down. Maybe he’ll never be an above-average shooter, but if Rubio can develop a couple of shot locations he excels at, it’ll do wonders for Minnesota’s late-game execution, particularly if the defense takes away the first and second options, as the Kings did here.
A few other notes from the Timberwolves’ victory:
- As I’ve written before, I’m a sucker for Kevin Martin’s post-up game, especially when an inexperienced defender is on him, and man, did Martin take young Ben McLemore to school. In his first game in nearly a month, the Wolves’ 31-year-old shooting guard deployed his usual, cagey moves to score 14 first quarter points, showing no signs of rust from the prolonged layoff. Whether it was posting up, off straight-line drives, or pulling up off corner hand-offs, Martin didn’t miss a beat.
- Shabazz Muhammad once again got the minutes typically granted to Alexey Shved, and although he had an unspectacular line of 0 points and 2 rebounds in 13 minutes (with a pair of missed free throws), it’d be nice to see him continue to receive a steady diet of playing time. When Shabazz has been on the floor in non-garbage time situations, he’s shown a decent understanding of the offense and avoids the unrepentant chucking some criticize him for.
- Minnesota made just 5 of their 21 shots from beyond the arc. If you take out the Wolves’ nice nights against the Pacers and Nuggets, they’ve made just 46 of their past 167 three-point attempts as a team since February 5th. That’s 28%. That’s bad. That’s really bad.
- Know who’s not really bad? Kevin Love. 22 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, with a clutch offensive rebound of his own in the 4th quarter and a timely blocked shot.
- Love’s “Bruise Brother”, Nikola Pekovic, had 20 points and 9 rebounds in 27 minutes of action, overshooting his supposed pregame limit of 20 minutes for the night. Hopefully, the fact he was able to play beyond the restriction is a sign that he’s feeling good, though it’s fair to wonder if the injury will dog him as the season moves along.
- In closing, this is Pek in a cabana hat (h/t Punch-Drunk Wolves):