Sometimes halftime is the worst thing that can happen to a team that’s up big — especially if it’s a young team. Although this year’s Minnesota Timberwolves have more veteran experience than last year’s squad, those players are pretty much over the NBA hill (as attested to by Andre Miller’s angst-ridden fast break from tonight’s game). Thus, while they can help in spots and guide the tenor in the locker room and on the floor — to an extent — in terms of actual tangible results within the game itself, the weight is going to fall on the young players.
Even players as wildly talented as Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are going to have to fight through inconsistency. We saw it last year with the rookies and we’ve seen it again this year, even as the team has looked much better overall: it’s difficult for everyone to get hot at the same time.
And then the first half in Atlanta happened.
Maybe the Wolves’ passes were a little snappier to start the game, maybe their defensive rotations were just a bit crispier, but overall it just seemed like they were shooting out of their gourds while the normally sharpshooting Hawks were hamstrung. Minnesota shot 63.8% in that first half. Andrew Wiggins was 8-for-10, Ricky Rubio was 4-for-8, Shabazz Muhammad was 2-for-2 and the real story of the first half — Zach LaVine — was 5-for-6 for 13 points and added three assists. Five of those points came right toward the end when he took a heat check 3-pointer — and nailed it — and a heat check jumper from the top of the key — and nailed it.
It’s worth mentioning here that Bill Bohl wrote a great post earlier today about why we should be patient with the LaVine at point guard experiment and tonight was effective support for that. And not because LaVine is necessarily the point guard of the future in Minnesota, but that what they’re trying to build in him is a guy who can carry a playmaking offensive load for stretches when it’s really needed. What we saw tonight was him doing that. Yes, it’s just a flash, but for anyone who’s said he’s shown precisely zero ability to be a point guard, this was an effective refutation. Too often, fans are quick to lump players into “superstar” and “trash” piles, and LaVine showed tonight that he’s very clearly a work-in-progress, but a player who’s at least now shown some of the most fundamental skills he needs to run a game as the primary ballhandler.
But overall, the Hawks in the first half were playing decent defense and daring the Wolves to make shots — they just happened to be making them. On the other side, the Hawks couldn’t buy a bucket, with Kyle Korver going 0-for-2 and Al Horford going 1-for-6.
When the Wolves went into the half with a 30-point lead, it was hard not to wonder how the Hawks would respond and how the mojo the Wolves built up over the first half would weather in the second. Halftime can be such a weird thing for a team that’s on a roll. It’s time to stop and think, and that can be the absolute undoing of a team that’s clicking, especially when they’re not used to that feeling. What was at first an almost out-of-control feeling has to be transmogrified into control, into an ability to modulate the tempo down into something sustainable.
As it turned out, the Wolves didn’t exactly crash back to earth (they shot 52.6% in the third quarter), but the Hawks definitely shook off their shooting woes, hitting 72% of their shots, including 71.4% of their 3-pointers. The second and third quarters ended up as essentially mirror images of each other, with Minnesota outscoring Atlanta 42-23 in the second and then Atlanta outscoring Minnesota 42-21 in the third. The low point of the third quarter came with about 45.5 seconds remaining when bad communication on defense left Thabo Sefolosha open in the corner for a 3-pointer that cut Minnesota’s once vast lead down to single digits. In that moment, Kevin Martin was throwing his hands up, lamenting that no one had picked up his man while others threw their own arms up.
The tumble for the Wolves continued into the fourth, all the way down to where the Hawks took a one-point lead on a Paul Milsap layup with 3:25 remaining. It was looking like the kind of loss Wolves fans could remember from Kevin Love’s last year with the team, and some went so far as to say this kind of collapse was emblematic of the team as a whole and their entire, often futile history.
I mean, let’s forget for the moment that we were watching the team with last season’s worst record play the team with the second best record from last season, a team that was the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Never mind that going into the night, this looked like Minnesota’s stiffest test so far this season. They were up 30, therefore them losing would become a crushing massive disappointment. Have I mentioned that it’s only the sixth game of the season? A loss against the Hawks after that first half would have been rough, but understandable for a lot of reasons.
But Wiggins and Towns care not for your reasons. Wiggins made a ludicrously difficult layup and the following free throw to make it a two-point game in the Wolves favor. He proceeded to drop two pull-up jumpers before Towns blocked not one but two Jeff Teague layups. The Hawks reverted to their first quarter form with Horford and Dennis Schroeder both missing 3-pointers in the last minute while first Rubio and then Towns sealed the win with free throws. It was heartening to see them scratch out that win and not on the back of shooting from Kevin Martin, but on plays by a pair of the team’s youngest players.
Listen: You still can’t expect this on the regular, but this was a treat of a game. Not just for the 30-point lead, which was immensely fun to watch get built. Not just for the grit they showed in the game’s final minutes in eeking out a win. But even for how they stumbled and righted the ship, for how LaVine put it all together for a brief, glorious stretch and showed he at least needs more run before he gets written off.
As a young team, there will be more halftimes where they find themselves up and think their way out of the fluidity that got them there. In plenty of those games, they won’t stave off a run by an experienced, excellent team. But tonight, they did, and that’s enough for now.