Smart people who cover the Timberwolves (including our own Tim Faklis) called their opening night loss to the Memphis Grizzlies a “moral victory,” or at least something roughly equivalent to one. Despite the loss, there were enough encouraging signs for Wolves fans to feel good about how the game went, hanging tough with a gritty playoff contender on the road. Expectations were a little higher for the team as they came back to the Target Center to face the lottery-bound Pistons in the home opener. A letdown loss in front of an energetic, near sell-out crowd would’ve been a step backwards.
Both Detroit and Minnesota were on the second night of a back-to-back, and it showed immediately, as they combined for 10 first quarter turnovers. The most intriguing battle early on was down on the block between Andre Drummond, who showed a few new post moves in the Pistons’ opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets, and Nikola Pekovic, who had a rough night in Memphis and appears to be working his way into game shape. Pek was a mess early on; in seven first quarter minutes, he was 1-for-4 from the field and turned the ball over three times. Drummond, on the other hand, was assertive with the ball in his hands and ferocious on the glass, scoring 6 points and pulling down 6 boards in the game’s opening frame.
Brandon Jennings exited with 1:04 to go in the first quarter after drawing a technical foul by throwing a temper tantrum, and D.J. Augustin proved to be a useful replacement for the Pistons. When Rubio sat, Mo Williams and Zach LaVine had an especially difficult time containing the 7th-year man out of Texas, who routinely got into the lane to facilitate. The trouble, of course, were the bricklayers around him. Augustin, Caldwell-Pope, Singler, Smith and Drummond combined to shoot 23-for-67 (34%) from the field for the game; without a big night from the Pistons’ bench, it would’ve been a blowout, but more on that in a bit.
The Wolves’ second unit offense lacked off-ball movement at the beginning, but they found their groove eventually. With each new substitution in Flip’s staggered rotation, Minnesota’s strategy changed slightly. For a few possessions, they fed Shabazz Muhammad in the post. They ran a few pick and pops for Anthony Bennett, who’s got the makings of a reliable midrange shooter (fingers crossed). Mo Williams barked out signals and knocked down a few MOJITs (Mo Jumpers In Transition) and MOJOS (Mo Jumpers Off Screens).
Neither team led by more than 4 points in the first 24 minutes, and the Wolves held a slim 45-44 lead at the break. Then Vanilla Ice performed. I don’t know if that’s what inspired Pek to turn things around, but it’d be scientifically irresponsible to rule it out. Near the end of the second quarter he looked like a statue on an Augustin drive to the basket, capping off a tough first half. In the third, Pekovic went 4-for-5 with 9 points, was more active on both ends, and most importantly, he got Andre Drummond into foul trouble. (Thad Young described the low post battle between the two as “two grizzly bears fighting each other.”) Drummond was officially credited with two blocked shots on the night, but while he was on the floor, he altered several others and clogged up the paint by his mere, unmovable presence. With Drummond sitting down, Minnesota collected 5 offensive boards in the 3rd quarter alone.
Andrew Wiggins, who went 0-for-4 from the field in the first half, also hit 4-of-5 shots in the third quarter, a couple of jumpers and a sweet, gravity-defying and-1:
The Wolves led by 19 at one point in the third, but then Caron Butler happened. Yes, Caron Butler. Tuff Juice. Dude that sorta looks a little like Pharrell. The former All-Star who’s bounced around the league the past few seasons. Used to chew on straws. That guy. He hit a three at the end of the third to cut the Wolves’ lead to ten, then opened the fourth by scoring ten straight points. After going 0-for-3 with 3 rebounds in 13 first half minutes, he scored 24 points on 10-of-11 field goals and grabbed 5 rebounds in 18 second half minutes. None of the Wolves’ wing group, Brewer, Shabazz or Wiggins (who didn’t play in the 4th quarter) could slow him down.
A Caron Butler three with 1:43 to go tied the game at 88 apiece, but the Wolves got it right back on the other end when Rubio set up Thad Young (whose 34 minutes, 19 points and 3 steals were all team highs) for a clutch three-pointer from the left wing. Drummond missed a little hook shot, and the Wolves pushed the lead to 5 with a Mo Williams runner with 52 seconds to go.
Next, Kevin Martin deflected a pass out of bounds on the defensive end, forcing the Pistons to inbound the ball with 30 seconds to go, and his hustle play drew the attention of the coach. “I never saw that last year,” Flip said postgame, rather bluntly. Then, Minnesota employed Hack-a-Drummond (or Bang-a-Drummon, as Steve cleverly called it) when Detroit inbounded to the big man, who’s a 40% career free throw shooter. He missed the second of two, so the strategy worked, but the pesky Caron Butler grabbed the board. Fortunately, D.J. Augustin missed the ensuing three-point try, Martin snagged the rebound, and the Wolves sank their free throws to seal the victory.
For all of the Wolves’ issues taking care of the ball in the first five quarters of the season, they had just one fourth quarter turnover last night, which should not be overlooked. The presence of Mo Williams had a lot to do with that. “Mo’s always had the ability to make shots down the stretch. He has a calming effect,” Saunders said. “With Ricky, sometimes, like last night (against Memphis), he tried to do too much with the ball by himself. It’s way better to have shared ballhandlers.”
The young players got some burn – Zach LaVine got four second quarter minutes, Wiggins started and played 23 minutes – but down the stretch, the six veterans (Rubio, Mo, Martin, Brewer, Thad and Pek) were the ones on the floor. “We’re trying to develop (the young guys), but we also need to have some positive reinforcement, and that’s by getting some wins,” Flip said. “There’s a fine line.”
“The culture we’re trying to establish is that we’re going to play hard every night,” Flip continued. “When the players know the coach is not afraid to take you out, it’s going to make you play hard.” For one night, at least, Flip managed to mix in the young players, putting them in low-leverage situations to succeed, while saving the experienced players for the stretch run in the fourth quarter. While Chase Budinger was a DNP, which probably isn’t ideal, if Saunders can distribute minutes like this for the majority of the season, it’ll be a nice mixture of both development and positive reinforcement and alleviate the potential problems depth can cause.
As the 20th Century philosopher/ mogul/ home improvement show host/ Grammy Award-winning recording artist Robert Matthew Van Winkle once said…
Keep my composure when it’s time to get loose
Magnetized by the mic while I kick my juice
If there was a problem, Yo – I’ll solve it!
Check out the hook while DJ revolves it.