It’s nearly 11 pm and we’re in the Timberwolves locker room waiting for Corey Brewer to pee. And no, this league-mandated drug test is not because he scored what must be up there with the most unlikely 51 points ever scored in an NBA game — it’s just a coincidence.
Here’s what I thought I would be writing about this game earlier in the day, pretty much win or lose: How Rick Adelman is likely going to slip away from this franchise without a shred of fanfare and how that’s genuinely kind of sad, no matter how disappointing this season has been or how much blame you lay at his feet for that disappointment. With this season drifting gently to its conclusion for the Wolves, a nice win over a shorthanded Spurs team feels good, but maybe not quite as good as a victory over the Heat in double overtime. They both feel better than a loss to Orlando. But what every game has in common at this point is an unmoored feeling, a sense that we’re scraping the jar for a story to tell ourselves at this point. We’re stitching the box scores together into a sail when the tides will be more than enough to bring us into shore after next week’s final game against Utah, one way or another.
But tonight is different somehow, and not because it means more, but maybe because it makes so little sense. Some guys were good, some guys were not so good. Ricky Rubio (16 pts, 10 asts), Gorgui Dieng (12 pts, 20 rebs) and Dante Cunningham (20 pts, 13 rebs) all had double-doubles. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute shot abysmally (1-7) and — in spite of a porous Rockets team lacking their only real defensive assets in Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard — he and the Wolves as a whole took a lot of ill-advised midrange jumpers, rather than getting into the paint.
But you know who got into the paint? Corey Wayne Brewer, who made 16 of his 19 shots in the restricted area on his way to a nearly incomprehensible 51. His previous career high was 29, his season average going into tonight, 11.7 ppg. Kevin Love scored 51 in double overtime against the Thunder. Brewer did it in 45 minutes.
“I don’t know where he comes up with the energy he has,” Adelman said after the game. “He had 45 minutes and he was still just going strong at the end. I think Pek and the two Kevins have been holding him back. I don’t think [Houston] knew what to do with him. We didn’t know what to do with him. He was just scoring and flying around and squeezing, using his body to get through little gaps. Then he hits a three at the end of the first half, banks it in, so it was his night.”
In a lot of ways, the matchup with a defensively shorthanded Rockets team was an M.C. Escher-eque one for the offensively shorthanded Wolves. For either team to be successful, defense or offense would have to come from some unlikely hero, and that hero turned out to be Brewer, particularly in transition.
“We were pushing it,” said Adelman, “and [Brewer] got the ball out ahead of them in the open court and he’s hard to get in front of. And if he’s throwing shots in like that, he’s real difficult. It’s just like when Harden gets it: he gets one on one going against somebody at full speed, you’re really at a disadvantage and tonight Corey was getting through them and either drawing a foul or getting to the basket.” Brewer’s attacking play helped shred Houston’s already less-than-robust transition defense for 39 fastbreak points.
The matchup was also favorable on the boards, where Dieng pulled down 20 for the second time in his short career against the Rockets after notching 21 against them on March 20th. Although overshadowed by Brewer’s 51, Dieng also had the game winning shot in the final seconds, when Rubio’s lob to him at the rim was a little to high to handle, forcing him to take an off-balance, one-footed shot that dropped.
Asked how much he’s been practicing that shot, Dieng responded, “A lot. I’ve [made] that shot in college. But I’m always going for perfection, I’m just going to keep working on that shot.” He was quick to defer its importance, saying, “It’s just two points. The most important is to win this game.” Adelman knew how big it was for the rookie, though. “He’s really feeling good about himself,” he said. “Trust me.”
By the time Brewer makes it out of the back room, it’s to a smattering of cheers from the media that have hung on to talk to him. He raises his hands in triumph and with a broad grin, and it’s not altogether clear whether it’s from his historic scoring night or just being out of the bathroom.
“I felt like I was in high school again!” he beams. “Everything was going in, but I was just playing, I wasn’t even thinking about it until somebody was like, ‘Yo, you got 44. You can get 50 tonight.’ I was like yeah okay whatever. I actually got 50!”
It’s not just hard to imagine that the Brewer who’s played for the Timberwolves all this year — feasting on Love’s outlet passes and bricking corner threes — could score 51 points in a game. It’s borderline brain-breaking that the Brewer who was drafted by Minnesota could do it, and Brewer is straightforward about it.
“Yeah, I felt like I’ve gotten a lot better,” he says. “First time I was here, I was bad. I ain’t gonna lie, I was really bad. Let’s be honest.” Not that we should expect him to go off for 50 ever again. This game is more in line with Tony Delk’s 53 on January 2, 2001 or Willie Burton’s 53 on December 13, 1994 — an outlier, a fever dream, the confluence of thousands of factors and many of them beyond measuring or divining to create a singular circumstance.
But Brewer believes there’s something there, alongside Dieng’s development and quality wins against both Miami and San Antonio down the stretch, that can be built on. “I feel like it’s going to help,” he says, “especially Gorgui’s development. He’s going to be a big part of our team. Once we can get everybody healthy and get everybody back, I think next year’s going to be a great year for us.”
There may be nothing mechanical to take forward from tonight’s game. No strategy that can be relied upon, no foundational approach to build upon. But with Brewer standing there in the locker room beaming, it’s easy to be reminded that a basketball team is built not just upon tactics, stats and strategy, but upon emotion and belief. It’s built on a collective dream of something bigger. And maybe Brewer’s 51 point game is a piece of that dream, a piece that doesn’t really make sense, but what about a dream ever does?
“I used to give my brother 50 all the time at home,” Brewer says, waxing nostalgic. “But I used to dream about getting 50 in the NBA. To make it come true is an amazing night.”