Wolves 116, Bucks 99: Step into the spotlight (WOO!)

I don’t wanna sound unkind but the
Sounds I make are the sounds of the hounds that are howling
Under your bed I’m here growling
Same time under the blanket you’re cowering

-Run the Jewels

Now that was what optimistic Timberwolves fans, as well as the many national pundits who predicted 45 wins and a playoff berth, expected most of their games to be like.

KAT scored efficiently, read help defense and double teams beautifully to distribute the ball, and held his own on the defensive end of the floor. Zach LaVine punished the Bucks for losing him on the perimeter, drilling six triples in nine attempts. Shabazz Muhammad scored 22 points in 18 minutes off the bench, providing a big spark for a beleaguered unit. Ricky Rubio had 5 points, 9 dimes, 4 steals, and led the team with a +27 on/off rating. And Andrew Wiggins scored 31 points, grabbed 5 boards, dished out 6 assists, and yammed all over whichever Plumlee plays for the Bucks. RIP Whichever Plumlee Plays For The Bucks:

In short, it was a very good night to be a Timberwolves fan. On the game’s opening possession, Karl-Anthony Towns grabbed his own miss and scored on a putback layup, giving the Wolves their first lead. A minute and a half later, Andrew Wiggins banked in a pullup ‘j’ to give the Wolves a 6-4 lead, breaking the game’s final tie. It was a 116-99, wire-to-wire win for the hometown team, who are now 11-22 and 3.5 games out of the final spot in the Western Conference playoff chase.

Minnesota is 5-4 over their past 9, which hasn’t entirely washed the nasty taste of a 6-18 start out of their mouths, but at least they’ve purchased mouthwash and resolved to brush twice daily. Three of those four losses (Houston, Sacramento, and at Denver) were winnable games blown in frustrating fashion. But make no mistake, the Wolves are trending upward. It’s starting to click. They’re finishing plays, finishing possessions, finishing quarters (for the most part), and starting to finish games. This was a big step in the right direction – even though Milwaukee (15-16) is a middling team in the weaker conference. If the Wolves are going to make a run for the 8th seed, these are the games they must win.

A few other random observations about Friday’s impressive home victory:

1. Kris Dunn had a very nice first half stint

Through 33 games, nearly half a season, the Wolves’ rookie point guard is averaging just 4 points and 2.4 assists on 37% shooting. If anyone was malicious enough to put together a montage of his lowlights, it’d be a steady stream of turnovers, miscommunication, and missed shots. In short, he’s struggled. Despite being old for a rookie (he turns 23 in March) and being physically ready for the pro game, he still has a long way to go before he masters the fine details.

But to his credit, he never stops defending, and he never seems fazed. While his numbers Friday weren’t overly impressive (0 points, 4 assists in 12 minutes), he looked as under control and in control as he has all season long, especially during his first half stint. He pushed the ball in transition effectively, once on a great outlet to Shabazz for a slam, and once catching the Bucks sleeping, resulting in a LaVine corner three. Baby steps.

2. Jason Terry has “balls and smarts”

Physically speaking, Jet’s cooked. But he has, as someone said to me after the game, “balls and smarts,” and that sustains him. Watching veteran players closely can be a lot of fun, because they do very subtle things to gain advantages. There were two plays that stood out from last night:

-Around the 4:30 mark of the first, Terry sets a screen for Giannis Antetokoumnpo on the right wing. Wiggins and Rubio switch, and Giannis bodies Rubio nearly out of bounds, allowing him to spin back towards the court to drive toward the hoop. Sensing this, Terry holds Wiggins for a split second, getting Wiggins out of position, and freeing up the entire baseline:

It’s probably an illegal screen, but as any Kevin Garnett aficionado ought to know, it’s only an illegal screen if it gets whistled, motherf—er. It’s a subtle, brilliant move by Terry. Wiggins was unprepared for Terry to be quite so physical, and was pushed out of position, thus allowing Giannis to drive and dish to Greg Monroe for an easy two.

-My other favorite veteran move is when they openly stare at an opposing coach making a play call, then relay it to their own bench. With 27 seconds to go in the first and Wolves ball, presumably holding for one shot in a halfcourt set, Jason Kidd subbed out Tony Snell in favor of Jet, despite Snell being more physically suited to defend in that situation. Terry immediately marched to midcourt, stared at Tom Thibodeau as he made his play call, then relayed the play call to his own bench and teammates, allowing the Bucks to funnel Wiggins into dishing to Ricky Rubio for a three, rather than a more, um, desirable option. Ricky bricked the shot.

3. The Bucks played really, really small lineups.

KAT doesn’t often have wild physical mismatches, but had one over John Henson, whose length didn’t really seem to bother him. Greg Monroe was the center for a few stretches, but he ain’t exactly a banger on the defensive end. Milwaukee had long stints with Mirza Teletovic at the five, giving them great spacing on offense, but leaving them without a rim protector. (That last part is what we in the industry call an “understatement.”) Thon Maker got some burn in the fourth quarter, but he’s long, thin and very raw. Whichever Plumlee Used to Play For the Bucks, who was a real center while he was still alive, checked in during garbage time, and then he died when Wiggins killed him dead, and they buried him right there under the court.

The most important result of the Bucks’ small ball? Minnesota hit 21 of 28 shots in the restricted area, and Andrew Wiggins got to the line 13 times. That’s a questionable strategy, to say the least.

Minnesota will try to continue their recent stretch of solid play tomorrow night against Portland at the Target Center. Happy New Year, everyone!

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. sportsbygreg says:

    Great game. As much as I criticize Andrew Wiggins (my favorite player), I have to give him much credit for this game. Now that’s the AGGRESSIVE & PASSIONATE guy we should see every game. He has the ability. If he plays with that same laser focus every game, this team will go to another level and all his individual goals and aspirations will naturally be blessed upon him.

  2. pyrrol says:

    I was really looking forward to this game. The Bucks are an interesting young team and I tend to like to cheer for them as a secondary team. I really wish we were in a division with them. They are so close and would be a fun rivalry. We have more in common with cities like Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee than Portland and Denver. I expected a competitive game, but not for us to outplay the Bucks. It was pretty fun.

    Speaking of rivalries, many have voiced irritation/doubt about Wiggins, including me. I thought of something watching ‘determined Wiggins’ make a visit and how great it is for our chances. A lot of this is mental/personality–more than I’ve realized or been willing to admit. On talent alone, Wiggins may not be the next Kobe, Jordan or Lebron, but he’s a darn good mix of basketball things. But how often do we see it come together like we did tonight? The answer to that has frustrated me, but at the same time, the theory is that it is coming along and we just have to be patient about it and it will soon be much more often. But how often is it when Wiggins has an excuse to get amped? Much more. Remember how much better and harder Wiggins would play against Cleveland because they traded him? It seems like there was a little of this type of thing tonight as silly as it sounds. He wanted to prove to everyone he indeed should have been the #1 pick over Parker—it felt personal. I know it sounds silly, but I think this happened, that it actually motivated Wiggins in this game. So, on one hand, good, you can motivate him to play with a whole other level of focus and effectiveness. On the other hand, uh, you need these silly little personal causes to play to potential? That’s not someone destined for greatness. It’s still very early in Wiggins’ career and he’s a very talented young man. But for the time being I’ve resigned myself to the less focused version of Wiggins, and the limitations that puts on him. Even with his wings clipped so to speak, he’s a good talent to have on a team, he may just not be the go to guy Thibs is trying to make him out to be. LaVine is that guy, that’s his personality. And he’s got skill to back it up. Towns may be as well. I feel like he’s further along mentally and in finding ways to help his team than Wiggins was at that time in his career.

    Dunn scored zero, but I was more impressed than I have been in a while. This is still far behind where a 22 year old 5th pick described by some as NBA ready should be by a lot. But for moments he looked like a real PG and passed the ball nicely. The energy the guys brought, the click they had really helped Dunn sink into some kind of groove.

    The Bucks are interesting. Giannas is a strange player. I recall being in Wisconsin the year he was drafted and reading a Wolves-like article in one of their papers about how exciting he was… the way we optimistically fawn over mediocre draft picks sometimes. It was cute and familiar. Or, I was totally wrong and their excitement was totally justified! He’s a pretty interesting and dynamic player and has graduated from being a curiosity. Will that happen with Thon Maker? I was surprised how small he looked. I knew he was skinny, but surrounded by two lanky teams, he didn’t look to have a physical advantage of any kind and was very raw. Parker is a really good player, too and maybe his ceiling is a little lower than Wiggins’ but he’s not so idiosyncratic. He’s got a little more of a wise, steady old man game, and is a lot stronger. But he doesn’t have the strange flash that Wiggins has (although Parker is quite athletic!). Overall, we were helped a lot by Milwaukee’s… well, skinniness. Suddenly our lack of beef meant nothing. Perhaps Wiggins benefited from this the most and looked good, often defending Giannas. Unfortunately, few teams are built like Milwaukee. But we sure beat them with the kind of game they’d probably like to be playing.

  3. Jello says:

    I agree with what everyone has said about Wiggins here. You hope he finds that drive every game, but it definitely seems to come and go with how personal he feels the match up is. This was exactly what you hope to see from Wiggins bringing the ball up and he seemed more comfortable controlling the pace and you can tell his handle has improved since his rookie year. One turnover with six assists is definitely too much to expect regularly, but it’s great to see him do it. Hopefully the team is starting to realize how much better they play when the ball moves and we can see this more often.

    My gosh Giannis is good. It’s too bad they don’t have Middleton right now because Giannis/Parker/Middleton is a very good young core to challenge Towns/Wiggins/LaVine. Giannis definitely might be the best of those six (definitely is right now), he’s certainly the most uniquely gifted. The game he just had against Chicago was crazy. Makes me almost as sad as passing on Curry that we took Bazz instead of him…

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