Timberwolves 92, Hawks 84: Once is Luck, Twice is a Streak
The Minnesota Timberwolves have won two games in a row and three of their last four after defeating the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night by the score of 92-84. Despite their penchant for the opposite (at least prior to the last four games or so), the Wolves’ defense was strong against Atlanta, which resulted in the Hawks shooting 41.5% from the field, including 26.9% (7/26) from three. The most encouraging defensive development of the night was that the Wolves did not allow the Hawks to score a single transition bucket, a major accomplishment for the NBA’s second-worst transition defense (1.18 PPP). Dennis Schröeder, the Hawks streaky point guard, led all scorers with 21 points on 21 shots and added seven assists. Power forward Paul Millsap chipped in 18 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists.
Millsap had arguably the best overall game for Atlanta. He was a consistent thorn in Karl-Anthony Towns’ side, playing stout defense and doing it all on offense for the Dwight Howard-less Hawks (the hulking center sat out the game due to back tightness). Millsap, on more than one occasion, completely took the Wolves’ defenders to school, bullying them down to the low block, only to hit a fall away floater or find an open teammate on the wing.
Ricky Rubio continued his streak of strong play on both sides of the ball, tallying 10 points, two rebounds, eight assists, and two steals (mumbles nearly inaudibly he also had six turnovers). Although Thibodeau once again handed the keys over to Andrew Wiggins down the stretch (more on that in a second), tonight added to the recently growing body of evidence that Rubio can function within the new Wolves’ offensive system. I remain dubious that this trend of function will continue for the rest of the season, but for right now, it’s fun to see glimpses of the Ricky Rubio of old.
Karl-Anthony Towns had himself a game. The nimble seven-footer snatched 18 rebounds, four of which were offensive, and added 17 points and five assists. The Wolves main focus coming out of halftime centered on working through Towns in the low-post. The Hawks began to double and triple team Towns’ after a few possessions, which allowed for the Wolves’ perimeter players to get open looks while also forcing a couple of errant passes and steals. He has gotten better from the beginning of the season, but Towns needs to further improve his decision making, specifically when he’s planted on the block. He tends to either bulldoze his way into a congested lane or force passes into crevices that are too filled with opposing appendages for the ball to travel through cleanly.
Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng also contributed positively, combining for 30 points, 13 rebounds, and three assists. LaVine continued his red-hot shooting from behind the arc, hitting on four of his eight attempts, and Dieng added three blocks.
Wiggins’ game was defined by streaks. He began the game going 5/6 from the field, tallying 10 points and four rebounds in the first quarter. However, his shot stalled over the next two and a half quarters, connecting on only one of his next nine shots. Wiggins proceeded to hit three of his final four shots to finish with 19 points, seven rebounds, and two assists. Once again, Wiggins was the primary initiator during the game’s final possessions, which produced mixed results.
An argument could be made that it would be better for the Wolves’ immediate interests to let Rubio be in control of the offense at the end of games, and that argument wouldn’t be wrong, per se, but by handing the team over to Wiggins on a consistent basis in crunch time, Tom Thibodeau is showing his hand for what his future plans are for both the young Canadian and the team; how Thibodeau is handling Wiggins is not unlike how Flip Saunders handled Zach LaVine during his rookie season. Giving Wiggins ample opportunities to learn how to facilitate his teammates and run the offense during crunch time will pay major dividends in the future (when the games matter more), no matter how hit or miss the results are presently.
Although wins are fun and an important part of developing, as Thibodeau states frequently, the most important aspect of this season is for the players and the team to get better every day. Allowing Wiggins to run the offense, often at times that may feel least opportune, is a major element in his personal development this season. Whether the plan is to develop Wiggins into a more athletic Jimmy Butler remains to be seen, but, regardless, having him learn how to control the team, find open teammates off the drive, improve his ball-handling and decision making, and create his own shot on the fly creates invaluable opportunities for actual in-game experience without much added pressure.
- Coach Tom Thibodeau only played 8 players tonight, with Cole Aldrich being the most surprising DNP-CD. The Wolves’ lack of bench minutes and production will be interesting to monitor as the season continues to progress.
- Speaking of the bench: They struggled tonight. Bjelica, Muhammad, and Dunn combined for 16 points on 6/21 shooting (3/11 from 3) and struggled to defend consistently. The Wolves are going to need better games from the bench if they want to keep this winning trend going.
- Minnesota’s own Mike Muscala had himself a game. The stretch big scored 16 points on 6/9 shooting, including 3/3 from deep, and added four rebounds in 30 minutes of play.
- The Wolves were 13/14 from the free throw line, meaning they have connected on 37 of their last 39 attempts from the charity stripe over the past two games.
- The Wolves are back in action Friday night against the Sacramento Kings. Tip is set for 7 p.m. central.