A few weeks ago, the Wolves stole a game at home against the Grizzlies in rather dramatic fashion. It was Ricky Rubio’s third game back after his two and a half month absence, and it was immediately clear that Minnesota is a different team when he’s on the floor. The offense becomes functional, the perimeter defense becomes pretty damn good, and perhaps most importantly, there’s a certain level of grit that permeates throughout the roster.
Grit, moxie, chutzpah, toughness, fight – call it what you want. Although statistically immeasurable, it is a vital component to a franchise that is attempting to build a winning culture. The virtue of true toughness, in this sense, isn’t validated by the result. It is present no matter the situation, however good or bad things are going on the floor. Contesting shots, fighting for rebounds, working through screens, communicating with teammates, executing on both ends of the floor – all of it matters.
In that sense, the Grizzlies are a terrific barometer by which to measure these young Timberwolves, because they have it down to an art form. Memphis is a perennial contender because they have built a culture of maximum effort (grit ‘n grind). Minnesota entered the game with the chance to win the season series against them, the kind of silver lining they ought to be hunting for over the final 24 games. It didn’t come to fruition, as the visiting Grizz walked away with the victory – a potentially game-tying, wide open Kevin Martin three with 11 seconds to go rattled out, sealing the Wolves’ fate – but there were plenty of encouraging signs along the way for the guys wearing the home whites.
For starters, Nikola Pekovic was mostly ineffective in his 12 minutes (0-for-5 from the field, 2 turnovers) before leaving with an ankle injury, and Kevin Garnett was limited to 15 minutes due to his early third quarter ejection (more on that later). That left Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne and Andrew Wiggins on their own to deal with Memphis’ front court. Marc Gasol wound up with a fantastic line, scoring 27 points on just 14 shots, but Zach Randolph had a rough night (7 points, 7 turnovers) and Gasol never really took the game over, so to speak. Wiggins’ efforts against Z-Bo were particularly inspiring during an early 4th quarter stretch that saw the 200 pound 20 year old lined up at power forward. Memphis went right at that matchup, and while the 255 pound Randolph bullied his way inside for one bucket, Wiggins also drew an offensive foul and didn’t let the mismatch hurt the team too badly.
As far as Payne goes, his length, sneaky athleticism and high motor make him a factor on the glass:
And as for Gorgui, watch the way he sticks with Mike Conley as he (and the whole team) sprints back up the floor:
Memphis was up double digits at that point, and ready to turn the game into a blowout, but the Wolves refused to let it happen. Their effort in transition defense was a big reason why. Minnesota also started to execute on the offensive end, going on an 18-to-5 run to close the third quarter, pulling within 2 points. One particularly cool example of the Wolves’ execution was noticed by accident. As Gary Neal shot the second of a pair of technical free throws (both Marc Gasol and Dave Joerger got one), Rubio huddled the rest of the team up and diagrammed Minnesota’s next play:
The full video of the exchange:
Then the Wolves ran this:
It’s obvious that Rubio has a master’s grasp on the offense, but to see it in action is pretty cool. His defensive intensity is terrific, but the difference between Rubio and LaVine at point guard cannot be understated. Can you imagine LaVine authoritatively talking anyone through the next play call? Granted, he’s just a rookie, and Ricky’s been a professional basketball player for nearly a decade already, but being able to run complex action like that shows the real difference between the two.
The play of the game was probably this Conley three, which put the Grizzlies up by three with 30 seconds to go. The Wolves came out in a zone and collapsed to the interior, leaving Memphis’ point guard open on the right wing:
After the Wolves scored two on a sweet Andrew Wiggins putback dunk, they fouled Mike Conley, who hit a pair of free throws, putting the Grizzlies up by three. Minnesota had one final shot, and managed to get Kevin Martin (who’d sunk two big threes to get the Wolves back into the game) a very good look from the corner, but it wasn’t to be:
It was an uncharacteristic miscommunication by the Grizzlies, and an uncharacteristic wide-open miss by Martin, but that’s basketball. It’s a make-or-miss league. Both teams spent a great deal of the night executing (Memphis’ 24 turnovers notwithstanding), and while process ought to supersede the result, and Memphis escaped despite allowing a wide-open shot, sometimes it’s important to just get lucky.
What the Wolves will find, in time, is that executing, gritting and grinding and battling, no matter the score or the time left on the clock, will yield positive results. More often than not, they’ll make their own luck. Moral victories are overrated, but watching the young Timberwolves hang with the Grizzlies three times this season speaks positively to the direction we all hope they’re headed in.