This was a tale of two halves, but not in the way the first meeting between these two teams was, when the Timberwolves roared out to a 34 point lead only to see it evaporate as they narrowly squeaked out a win in Atlanta against the Hawks. No: tonight the game was close just about the whole time — the biggest lead for the Hawks was 6, for the Wolves, 10, although that big lead came midway through the first quarter. 20 lead changes, 15 ties. In essence, neither team could get daylight on the other.
Not that Jeff Teague didn’t do his best to meticulously disassemble Zach LaVine when Atlanta’s starters came back in in the second half. Sam Mitchell has been dogged in sticking to subbing back in the starters at specific spots in games. It can be vexing to fans, but I can see the point: the team is very much developing, so there’s something to be said for letting the bench flounder and try to find its feet.
To wit: When Teague came back in with 8:32 remaining in the second and the Hawks down 5, he scored Atlanta’s next 8 points and tied the game up. Turnaround bank shot, driving finger roll, driving layup with an and-one, another finger roll and then a desperate foul by LaVine that sent him to the line. LaVine was pulled for Rubio and the momentum shifted again, with the Wolves pushing the lead back to 7 over the next three minutes.
Gorgui Dieng — who’s been having a rough, rough year — had a rough, rough first half. He looked, as he has all season, like he’s in a fog. Everything is a step slow and the decision making is bad. Compound that with more head-scratching play from Adreian Payne (who continues to do his best Anthony Randolph impression, grabbing an impressively athletic defensive rebound before foolishly attempting to play point forward and bring the ball all the way up the court), and you can see how much the Wolves are missing Nemanja Bjelica in the frontcourt. Bjelica might never be an All-Star or even a starter, but he’s going to be a very important player for this Wolves team when they start to gel.
So the Hawks, dressed in jerseys that resembled a discontinued energy drink, had a woeful shooting night, managing to hit as many 3-pointers as the Wolves but in twice as many attempts in the first half. They also only managed 5 assists to the Wolves’ 13 in that first half and, for a team built on knockdown shooting and crisp ball movement, that’s a huge problem.
What this set up was a second half in which both the Hawks and the Wolves knew that Minnesota’s depleted bench was going to have to carry the game, and Atlanta likely hoped they could take better advantage this time around.
But then a weird thing happened: Minnesota’s bench played their asses off. In the second half, Dieng was +6 after being -1, Tayshaun Prince was +10 and Damjan Rudez (DAMJAN RUDEZ) was +8 with 13 points. The starters overall were a -33.3 in net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions); the lineup of LaVine, Wiggins, Prince, Rudez and Dieng that mostly closed out the game was +18.6.
It’s much to Mitchell’s credit that he left that group out there down the stretch. Rubio tweaked the ankle he recently injured so he was unavailable, but keeping Prince, Rudez and Dieng out there was a minor stroke of genius, especially when things almost looked like they were going south with about four minutes left in the game. LaVine forced a bad shot, Wiggins forced a bad shot, and the offense briefly flatlined before Wiggins bullied his way into the lane to put the Wolves up 4 with 1:25 remaining.
The advanced metrics still don’t really like Wiggins (more on this at another time), but it’s hard to argue with his production in the clutch. Right now, he leads the NBA in points in the clutch and also free throws attempted. He’s forcing the issue in the best way possible when it matters. Personally, I think Wiggins is going to hit an a-ha moment at some point in the near future where he finally gets a feel for how to link together all the different impressive skills he has into something that’s consistent, aggressive and efficient. And it will likely be even more terrifying than the bursts are right now.
In short, the Wolves remain fun, and scrappy wins like this aren’t just wins, but also are hopefully laying the groundwork for future paths to success. Impossible to say that for sure, really, but if I told you before the season started that they’d sweep the series against the Atlanta Hawks, you’d take it, right?