The Timberwolves jumped out to a hot start in last night’s game, which is not actually new. Last season, Minnesota boasted an offensive rating of 111.1 and a defensive rating of 101.1, good for a Bo Derek-approved net rating of 10.0. The problem, of course, was in the fourth quarter, where they only mustered a 98.1 offensive rating against a defensive rating of 107.8 — good for a net rating of -9.7, a swing of nearly twenty points. But we’ll get to the ending in short order.
At the outset, it was fairly simple: the Wolves were making jumpshots and the Nets were missing them. With 6:22 left in the first, Ricky Rubio hit a 3-pointer — his first of the season — and pushed the lead to 17-2. Up to that point, Minnesota was 6-10; Brooklyn, 1-11. Andrew Wiggins looked particularly good in that first quarter, going 3-5 for 7 points (roughly what he’s been averaging per game) and hitting the kind of difficult layups that Minnesota fans are used to the Wolves missing.
By the end of the first, the Nets had closed the gap to 24-21 and the game began in earnest, a back and forth affair as you can see from ESPN’s Game Flow chart.
A couple observations from along the way:
- Much was often made of what good partners Rubio and Kevin Love could be when Rubio first came to the NBA but frankly, we didn’t see it. Love was always more comfortable popping than rolling, and a lot of their most effective action was unconventional, with Rubio dropping the ball off to Love as a trailer for a 3-pointer. And then, once Adelman’s system was more thoroughly installed, you saw Rubio dumping the ball to Love in the high post to initiate the action. It was often very effective, but it also meant we didn’t get to see as much of Nikola Pekovic working with Rubio. That’s already changing this season, with a healthy dose of two-man game between them. Check out these two beautiful possessions. They followed each other closely in the game and you can see how Pek’s excellent post work in the first made Jarrett Jack feel like he needed to leave Rubio, opening Rubio up for the pass and finish.
- Shabazz Muhammad only saw 5:45 of floor time, but he did go 2-3 during that time for 4 points with 3 rebounds. Two of those rebounds were offensive boards on the same possession, and one of his made baskets was a left handed push-shot from the left block. In essence, these were the most Shabazz minutes possible, and that’s a good thing. He doesn’t have a broad enough skillset right now to start, but he’s got a weird enough skillset when Saunders plays him as a shooting guard (post-game, tenacious rebounding) that he’s going to mess up other teams’ second units. It’s basically cake for him to bully a bench guy like Alan Anderson and outwork him for rebounds. This is a good role for him right now.
- Mo Williams is great, and it’s easy to see him run the second unit and fawn over it just because it’s not J.J. Barea, but let’s not ignore the fact that Williams has some very Barea-esque tendencies. As Jim Peterson observed on the broadcast, the penetration that Rubio generates as the primary ballhandler just doesn’t happen when Williams is out there. There’s a lot of Williams sizing up the defense from the perimeter, almost like he’s a driver on a highway with upcoming lane closures. He cranes his neck around trying to figure out which lane is shut down, and then he merges left, then merges right, then sits in traffic. The end result is usually either a shot or swinging the ball to other players like Corey Brewer or Kevin Martin who likewise aren’t going to drive and kick. To wit, here is Williams’ shot chart.
We’d be killing Barea for that graphic. Just something to keep in mind.
- Thad Young can’t set screens, especially on the pick-and-roll. This is maybe one of the biggest problems with smallball power forwards and it takes away a nice stable element of any team’s game. He’s not bad setting downscreens in the paint, but I noticed last night that every time he goes into the pick-and-roll on the perimeter, his screen is almost always a slip-screen, and that’s maybe being generous. So far the Wolves haven’t run into trouble with it, but it does put the onus on Pekovic to lay the pine on every PNR and removes a possible alternate focal point for the PNR.
But let’s get into the last three minutes of the game or so, because that’s where the Wolves did something we’re not accustomed to seeing: execute.
After a strong 25-18 third quarter that saw the Wolves pulling ahead, they watched their lead gradually slip away. But with 2:51 remaining and down 88-84, they didn’t disintegrate or wilt but instead just kept doing what they needed to do, even if it was stuff we didn’t expect. Rubio hit a midrange jumper on the left wing falling to his left. Young — subpar rebounder for his position — grabbed a big rebound off a Deron Williams miss. Martin drilled a corner three — the only corner three the Wolves made in the game — to get the lead.
The Nets went back to Joe Johnson and got a couple free throws plus a runner in the lane out of the deal. But then a Rubio isolation on the wing led to a drive and finish through contact at the rim. Read that sentence again: In the last two minutes of the game, Rubio drove to the hoop and made a layup. And then after a Young steal, Pekovic — who struggled mightily last season to finish around the basket down the stretch — got a nice up-and-under to go and drew the foul on Brook Lopez. When Young — who was 4-12 at the time — got a little floater in the lane to go, it basically sealed the win.
The real highlight, though, came after the game. We’ve heard the Wolves say they have to forget the losses and move on a hundred times before, so even Rubio was a little surprised when Pekovic said they had to forget this win.
But Pek is right. Every game is a new game, and the team is just at the start of a fairly stupendous roadtrip. The next two weeks are lovely, dark and deep, and the Timberwolves have miles to go before they sleep.