Kings 113, Timberwolves 101: Catch-22
Saturday night, Target Center was home to some zone defense, full-court presses, half-court traps, a 6’8, 215 jump shooter playing backup center, a bunch of 19, 20 and 21 year olds on the floor together, and clown-show refereeing that left both teams, their coaches and the home crowd perplexed at every turn. A college game, perhaps? Nay, it was the Wolves’ 12-point loss to this season’s nicest surprise story, the Sacramento Kings.
Minnesota was again without Nikola Pekovic, Ronny Turiaf or Thaddeus Young, leaving Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett and Robbie Hummel as the team’s front court depth against DeMarcus Cousins, who Flip declared postgame was “the best center in the league.” In order to protect Gorgui from getting into early foul trouble, the Wolves opened the game in a 2-3 zone with an emphasis on denying/doubling Cousins, which genuinely seemed to befuddle the Kings for much of the first quarter.
All three of the big man’s buckets in the opening frame came on putbacks, so he still racked up 8 points and 6 rebounds, but the zone defensive scheme kept him from posting up and drawing whistles against Dieng. Had Gorgui picked up a few early fouls, that would’ve left Bennett or Hummel checking him, and we’d probably be talking about Boogie’s 55 point, 30 rebound night. Instead, the Wolves held him to *just* 31 points on 15 shots to go along with 18 rebounds. I’m not kidding when I say limiting Cousins to that stat line, given the Wolves’ available personnel, feels like a small victory.
The Timberwolves didn’t stick with the zone the entire game, primarily saving it for extended periods when Cousins was on the floor. Eventually, Sacramento figured it out, especially in the 3rd quarter, when they took control of the game. With all the attention on the big man, Darren Collison and Ben McLemore started exposing the Minnesota defense on the perimeter.
Collison scored 6 points, created havoc when he drove and made smart passes all over the place, two of which went to Ben McLemore, who scored 13 of his 21 in the 3rd quarter alone and was the key ingredient to Sacramento turning a 4-point halftime deficit into a 7-point lead heading into the 4th. With the lead in hand, Sacramento let Boogie bring them home. Cousins notched 10 points on 3-of-3 field goals and 4-of-4 free throws in the final frame, helping the Kings push the lead to double digits and out of the Wolves’ grasp.
There was some chatter about the zone leaving the perimeter open, and more than a few fans voiced some frustration over it, but the Wolves were caught in a catch-22 and probably made the wisest decision they could. Facing certain destruction if Cousins was left to operate in the post, Flip and his staff decided to make the Kings (who entered the game ranked 26th in the NBA in outside shooting) beat them from the perimeter. The result? Sacramento finished the game 8-of-26 (30.8%) overall from behind the arc. If McLemore hadn’t gotten hot for the 3rd quarter, the game might’ve been much closer down the stretch.
In other news from this game:
Shabazz Muhammad bounced back from his rough night against the Spurs to tally 9 points on 4-of-8 shooting, with 7 rebounds (including 3 offensive boards) in 18 minutes. He had two electrifying dunks early in the second quarter and drew a round of applause for battling hard on the offensive glass before diving (unsuccessfully) to save the possession. Since Bennett started at four spot, Shabazz served as the second unit’s power forward and held his own defensively against Rudy Gay and Derrick Williams. But what stood out, as usual, was his energy on the glass and growing maturity with the ball in his hands.
Speaking of energy, Andrew Wiggins played the first 19 minutes of the game on his way to a game-high 41, scoring 29 points, pulling down 5 rebounds, dishing out 2 assists and notching 4 steals in the process. With 5:37 to go, he knocked down a three off a sweet two-man play with fellow Canadian Anthony Bennett to cut the Kings’ lead to 5, which was the closest the Wolves could make it.
Wiggins was 9-of-22 from the field overall, which doesn’t look great on paper, but he made it to the line 10 times and showed a variety of moves: he posted up, hit fall-away jumpers, knocked down a pair of threes and attacked the basket with vigor. Defensively, he did a nice job limiting Rudy Gay, who scored 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and showed off his knack for poking the ball away and using his great length to disrupt passing lanes.
Postgame, Flip Saunders indicated that Wiggins’ night was reflective of how the team felt about their young star, and posited that perhaps Wiggins’ performance was inspired by the confidence his teammates are showing in him. It’s easy to say because this was his highest-scoring game to date, but I’m not sure I’ve seen Wiggins more comfortable, assertive and in control on the offensive end of the floor. If this was a glimpse of what’s to come… well, the sky’s the limit.
Moving a bit more quickly, now:
– Mo Williams played 35 minutes and racked up 12 assists, though he struggled with his shot (12 points on 16 attempts, including 1-of-7 from three), while Zach LaVine played the other 13 minutes at the point and was largely a ball mover rather than initiator. It seems the coaching staff has recognized that the league has gotten some tape on their young point guard and are opting instead for the veteran, which is probably a wise decision.
– Chase Budinger played 20+ minutes for the second straight night and had his best game of the season, scoring 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting (2-of-2 from three), which is, like, “worth a couple of second round picks to a contending team”-level good.
– Derrick Williams’ hair. Why?
– Derrick Williams’ propensity to play really well as a visitor to Target Center, but not as a Timberwolf or in any other arena with the Kings… why? He’s played 3 games as a guest in Minnesota and has averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds on 58/43/76 shooting splits, which is super annoying.
– But not as annoying as his hair, though. Seriously, Derrick, why?
– I mentioned it in the opening, but I need to repeat it: the officiating was abysmal, both ways. They missed an obvious Ben McLemore up and down, called a phantom travel on Gorgui Dieng just for shits and giggles, missed charge calls in both directions, whistled no contact and swallowed their whistles on obvious contact. Flip and Corey Brewer both earned technicals during the game, but there could’ve easily been a few more, because everyone on both teams was pretty fed up with the uneven manner in which the game was called.
– During this recent rash of frontcourt injuries and absences, Robbie Hummel (6’8, 215) has played some nominal “center,” meaning he’s played everywhere from the two to the five. Sacramento countered his presence with Carl Landry (6’9, 248) which is still a mismatch physically, but hardly as extreme as is possible. Like, say, Hummel v. Boogie, which was something the Wolves were a few ticky-tack calls on Gorgui Dieng away from seeing.
– Flip Saunders confirmed after the game that Thad Young is expected to return to the team Sunday and will be available to practice this week ahead of Wednesday night’s tilt against the Milwaukee Bucks.
– Last, but not least: the picture at the top of the page is of a young Alan Arkin in Catch-22. You probably know him better from his roles in Little Miss Sunshine, Glengarry Glen Ross and Edward Scissorhands. I was going to spend most of my recap discussing my love of the novel, the difficulty in adapting such a dystopian, non-sequential storyline to the big screen and the problems with (and charming qualities of) the movie itself, but this is a sports website, dammit, and to do so would be a fireable offense.