Timberwolves 111, Suns 109: Stuck Between Stations

Limbo, thy name is the first game after the All-Star break with one more to go before the greatest player in franchise history returns as a kind of éminence grise for a rawly talented but still rebuilding team. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the team had mailed it in, but pleasingly they didn’t and ended up holding on for a squeaker over the Suns. We’ll get to the Wolves in a moment, but let’s start with the Suns.

Because boy oh boy are they a mess. The league’s feel-good story of a year ago somehow messed it all up when they brought in Isaiah Thomas and then had to share minutes among three talented and very different point guards in Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Dragic wasn’t happy and expressed his desire to be traded, ending up in Miami at the deadline. Thomas was apparently a problem, too, and he was shipped off to Boston, plus Plumlee was sent to Milwaukee. So the Suns only had ten players available and none of them seemed very happy to be there. It just seemed like there was incessant carping and bitching, both among the players and directed at the referees who — to be fair — were mostly swallowing their whistles in what ended up as a very physical game.

With Thad Young en route to the Brooklyn Nets, Flip Saunders elected to start the underused Anthony Bennett, a marked contrast to the times recently when they ran out Gorgui Dieng at power forward with Young at small forward. Again, this team could not be embracing the trial by fire of the young players any more wholeheartedly now. Sadly for Bennett, he suffered a leg contusion when his right leg got rolled up on and had to leave the game after only 8:36 of playing time. Adreian Payne, fresh from the Atlanta Hawks, had to step in and had a rough go of it. He made some good defensive moves, as Saunders noted in his press conference, but he also scored just one point on 0-for-5 shooting.

Note, however, that Payne had barely played for the Hawks this season, averaging 6.3 minutes per game. This was the first game he played for the Wolves, and that after a ten-day break for the All-Star Game. Point being, even very solid teams can look a little rusty after that layoff, so it wasn’t surprising that Payne struggled offensively.

His best moment came as part of a patently ridiculous sequence that began with Payne blocking a shot into the ground, Rubio picking it up and skipping a beautiful pass to Shabazz Muhammad, who finished with a circus layup. I mean, just look at this silliness:

Let’s lead into Wiggins with this stupid dunk:


The last time Wiggins notched 20 points was January 31, just prior to Rubio’s return. Since that time, it’s seemed at times like Wiggins has been struggling to make the adjustment to playing with Rubio controlling the action, rather than himself. Without Rubio, the Wolves had little choice but to force feed Wiggins, but now they’re running more actual plays and Wiggins has had to adjust.

Tonight he finished with 20 and looked great doing it, scoring a clutch bucket with contact down the stretch to push the lead from one to three with 17 seconds remaining. It was his 17th 20-point game of the season, which is more than all the other NBA rookies combined. Yup: just about ready to call the Rookie of the Year race over.

Rubio came up two rebounds short of a triple double and Kevin Martin had 28 points, but Nikola Pekovic struggled, going 5-for-16 for 16 points and getting so aggravated by the contact down low that by the fourth it looked like he wanted to pull a blood eagle on Alex Len. These kinds of struggles are to be expected from Pek after almost any kind of layoff. It’s just hard to find good bears to fight on short notice during the All-Star break. But seriously, Pek always needs a couple games to bang his way back into shape.

This was a good, gritty win, but it was hard to ignore the thrum in the Target Center that was clearly meant for Kevin Garnett and his return. Apparently, season ticket sales went through the roof after the announcement of his return — surely not a coincidence for a team stuck at 29th in attendance and with today being the last day to renew season memberships and also the first day of the new sales season.

Wolves fans, though, won’t have to wait much longer. The Wolves face the Rockets in Houston on Monday and then start gearing up for the big return on Wednesday of … Martell Webster.

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