As the camera panned over a dusk shot of Oracle Arena framed by shiny graphics promising a scintillating late-season matchup between the Western Conference’s best team and one of its worst, my wife helpfully pointed out that the records of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors were nearly a palindrome: 15-64, 65-14. Wolves fans tired of so-called “moral victories” would find no solace here; even an unlikely win would count as one with the Warriors firmly in command of the top seed and the Wolves more interested in securing their draft lottery position.
There was, of course, no victory — moral or otherwise — but Minnesota hung in there all night, largely on the back of — wait for it — surprisingly good 3-point shooting. The Wolves started out cold from the arc, going 1-for-5 in the first quarter but going into the second up 31-28 because they got to the line. They were 12-for-15 from the charity stripe and the balanced scoring from Andrew Wiggins (9 pts), Kevin Martin (7 pts) and Zach LaVine (7 pts) helped offset a typically destructive 15 points from Steph Curry.
The Wolves were outscored 32-24 in the second quarter, but they were taking and making those long-distance shots, going 5-for-7, including 1-for-1 for Wiggins. Here’s the thing I jotted down at some point in the second, because there’s been a lot of discussion about Wiggins and 3-point shooting recently: “Does Wiggins need to shoot more 3-pointers to be a great player? No. Do the Wolves need to figure out a way to be a better 3-point shooting team in both volume and quality to be competitive in the league? Probably.”
Down 60-55 at the break, I expected this would be one of those games where the clearly superior team would rouse themselves from their stupor to eventually crush their opponent, much as a big brother might gamely allow a younger brother a couple points here or there in a game of one-on-one before definitively bringing the hammer down. In the second quarter, Golden State did a better job not letting Minnesota get to the line (just two FTAs), but their inability to blow the doors off the Wolves likely had Wolves fans hoping for the upset.
Unfortunately, the third quarter was an abysmal one for Minnesota. They scored just 14 points to Golden State’s 26, Curry scored 9 while Harrison Barnes scored 7, and Kevin Martin (who’s probably still not totally right from the wrist injury) went cold, going 0-for-5 while Wiggins went 0-for-4. Ah yes, here was big brother ending this one with authority.
But then a funny thing happened: Zach LaVine went thermonuclear.
Going into the fourth, he had a nice little game going: 17 points on .500 shooting (including 3-for-4 from 3-point range), 6 rebounds, 3 assists and only 2 turnovers. But he positively exploded with 20 points in the final frame on 8-for-11 shooting and he nearly pulled the Wolves back into the game with that offensive outburst. Here are all his shots:
After Curry pushed Golden State’s lead to 8 with 5:09 remaining, LaVine had a wide-open dunk after a made basket by the Warriors, a 3-pointer from the corner and a pull-up jumper in transition to bring the Wolves within a point. Of course, the Warriors finally clamped down immediately after and pushed it back up around double digits, but here’s the notable thing about LaVine’s scoring binge: it was all done with Lorenzo Brown on the floor as the primary ballhandler and most of it came from prototypical offguard action.
His wide open dunk came because he got out ahead of the play after the inbounds, rather than having to bring the ball up. The corner 3-pointer came off a spot-up where Wiggins drew attention. He ended up with the new Wolves’ rookie scoring record at 37 points and if it pointed to one thing, it’s that he’s a talented, confident player who can be effective in the NBA when his skills are maximized. At this point, I wouldn’t demand his time at point guard come to an end — I’m sure it’s helping his ballhandling and decision-making. But it’s hard not to salivate at the potential of Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins lineups where LaVine and Wiggins are free to wreak havoc and Rubio can get them the ball wherever they need it.
Speaking of Wiggins, he had another strong night with 17 points and a particularly impressive 9 assists to go with 6 rebounds and 3 steals. And of course, there were an array of handsome moves including this smooth splitting of the D and finger roll finish:
His ongoing march to the free throw line was slowed (2-for-3) and Golden State seemed to do it by attacking him with double teams after he started hot. It had the intended effect of forcing turnovers (he ended with 6) and kept him from squaring up and driving at the basket for contact. It just showed one more element of the game that Wiggins needs to put on his plate: making teams pay for double-teaming him. He doesn’t necessarily have to become an elite passer, but if he’s going to warrant that level of attention, he also has to make teams pay.
So in the end the Wolves lost, but they also made 11 of 24 shots from beyond the arc (45.8 percent) while only allowing the Warriors to shoot 35.5 percent from distance. Compare this to their season-long averages of 33.3 percent shooting on 14.9 attempts a game and allowing 36.6 percent 3-point shooting from their opponents. That strong shooting is what kept them in the game against the current title favorites in the league. The 3-point shot doesn’t have to become the main (or major) part of what Wiggins or the Wolves as a team are built on. But if they can open up the spacing on the floor a bit, everything is just going to be a little easier.
Sidenote: For apparently the second game in a row, the Wolves broadcast put current Cleveland Cavalier Timofey Mozgov in at center instead of Justin Hamilton to open the game.
Come on guys: I know the Wolves have had like a million different starting lineups and that all white guys look the same, but let’s get this one right for the last TV game of the season on Wednesday, eh?