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:
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) December 31, 2016
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!