When a comparatively raw team like the Minnesota Timberwolves (average age 24.5, plus they’ve had Ricky Rubio back for about 6 percent of a whole season, Kevin Martin for 10 percent, Nikola Pekovic for 16 percent) runs into a well-oiled buzzsaw like the Golden State Warriors (average age 26.7, best record in the league, 2nd in offensive rating, 1st in defensive rating) and struggles early, it sets up an interesting problem.
Much of the time, a team like the Wolves simply folds, never gets back into it. But in a situation like last night — where the Warriors go stone cold for nearly five minutes in the fourth quarter — the Wolves can stage a comeback based on a kind of devil-may-care, emotion-fueled outburst. This is where being young and raw is, if not an advantage, at least better than carefully designed but flawed. One only needs look at the Wolves from last season to see how a team that’s supposed to be able to compete at a high level can find themselves wanting for energy and drive when they find themselves trailing by double digits.
But then, a strange reversal happened. As the Warriors righted the ship as the Wolves pulled even and then ahead, the Wolves suddenly needed execution, stability, experience. You could look at the Warriors and see reliable scorers like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, plus defensive stalwarts like Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. Suddenly, the combustible potential of unstable components on the Wolves looked less like an asset and more like a liability.
As it happened, it all turned on a near miss at the rim and a spontaneous game of volleyball, but let’s back it up for a minute.
Overall, this was a tale of two benches. The Warriors’ starters went 23-for-60 (38%) — including an off night for Steph Curry, who needed 23 shots to get 25 points — while the Wolves’ starters went 32-for-59 (54%). So far so good as far as the Wolves were concerned, but their bench drove the bus off the cliff, going 1-for-17 (6% — SIX PERCENT!!!).
“What happened was we got nothing out of our bench tonight,” said Saunders. “Our bench was bad. We got one field goal out of our bench. You wouldn’t expect that. With all of our people being back, we got some guys thinking they’ve got to score to stay on the floor, so they’re taking quick shots. That’s why we had to go with some of our main guys because at least they would get into a little bit of flow.”
Meanwhile Golden State’s second unit went 17-for-30 (57%), and when I say “unit” I mean it — their lineup of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Marreese Speights looked like they could start for a playoff team in the East and presented a ton of problems for the Wolves. It’s a lineup that’s +27.9 in net rating over the 53 minutes they’ve spent on the court together this season. When you’re entire bench unit is that good, that’s good. Livingston is huge — 6-foot-7 — and Barbosa even at 32 is faster than most players. Iguodala’s smart and a former All-Star, as is Lee. Speights does a little bit of everything — he’s a picker and a grinner and a lover and a sinner.
But let’s hit some highlights for the Wolves throughout the game before getting into the very end.
Thaddeus Young had this very, very nice defensive possession on Steph Curry about halfway through the first quarter:
Curry is well-known for breaking the ankles of guards, much less power forwards, but Young does a tremendous job staying in front of Curry but also keeping close enough to discourage him from shooting. When Curry eventually tries to force the issue, he makes a bad pass that gets picked off by Andrew Wiggins. Young seems to get a lot of grief for his defense, and it’s true he’s not the kind of power forward who’s going to leap to block shots or be able to single-handedly shut down opposing bigs, but this is exemplary, and will show up exactly nowhere in a traditional box score. His effort has been up and down this season, but when it’s up, it’s quite good.
Speaking of Young, Rubio hit him with this amazing save in the fourth quarter:
Was this pass a fluke or was there some kind of intentionality to it? It’s tempting to ascribe intention to it because Rubio has a history of making ridiculous, nearly impossible passes, but I don’t buy it. I think he just saved it and Young was in the right place to catch it in stride and finish. Ask yourself: Is this the face of someone who meant to do what they just did?
But let’s get down to the fourth quarter. Here was the super-weird thing that happened: Golden State went scoreless from the 7:41 mark of the fourth until an Andrew Bogut layup stopped the bleeding with 3:04 to play. They were 0-for-7 from the field, including 0-for-2 from 3-point range, while the Wolves — and Rubio in particular — went absolutely nuts.
Rubio went 2-for-3 (including a 3-pointer) in that same stretch, plus 2-for-2 at the line with 2 assists, 1 steal and 4 rebounds. Both of those assists were to Young (including the flukey one above), who was 2-2. All told, the Wolves racked up a 12-0 scoring run and pulled to within 2 points in that time. A game that looked out of reach suddenly got hot and things got fun.
Once the Warriors settled down and started making shots, the game teetered back and forth. The Wolves had fed off of Rubio and their collective adrenaline to get it tight, but when they needed to manufacture points methodically rather than pulling up the couch cushions and digging around for them, they faltered.
Down one with 17 seconds left and possession of the ball, the Wolves had a chance to take the lead and force the Warriors to make a shot to win or go home without much time on the clock. This is what they ran:
It’s neither an ingenious nor a bad play, which is about what you could expect out of side out-of-bounds play from a team just getting itself together. I would imagine a lot of practice time is spent on more broadly useful things like plays in the flow of the game and working on core defensive principles than after timeout plays right now.
Andrew Wiggins inbounds to Rubio and Young sets a screen along the baseline for Kevin Martin. Pekovic sets a screen up top for Rubio, who’s likely looking for Martin if he gets free. He doesn’t, so Rubio tries to rub Curry off on Pekovic, who rolls to the hoop. There’s a split second when Pekovic gets the ball where he has Martin wide open on the wing for a 3-pointer. Young is also open in the left corner, but I wouldn’t expect Pekovic to make that pass more or less ever. The Martin option, though, is a sadly missed one. Pekovic bumps Bogut, who more or less flops, but Pekovic has started his move to shoot too far out, it looks like.
This is the part where we note that Pekovic is 2-for-14 in his career in game-on-the-line situations (hat tip to Zachary Bennett for that, which I believe he got from Alan Horton on Wolves Radio). It might be just as simple as the fact that Pekovic gets the yips a little in these situations. He was superlative down the last few minutes of the game, after all, scoring 6 points as he went 4-for-4 on free throws from the 3:10 mark down to the last ten seconds of the game. This, then, is the knife edge the Wolves are going to find themselves on in situations like this until they’ve been through enough of them: Pek struggles with touch right at the end of the game, but last night he looked terrific right up until that layup rimmed out. Do you get him the ball and hope that a good look goes down and makes him more confident next time? Or do you go away from him and risk turning him into a non-factor once other teams scout that out?
Then there was the kind of hilarious hot potato that broke out when the Wolves nearly managed to steal the inbounds pass from the Warriors, but to me, that’s a coin toss. Martin, Young and Wiggins all touched the ball as it ricocheted around, but none of them could secure it before Curry streaked away with it.
In the end, it was an entertaining game that showed flashes of the kind of will and determination that the team has generated lately, largely since Rubio’s return. It augurs well for the future, and the possibility that this team will be poised for a leap next season, but they’ve still got a ways to go. Bring on the All-Star break.