AWAW Roundtable: On Bjelica, Sam Mitchell, and other assorted worries about the future


Which player has the most to prove over the final month and a half of the season? Why?

Zach: Ricky Rubio. I don’t think the Rubio trade situation with Milwaukee is necessarily a bad thing. It shows the value they put on Rubio (depending on which version of the story you believe happened in terms of which team offered the other and how far it went), and it shows the value another team puts on the player the Wolves allegedly said it would take to get the deal done. But Sam Mitchell wasn’t thrilled about Rubio being the point guard that held his interim fate at the beginning of the season and there are concerns within the organization that eventually Rubio’s limitations limit how far the Wolves are capable of going.

All of that is a long time away and the salary cap jump makes Rubio’s contract a bargain coming up. That still doesn’t mean his play won’t determine just how quickly the Wolves turnaround and move him. Maybe if they fall in love Kris Dunn in the draft or think Jamal Murray can be an NBA point guard, the Wolves will look to move Rubio this summer for a wing or a big man to put next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Rubio has to prove he can be a threat. He’s shooting 41.5% FG and 40.9% 3FG since the All-Star break. Last seven games have him at 46.3% from the field and 44.4% from deep. He doesn’t have to be that the rest of the season but he does probably need to show he’s the point guard of the future, no matter what the Wolves want to do with their next step.

Steve: Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad is a fan favorite for his aggressive offensive play and the spark he provides off the bench. And plenty of professional (or at least semi-professional) followers of the game love his potential as a disruptive force — a guard who can bully other guards on the block and be a 3-point threat from the corners.

But real talk? He has the fifth worst net rating on the team, edging out only Tyus Jones, Nikola Pekovic, Greg Smith and Adreian Payne, none of whom have really impressed anyone this season. His offensive rating is only 102.0 — only .2 better than Tayshaun Prince (TAYSHAUN PRINCE!). Although Mitchell has often praised his dedication to getting better and being in the right place on both sides of the ball, he’s still a net negative right now. If he’s going to be a part of the Timberwolves’ long-term future, now is the time for him to show that he can be a consistent contributor and not just a fun lark.

Tim: I think there’s a general assumption around the league that Zach LaVine recent success isn’t anything completely permanent. In other words, LaVine at his best is a streaky shooter, that will go through hot streaks and then eventually fall off. The last month and a half of the season, it would be great if he could keep his consistency up and finish the year strong.

His move to shooting guard has to help. Whether the time he spent at point guard helped him or not can’t really be quantified, but he is now playing in his position that he’s clearly most comfortable with, and has had a small sample size of success. The down games will happen, but keeping them at a minimum would be the separator.

Bill: Gorgui Dieng. He’s become a favorite of the current coaching staff, and will certainly be considered for a contract extension this offseason, especially if the front office remains intact. He started very slow, averaging just 6 points and 5 rebounds on 48% shooting over his first 13 games, but began to pick up his play shortly thereafter. From January 25th through the end of February, he took it to a whole new level, averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while fostering frontcourt chemistry with Karl-Anthony Towns.

‘G’ has dipped a bit in March, but if he can manage to finish the season on a strong note, it could mean a bigger payday, as well as a more prominent role in the Wolves’ future plans.


Nemanja Bjelica had a few nice moments, but overall, it’s been a pretty disappointing rookie campaign. Are you concerned about him going forward? Does he need a new coach and system to unlock his true potential?

Zach: I never liked the way Nemanja Bjelica was being used with this team, aside from a few spots here and there this season. And most of that happened early on. Moving forward, he needs to be in a system and playing for a coach that values his shooting (he should never hesitate to shoot and a coach should be killing him if he does) and his playmaking ability. It doesn’t mean he has to be featured as a point forward or anything. It just means they should run sets that have him running a pick-and-roll from the other side of the court after an initial PnR has been snuffed out and the ball has been kicked to him. He should be aggressive at all times and trusted more late in games.

Honestly, I’m not sure how much of that Sam Mitchell had the luxury of doing. With the way he took over, there wasn’t a ton of time to get that across or establish an offensive system that better utilized Bjelica. And the forward needed to establish himself a bit more too. I don’t put too much stock into his struggles this year. Nikola Pekovic looked completely lost his first year over here. Bjelica was a better Euro player than Pek, but it doesn’t mean the adjustment isn’t the same level of difficulty. If he’s still playing poorly three months into next season, then I’ll worry.

Steve: I think Zach’s comparison of Bjelica with Pek in terms of adjustment is spot on. Pek was limited in his rookie year by personal fouls and 3-second calls, and that was largely because of having to adjust to a new set of rules. For Bjelica, he’s adjusting to a similar thing in terms of being assertive with the ball from the perimeter, which functions very differently in the NBA than in Europe. It’s also a big adjustment to going from an MVP to a guy coming off the bench.

That said, he definitely needs a different system to take advantage of what he can do. On the other hand, it’s not totally out of place to be concerned about a Shved situation, where his game was basically neutered as soon as anyone got decent NBA film on him. I hope that isn’t the case, though, and that Bjelica goes from forgotten to an important element of a team with a very different looking offense next season.

Tim: I’m with Zach and Steve here. I was a fan of the idea of running Bjelica at some backup point forward a year ago, especially if Andre Miller wasn’t going to play and Tyus Jones wasn’t ready. This would have given Zach LaVine some freedom to play more off ball, even if his technical position on the floor was “point guard”.

More than anything, as mentioned already, Bjelica needs to learn to just take the damn shot. This could be a coaching thing, or it could just be his psyche. But he needs to figure it out to be successful in the NBA. He’s a very good shooter, but he won’t be able to showcase that if he doesn’t shoot the ball with confidence.

Bill: I’ll echo what everyone else has been saying: I firmly believe Bjelica would be solid in the right system – a pace and space approach, surrounded by shooters, where he’d have the option to shoot or put the ball on the floor to create for others. If that isn’t how he’s going to be used, what you’re left with is a good shooter who is hesitant to shoot and gives up a TON on the defensive end of the floor.

For what it’s worth, I’ve heard Bjelica’s teammates and Mitchell himself implore Nemanja to shoot when he was open during games – they call out from the bench, or in one particularly memorable instance, Shabazz Muhammad yelling “SHOT” as he passed him the ball. He just hasn’t settled in; there’s still hope for him to do so.


Pretend Andrew Wiggins asks you the one main thing he should focus on improving this offseason (ball handling, post moves, jumper, etc). What would you tell him?

Zach: Ball handling. Everything with him ties back to ball handling because improving upon that just means a general comfort with the ball, which is the only thing he’s lacking. When you have that comfort with the ball, passing and shooting just get easier for a wing player. We see flashes of both from him, and extra comfort means consistency. There isn’t much more than I can even think about him needing to improve. Experience takes care of the rest with him. I don’t buy into the crap about him needing to be more aggressive. That’s sports talk radio jargon and that stuff is usually a placeholder in lieu of something that actually has meaning in the game of basketball.

Steve: Zach said handle, which is probably the single thing he needs to work on the most, but since Zach already said it, I’ll go with multi-tasking as a discrete skill. At times, he looks dominant offensively. We’ve seen him look dominant defensively at times as well. Sometimes he passes the ball surprisingly well, occasionally he rebounds like his size and athleticism dictates he should. But we’ve rarely seen his game look complete in the sense of being able to transition his focus seamlessly among different disciplines of the game. Maybe part of it is just having so much potential along so many axes, but at some point he needs to start putting the skills he has together in real time.

Tim: You’ve heard the story before.

“I brought a basketball everywhere as a kid.”

Wiggins needs to do that now, as an adult, this summer. Take a basketball everywhere he goes, dribble that basketball until it goes flat. He’s undoubtedly an improved dribbler, but he’s still being held back. There are still things he clearly wants to do that he simply cannot because he doesn’t handle the ball well enough.

He knows this, though. He’s said before that it’s the thing he needs to work on most, and I have no reason to believe he isn’t going to work his ass off to get better. Once he does, crazy things could happen next to Towns.

Bill: Yeah, it’s the handle. It’s hard to “practice” court vision – like, if this was NBA2k, and I could spend offseason “development” points on Wiggins, it’d be on a category like “passing” or “offensive IQ,” but it doesn’t work like that in real life. What Wiggs can work on is confidently handling the ball into traffic. If he gets that down, sussing out when and where to pass the ball can come a bit more naturally.


There’s more time to write on this, and a lot of dominos have to fall this summer, but… gut feeling, is Sam Mitchell the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves on opening night in October?

Zach: I’ll say no. I know rumblings seem to be that Glen Taylor is more and more comfortable with the idea of Mitchell removing the interim tag and getting another chance next season. We’ve seen improved play over the last couple of weeks. But I still think the new regime (which I still expect to happen) will eventually have their say. Glen will be more preoccupied with keeping some of the front office people (doesn’t necessarily mean personnel/roster deciders) in place than keeping a familiar coach. Of course, all of this could fall apart and Sam gets to keep coaching next season.

I don’t think that would be a disaster. I do think it shouldn’t happen past the summer of 2017 though. For now, it’s fine. Way more has to be in place before we even worry about the coach and Sam might end up being a decent enough stepping stone coach for the organization. I guess I just don’t expect him to be the future of this team. Whether that means opening night in October this year or next year, it doesn’t really matter to me.

Steve: There’s something very Schrodinger’s cat about this situation, because on the one hand, there’s nothing that Mitchell has really done to prove he should be the coach going forward. Even if you want to credit him with some or even post of the development that’s happened, for most any franchise that’s squarely focused on eventually contending, it hasn’t been enough.

And yet, this is the Timberwolves, and momentum and inertia rules. They hang on to people way past their sell-by date. If you’re the Timberwolves, it’s what you do. If Mitchell is the head coach come next October, it’s indicative of business as usual in the most frustrating way possible. If he’s not, it might augur a different kind of influence in the ownership. Basically, Mitchell’s job security says less about Mitchell than it does about the organization. And in this case, the organization hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. I’m preparing my soul for Mitchell to return.

Tim: I’m going to guess no. The “interim” tag has to be one of the toughest things to deal with as a head coach, especially when he’s slapped with the title for an entire 82-game season. But that’s what he is, and (as Zach mentions) a new regime switch would probably seal Mitchell’s fate.

Even if the Wolves stick with Milt Newton as their lead man, I’m not sure how much that saves him. Newton has been in the NBA for a long time, and his experience with Mitchell isn’t as long as Taylor’s. If Newton is retained on a permanent basis, I would assume the head coaching decision would be left up to him, not Glen.

Bill: I’m not a betting person, but to be perfectly honest, I’d be stunned if the Wolves do anything other than remove the interim tag from Sam Mitchell this offseason and give him at least another season as head coach. I’d say it’s 90/10 he’s back. Robert Pera is making it difficult for Steve Kaplan to get out of his minority ownership stake in the Grizzlies, delaying any sort of transfer of power, and even if that process does get back on track, who’s to say Glen Taylor will immediately cede decision-making power to a newcomer? And who’s to say Kaplan and his group would necessarily want to oust the current regime as their first order of business? No, Sam Mitchell will be the head coach on opening night, 2016. 


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9 Responsesso far.

  1. Frank North says:

    ” I’m preparing my soul for Mitchell to return.”

    Same, “If you’re the Timberwolves, it’s what you do” is why. As much as I would love to see Scott Brooks take this team over and to the next level. This is the T’Wolves and Glen Taylor has never removed anyone from a position of power until it’s been two years too late.

    So we will get Mitchell next year and probably the year after before he is fired.

  2. mikeskunes says:

    RE: Rubio – People can hate on his lack of shooting touch all they want, but anyone who wants us to move on from him is a dummy. His on/off & RPM numbers point to him as being the single most important player on this team. We can wish for more, but there isn’t anyone better to move on to. Kris Dunn and Jamal Murray aren’t upgrades. Tyus is not and may never be as good as Rubio is already. And no one with a better scoring point guard like GS, POR, OKC, LAC, and TOR is necessarily looking to swap with us.

    RE: Bjelica – All you guys have said exactly what I’m thinking. I think he has “starter on a playoff team” potential but he’s dealt with a steeper learning curve that I think anyone thought he’d face with adjusting to NBA rules, chemistry and system fit, and injuries.

    RE: Mitchell – I know you asked people for gut-check reactions but there’s two completely different questions here: “Will he be back?” and “Should he be back?”. Will he be back? Probably. Enough that I’d put money on it. Should he be back? Maybe. Most decisions about whether you should retain your coach or not has to do with comparing what the performance has been versus the expectations. Expectations for this team and Sam are all over the map. On one hand, you can say expectations of Sam should have been low because he wasn’t supposed to be the head coach this year. On the other hand, the team definitely flashed the talent in their first twenty games to be a dark-horse playoff contender before being worse than the 76ers from December-January. Individual players have shown improvement this year, but not as much as the fan base had hoped. He’s finally made adjustments scheme-wise (uptick in the use of corner threes) and rotation-wise (Zach LaVine: 2 guard!) that are positive but seem too late because pundits and fans have been clamoring for them since November.

    I think if we have the opportunity to hire Thibs this offseason, then we should pull the trigger (the fact that he’s a grating personality be damned). This team fails miserably to play solid defense when KG isn’t on the floor and KG is not coming back in a significant way. Thibs would both teach great team defense and lack tolerance for turnstiles like Adrien Payne. But if we can’t get Thibs, I don’t know if there really are better options out there. Mitchell both gives us the upside of consistency and seems to lack Kurt Rambis or Mike Tice levels of incompetence. But he also may be our ticket onto the treadmill of mediocrity.

  3. gjk says:

    Taylor’s thought process still scares me. Aside from making sure this team stays here, he’s low-key one of the 5 worst owners in the league when it comes to hiring/firing decisions. I can’t imagine how long Kahn would have been here if Adelman wasn’t in the organization or Taylor didn’t know that Flip was willing to replace Kahn; it seemed like Adelman’s influence on personnel really helped them move on from Darko and Beasley in particular, and going from Kahn to Flip wasn’t exactly innovative thinking for him. And the idea that Mitchell was worried about RUBIO hurting his chances? Rubio is a main reason he even has a shot to keep this job.

    As for other options, there are plenty, and not just guys that people hear of. I have no interest in Thibs unless he’s actually planning to evolve, Brooks is okay but Towns/Wiggins isn’t the same level of combo as Durant/Westbrook, and if one person mentions Izzo… A good interview process and good decision makers should suss out the guys who bring the most to the table, and their goal can’t be to win the press conference or pick the guys who have the most public support. Terry Stotts was 26 games under .500 as a head coach before being hired in Portland, and he’s probably one of the top 5-8 coaches in the league. Maybe Memphis will make all of this easier and dump Dave Joerger, but this franchise can’t be afraid to bring in a really good assistant over a name if that’s the best choice.

  4. pyrrol says:

    If we somehow had to choose between keeping Rubio or Sam Mitchell (Sam seems fond of making it ‘us against them’ with his players) we should choose Rubio so fast it would make heads twirl. We’d all like to see Rubio’s shooting improve (indications are that it is slowly) but in reality he is one of the players with the least to prove. Moving forward Shabazz needs to get better at three point shooting and defense. At the same time, we’re looking at bench scorer/energy guy as his role, and he’s not all that far from filling that. I honestly think that Zach is proving to be a steal already and the key (surprise!) was simply having him play in position consistently. I have a love/frustration relationship with Deing. He clearly works hard, and he’s also benefited from playing with starter talent and next to Towns. I’ve never quite gotten why he’s a darling of the coaching staff, as he’s been very inconsistent over the season. At the same time, Rubio (who gjk points out is basically the reason Sam has a chance of keeping his job) is looked at with thankless skepticism by the staff. Need we see more to understand how out of sync this staff is with reality?

    From the outside looking in, it seemed like Bjelica was used totally wrong and not coached well through the Euro to NBA challenges. This allowed his confidence to be destroyed. I’d love to see him come back and show flashes, but I think he might need the slate of a new season. It would help immensely to have a better coach. If Sam is here next year, we might get a Shved situation.

    You guys had great answers on Wiggins. Funny, he’s a pretty good young player, and yet I feel overwhelmed by the question—there are so many things for him to improve. His D was his top selling point in the draft and he’s not even an average defender some nights. His rebounding is shockingly bad. His handle needs work, even if he plays at more natural small forward. His three point shooting needs work. His attitude a demeanor needs to improve–he’s too lackadaisical and seems to have attitude problems playing for a bad team lacking in someone like Towns or Rubio. He also needs to be more consistent. One thing not mentioned that might top my list: He needs to explode more when he finishes–he relies too much on lazy/extend jumps near the rim which don’t use his full athleticism. When you see him plant and go it is shocking. This could be said of everything, but he’ll look much better with a coach upgrade. He’s not getting the guidance I’d like and our style (and lack of plays) put him in a tough spot. Can we stop with the triple team isos in one corner of the court already? That’s a big responsibility for a 20 year old, not to mention, simply bad offense.

    I think other franchises laugh at a question like this. If anyone has proven he’s not a coaching answer, it is Sam Mitchell. He’s a total disaster as our head coach. It would be incredibly detrimental to take him on for another year. It’s not too far to say we are risking this current rebuild if we keep Sam next season (and let Milt make personnel decisions). If we are serious about this rebuild, it is imperative that we upgrade the coaching and the GM. I mean, it basically took Sam until the All Star break to figure out to play Zach at shooting guard. That alone says so much. How many couch potatoes like myself would have made that move in November? It’s a whole lot more, though. It’s the childish ‘us against them’ way of dealing with challenge, a willingness to throw players under the bus but never take responsibility. It’s the complete lack of in-game adjustments. It’s the league worst action we present on offense, and the lack of defensive system and improvement. It’s the lack of playing to strengths (transition offense). It’s the total mathematical denial of three point shooting as part of an NBA offense (and his inability to supply plays that create decent looks from three). I also lost my willingness to go along with Newton when I heard we wanted Middleton for Rubio. I mean, yeah, Middleton is a nice shooter, but that’s it. We need a point guard, continuity and the magic/competence Rubio brings much worse than a Middeton-like player who mostly just shoots. What was the plan, to draft a real point guard to cover Rubio’s spot after we got Khris? How long would that set the rebuild back? Again, the couch folks could figure this stuff out better. I’m afraid we won’t, but we need to clean our coaching and the GM spot the moment the season is over. If we don’t at least get rid of Sam, I’m not sure if this franchise deserves fans. On a positive note we should keep our health guy (forgot what you call it). He’s done a great job and was an important addition.

    • Frank North says:

      I agree with everything you posted. What’s sad is most of it is just plain common sense. Sadly I think we had a lot of “I don’t care what everyone is saying, I am going to do it my way”. Now it looks like the GM has the same blinders on mentality. We finally have 4/5 pieces in place for that starting rotation. And we have a GM who thinks he needs to screw it up.
      How hard is it to look at the best run organization in the league (The Spurs) and not see the benefit of consistency and continuity? Exchange pieces? How freaking dumb is this? You augment and fill holes.

      I think this is by far the hardest team in MN to remain a fan of, and it starts with the owner.

      I am going to take this one step further even last year with Flip, the Wolves had the number 1 pick and he played games all the way up to the draft as to who they would take. There was zero reason for this. Towns was the obvious choice. But no we had to play the angst game with the fans. Now Mitchell wants to blame his crap coaching on Rubio. And we have GM who wants to play along. It’s time to clean house on all of them.

      • gjk says:

        Regarding last year’s draft, I don’t think it’s that simple. Someone (I think Jon Krawczynski on his podcast) went through Flip’s thought process: he was in the mix for the Gopher job and thought he had a shot at getting Tyus Jones, who was closely tied to Okafor. Okafor was the #1 recruit in the country who had an All-American season while Flip was busy coaching the team. Any opinion he had wouldn’t have been informed by watching the tape and was changed once he was able to watch.

        This is the problem with draft process; it doesn’t matter what a person’s opinion is today or even a month from now. All that matters is the choice. There’s nothing wrong with fans having opinions about a topic, but we should hope the front office doesn’t just agree with our opinions; I mean, a lot of casual fans probably thought that taking LaVine over Payne was a mistake.

    • MNmike2011 says:

      Last year Flip bought out JJ B before the season started, traded Mo Williams & had Zach at the point for most of the season. The conclusion was that Flip tanked the season to get the Best shot at KAT..

      IMO the Wolves are tanking this season again, to get another shot at a top 5 pick. As many have pointed out. It was clear last year and this year Zach is not a starting or backup PG He is barely a 3rd string PG on a team with a winning record. But it was Feb before.Zach was playing mostly two guard

      How much better would Tyus, Bjelica, Payne and Rudiz would be at this point in the season if they had each played 20–30 minutes / games for 1-3 months in the D-league with either Saunders or Adelman coaching them? But the Wolves don’t have a D-league team so that isn’t’/ wasn’t a possibility. Another way to tank the season?

      They started 8-8 and 12-37 since. The over under in Vegas was 25-28 wins for the Wolves before the start of the season. My read was that most people thought the Wolves would win at least 30 games with a small possibility of close to 40.

      The Wolves will need to win 30% of the rest of their games to get to 25 wins and 40% to get to 27 wins.

      Which leads me to the idea the Wolves are tanking. Which is another reason why Sam will be back even thought the majority of people think he should be re replaced with S Brooks, D Blatt, L Walton or a Spurs assistant.

      IMO going from 16 wins last year to 25 wins this years is a failure of management and coaching.

  5. Ryan Fortson says:

    I am going to stick with my gut feeling that the Wolves will get a new coach over the summer because the alternative is too frustrating. If the interim tag is lifted, then it will probably be at least two more years before he is fired. I’m sure Mitchell will negotiate and receive a three or more likely four year contract. The fact that he has been an interim coach for a year is a bit complicating, but really no team other than Sacramento or Charlotte fires a coach after one season as head coach. And certainly not the Wolves.

    Yes, there has been some growth under Mitchell, but this was almost inevitable for a young team. The defense has gotten worse over the course of the season, despite Mitchell’s claims to be emphasizing fundamentals. This Wolves need a coach that can grow with the team and shape it as the team grows. If you wait a couple years, there will be too many bad habits and too many disgruntled players.

    As I’ve said before, I don’t want Thibs, despite our need for a strong defense. He will burn out out players too quickly and will not foster the necessary level of team cohesiveness. I could go for either Jeff Van Gundy or Davit Blatt, though I have reservations about both. My hope is for one of the Spurs assistants — Messina or Hammon — and not just because of the Spurs complete domination last night. (Walton is going to go to either the Lakers or Knicks.) Spurs assistant coaches have done quite well in the past when hired as head coaches. And everyone accepts that the Spurs have probably the best team culture in basketball. Wouldn’t you want to replicate that? (And I am not saying to hire Hammon to hire the first female NBA head coach, though that would be cool. Ask yourself if you would want to hire her if she were a man. The answer is probably yes. In which case she is a qualified candidate for the job, regardless of gender.) I agree with gjk that a good interview process will determine if either of them can really handle being a head coach. Joerger would also be a good choice if he is let go by Memphis.

    We also need to completely revamp our bench. This is probably more a topic for another time. I’m not sure how much blame to place on Milton, as most of the players were chosen by Flip, and there is only so much you can do during the season.

    • MNmike2011 says:

      I want to make a comment about Ryan’s last phrase. What has Milt done this season
      1.) negotiated the buyout of 2 players that that Spurs immediately signed (the Martin signing has been delayed because the Spurs had a hard time deciding who to cut and insisted that the player cut get told face to face by the GM or POP)

      2.) signed a D-league big to replace KG & Pec

      3.) passed on signing Kris Humphris (cut by Phoenix and signed by Atlanta) Is a Humphris a great PF no. But he is a solid PF with about 10 years experience which is a level of experience the Wolves seriously lack. Plus he is from MN & might still live here in the off season.
      This would be a 16-18 game rent a player to fill a big hole in the Wolves bench for a dependable Big. to replace KG & Pec. And see if he would be a fit for the Wolves rooster for next season.

      4.) passed on signing Ty Lawson (cut by Houston and signed by Indiana) Ty Lawson was a solid PG for Denver that didn’t work out with The Beard. in Houston Ty averaged 15-18 PPG (2011 to 2015) 46% shooter & 37% from 3 for his career. 2011 to 2015 Assist to TO of 2.69 to 3.89.

      IMO Lawson is a solid PG that could challenge Rubio for the number 1 PG position. Especially if the Wolves signed him for next year. Let Lawson & Rubio fight for minutes at PG & let the best man win.

      Both Humphirs and Lawson went to solid East Conf. teams but neither team is going to make any noise in the playoffs even in the East Conf..

      Why wouldn’t they both be interested in a chance to check out a team that is on the rise in the West. Would their free agency prospects be any better or any worse if the played for the Wolves verses Altanta-Indiana?

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