The Wolves had one of the best showings of any NBA Franchise at All-Star weekend. Andrew Wiggins played great in front of his hometown fans in the Rising Stars game, Karl-Anthony Towns won an unexpectedly exciting Skills Competition, and Zach LaVine (accompanied, of course, by Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic) gave us a Slam Dunk Contest for the ages. The Wolves’ emerging core of great young players was on full display.
The Grizzlies had zero representatives at All-Star weekend. Their best player, center Marc Gasol, is likely out for the rest of the year with a broken foot. Their second and third best players (Mike Conley and Zach Randolph) will be free agents at the end of the season. At Thursday’s deadline, Memphis’ front office turned the player best resembling youth and upside (Jeff Green) into the divisive Lance Stephenson (who wasn’t yet available for Friday’s game) and a future 1st round pick. Courtney Lee was flipped for a pair of seconds and a flyer on P.J. Hairston.
What was left to face Minnesota on Friday night: a core of Conley, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, JaMychal Green, Mario Chalmers, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright, and the Birdman. It’s a beautiful collage of the weird, the old, the tattooed, and the cast-aside, led by an excellent point guard (Conley) and an aging big man with a somewhat outdated game (Z-Bo). Despite all the upheaval, Memphis managed to emerge with a 109-104 victory.
From the Wolves’ perspective, things went pretty well, until they didn’t. They hit 31 of 31 free throws, a franchise record. It marked the second time in 20 years that a team has hit 30-plus from the charity stripe without a single miss. Minnesota attempted 26 threes (HOLY SHIT!) and made 11 of them, just the first time this season they’ve cracked double-digit makes from beyond the arc. They had 25 assists on 31 made field goals, a positively insane ratio. LaVine had 22, Wiggins 20, both frontcourt starters (Towns and Dieng) posted double-doubles, and the bench pairing of Shabazz Muhammad and Kevin Martin had 12 apiece.
So what went wrong? For one thing, Minnesota turned it over 22 times, which lead to 29 of Memphis’ 109 points. They built an 81-71 lead with a minute and change to go in the third, but by the time the quarter ended, that margin had been cut in half, thanks in large part to a 73 foot buzzer-beating heave by Vince Carter. In the final quarter, the Wolves managed to hit just 2-of-17 field goals (2-of-11 from three, 0-of-6 from inside the arc) but were kept in the game by their freakish ability to get to the line (17 times in the fourth alone).
What was encouraging: the crunch-time lineup was Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns, and Dieng. Bazzy and Kevin “The Buyout Waiting to Happen” Martin played the role of scorers off the bench. Tyus Jones got minutes as the backup point guard (it didn’t go so well, but he got the minutes). And, of course, the Wolves played very tough against a veteran team who, weird construction and fit aside, knows how to win games, which is exactly what they did.
The Wolves could’t get shots to fall late and lost, but overall the effort was good. Sloppiness aside (I fully expect Sam Mitchell to harp on limiting turnovers relentlessly prior to tonight’s tilt against the Knicks) it was a fun game. The ball movement was excellent. They took the right shots (so many threes!), got to the line, and were right there at the end.
If this script is repeated often between now and the end of the season, they’ll be much more fun to watch, wins and losses be damned.