Wolves 112, Suns 111: Winning in Winning Time

 

(Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Another game, another double-digit lead, and another close call for the Timberwolves, who pulled off a 112-111 win against the Phoenix Suns at the last-second Tuesday night in Phoenix. That’s right, another win for the Wolves in a close game instead of the close losses to which Minnesota fans became so accustomed over the first several months this season. The Wolves are showing signs that they’ve remedied their habit– (David Kahn voice) I’ll just call it a “habit–of losing a disproportionate share of games in which they build a significant lead.

That fate almost befell the Timberwolves again last night.

Minnesota led by as much as 14 early in the game before a Phoenix run to end the 1st Quarter put the Suns ahead 27-23. The Wolves won the second and third quarters 36-29 and 28-23, respectively, and took a 87-79 lead into the 4th Quarter. The Suns immediately began to chip away in the 4th Quarter, clawing back to take a one-point lead with about seven minutes remaining. For the rest of the 4th Quarter, the game remained mostly a one or two point affair like so many games the Wolves lost in the 4th earlier in the season.

Andrew Wiggins was the star. Wiggins, who scored 31 on the night and 22 in the second half alone, also made the biggest shot of the game: with the Wolves down by one with under six seconds remaining, Wig made a difficult, off-balance jumper for the win as time expired. That Suns brute “small” forward P.J. Tucker was draped all over Wiggins only made the shot more impressive. It was the first game-winning buzzer-beater of Wiggins’ career.

Hitting the game winner was sweet vindication for Wiggins, who had gone to the line with 12.1 remaining and the score tied and Derricked the pair. On the next possession, Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker got to the line and made both free-throws, giving Phoenix a one-point lead. (Eds. Note: Making both free throws is also known as the opposite of Derricking, or a “no Derrick.”).

Anywho, (three-game) winning streak, here we are!

Dueling Point Guards

The Wolves’ awkward point guard dynamics were once again on full display on Tuesday. Trade rumors surrounding Ricky Rubio reached a feverish pace the last two weeks–in part because rookie Kris Dunn managed to string together a couple of solid games while Ricky was on bereavement leave in Spain. Many fans have turned away from Rubio and embraced Dunn.

Not a scientific poll, but indicative of negative public opinion on Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio.

Not a scientific poll, but indicative of negative public opinion on Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio.
(Credit: Star Tribune)

Although it’s just one game, last night’s tilt should serve as a cautionary tale for Rubio haters who’re moving increasingly hard on Dunn. The comparison of the two against Phoenix is hardly a comparison at all: Ricky was good, Dunn was bad. End of story. The Wolves are right back where they were before–except for the fact that Rubio has been playing outstanding basketball of late, while Dunn continues to try to figure out the league. None of Dunn’s stats glimmer, but his 7.8 PER reflects just how much he has struggled to play efficient basketball thus far. A stint in the D-League might be more beneficial for Dunn than serving as an apprentice to whatever “bridge guard” Thibs & Layden, LLP, might acquire for Rubio. He needs a lot of in-game reps before he’s thrown back to the, erm, “wolves.”

Ricky Rubio returned from a two-game injury and bereavement hiatus. Ricky had yet another 10-assist game in the win, to go with 14 points, 4 rebounds, and a steal. Ricky was Ricky, setting up angles he used to complete difficult passes around and through the defense to open teammates. Ricky and Gorgui clicked especially well, with Gorgui converting numerous easy looks off of Rubio Specials en route to a nice 16 and 9 performance.

Kris Dunn struggled mightily, as mentioned above. Tyus Jones got a DNP-CD. Sounds familiar, right? At any rate, Dunn was worse than usual, forcing bad jump shots, playing out of control, and turning the ball over five times. Against Phoenix, he struggled to get the Wolves into their sets and to see or create angles for screeners, potential recipients of his passes, and cutters. The only place on the floor where Dunn really appears comfortable initiating the offense is the center-top area of the three-point arc. Consequently, a lot of the action that worked when Ricky exploited the floor’s geography to find open teammates would dry up when Dunn replaced him. I have nothing against Kris Dunn as a prospect, but he currently lacks the requisite skills to play point guard effectively in the NBA. To beat a dead horse one more time, at this point there’s no good reason why Tom Thibodeau should not give Tyus Jones regular playing time. Every time Dunn lays an egg like he did in Phoenix, making the case for Tyus to play more minutes becomes stronger by default, even though the ultimate decider–Tom Thibodeau–has no interest in hearing it yet.

Other Thoughts, Jottings, & Miscellany

Zach LaVine: I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Zach wasn’t good last night. He never really got into any kind of rhythm. He only took 9 shots in 33 minutes. He scored 11 points. He played bad defense and made some unforced errors that are unusual even for him. LaVine says nothing’s wrong with him injury-wise–his shot just isn’t falling right now. (Eds. Note: One can’t blame him if he’s already distracted with All-Star Weekend prep.) Timberwolves commentator Jim Peterson concisely defined Zach’s current state as a “loss of mojo” on Tuesday night’s broadcast. And he’s right: in the six games LaVine has played since the Wolves reactivated him on 9 January, he’s averaging over 10 points per game, just half of his season average prior to the games he sat out due to a left hip contusion. He’s only averaging 10 field-goal attempts since he returned to the lineup (compared to 16 before he was briefly sidelined), and his field-goal percentage has dropped 10 percentage points, from 50 percent prior to the hip contusion to 39.6 percent after.

Shabazz Muhammad: After a rough beginning to the season, Muhammad continues to be an important contributor off Thibodeau’s bare-shelf bench. Last night in Phoenix–the site of Bazzy’s rookie-season coming out party–Bazz’s offense compensated for the lack of scoring punch from LaVine. (Eds. Note: Shabazz is scoring about 19 points per 36 minutes in January; LaVine is averaging about 13.5 points per 36.). Bazz scored 15 of his 16 points in a breakneck 2nd Quarter. Bazz took heat-check after heat-check, with utmost exuberance and irrational confidence. Fortunately, he was plenty hot, especially in the first half: he was 6-7 from the field (2-2 from three-point land). Bazz was on a mission to get buckets. Mission accomplished.

Karl-Anthony Towns: KAT did KAT-like things: 18 & 10, with 2 assists, 2 steals, and a block. However, the Wolves bigs–both KAT and Gorgui–struggled to keep Tyson Chandler and Alex Len off the offensive glass. Thibs might have to center his next practice around those really un-fun box-out drills that many junior high and high school coaches force their players to do, ad nauseum. Chandler dominated the Wolves bigs, going 9-9 from the floor for 22 points, along with 17 boards (7 offensive) and 2 blocks.

Marquese Chriss: Chriss is long, Chriss is athletic, Chriss has a long road to reach his athletic potential. Still, the 2016 lotto pick has promise and is someone about whom patient Suns fans should be excited. I’m a Wolves fan, and I still found myself cheering when he did this.

Suns Guards: Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe came into Tuesday’s game fresh off a 40 point, 13 assist, effort in a win on Sunday at Toronto. Phoenix’s other guard, Devin Booker, is 20-years-old and is averaging more than 20 points per game. Bledsoe, who’s built and who plays like a human bulldozer, had an off night (5-18, 18 pts, 7 assists with 5 turnovers in 29 minutes). Booker got off late and managed to finish with 26 points, but it took him 23 shots to get there. The Bledsoe-Booker backcourt blends force and finesse in interesting ways. Bledsoe is difficult to stay in front of and to avoid fouling on dribble penetration. Booker is a world-class three-point assassin. The complementarities between the two player’s games create space on the floor for one another (and teammates) that would not be as open in either player’s absence.

Trivia: You might want to sit down before you read this, but there’s big news: Tuesday’s win means the Wolves finally swept a season series against Phoenix (3-0) for the first time in 13 years…

That’s all for now. The Wolves’ next game is tomorrow at Target Center against the Pacers. Tip is at 7.

Till next time.

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14 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    Man, that Suns defense looked awful at times. They could’ve just as well rolled out a red carpet for Wiggins on some of his drives to the hoop. It’s funny how good shooting and something to play for in the final minutes can turn a dud into something entertaining because neither team should be proud of their effort or focus last night.

    • Patrick Johnston says:

      Devin Booker is as bad a defender as he is good as a shooter. When he matched up with Wiggins, it was no contest. Chriss is another young talent who struggles with defensive lapses. The Suns are having some of the same growing pains we’ve been having on that side of the ball.

  2. pyrrol says:

    Love this write-up Patrick!

    Jim Pete was MAD during this game–wow. Unchained Peterson is fine by me.

    Tucker was fouling all game are rarely getting called for it. Usually, I complain a lot about the officiating. This season, while there seem to be a ton a bad calls, there aren’t constantly NBA games were it seems like the officials are trying to help one team in particular. However, this game it did seem like they were trying to give Phoenix the edge. So it was fitting and satisfying to have Wiggins get fouled on our last possession by Tucker and still stab the Suns with a game winner.

    That PG poll says one thing to me: Most fans are causal fans, and casual fans are usually idiots about the sports they ‘follow’. I can’t really put it better than Patrick as far as our PG realities and how we should use them with this team.

    How about that Aldrich dunk? Can a dunk be funny and awesome at the same time? I think we just got our answer.

    I’m proud of Shabazz. He went from a guy I would like to see moved, to the bench spark he was supposed to be and has improved on D.

    LaVine is a confident guy. When everyone thought he was a dunking twig who would never be a starter, he thought he was destined to be a star. For a while it rubbed me as immature delusion. Eventually, I realized that he does have star potential and his confidence was simply a helpful tool to have in a sport that feeds off of it. That is why this recent showing is so upsetting. It isn’t so much that he isn’t playing well—guys slump. But he lost his confidence, feel, mojo (and seems to have dumped a lot of things he worked hard to learn very suddenly) so quickly, all due to a very minor hip injury. I find myself confused and disturbed.

    Meanwhile, Wiggins, for one game, lived up to his closer/star of team/go to guy role that is aggressively being forced upon him. Frankly, a lot of this was luck and a bad opponent (he took a lot of bad shots and our Wiggins dominated offense is frankly not an NBA offense at all… really Mickey Mouse). What I did find incredibly encouraging was his court side interview after the game. He seemed really lively and opened up way more than he usually does. A lot of it was platitudes and sport talk, but it was a decent version of that, with a smile on his face and he made a point to talk about the team effort. I’m not a guy who complains about someone in a shell if they are the player the need to be while in it, but it has become clear that Wiggins has been blocking part of himself off from the game, that he is usually not fully engaged. This is a dangerous attribute for a player, particularly one in his position. Tonight he took steps to break down the wall.

    Along those lines, Thibs can look like a cartoonishly bad coach at times, a real hack. One of those times is the Wiggins iso/point Wiggins gear he makes the team go into late. Normal teams play their normal offense if it is working, even late, because shifting gears throws the team off and can stop momentum. This is basic stuff that coaches really low on the career ladder know without a lot of fact finding—in other words most people know this instinctively. You can argue whether late Wiggins iso/point Wiggins and not using Rubio’s ability to pass and run offense at the end of games is good for development. You can argue about whether you think Wiggins has the talent to ‘pull it off’ most of the time eventually. But throwing your team dynamic by changing gears into a stagnant, one-person centric offense suddenly at end of game is just asking for trouble, strategically. Sometimes coaches do something like this, but it is always the last few possessions or the last one. Thibs does it way to early. I’m for not doing it at all, or in very small one possession at a time, intermittent pieces. But if you do use it, I don’t think you start it so early. That just seems improper. We are lucky to pull this one out and I am proud of Wiggins for his effort.

    I’m also proud of Rubio. He has had a bit of hip trouble, his Grandma died and he flew how many thousands of miles right before playing this game, yet he didn’t miss a beat. Played great. What impressed me was that he took to scoring more because he realized LaVine wasn’t going to. He picked up the slack like a pro.

    • pyrrol says:

      Specifically, on the Jim Pete point, he really got frustrated with this team. At one point he went off on the youth thing, saying he’s sick of it and doesn’t think it’s an excuse we can be keep using (poorly paraphrased). I agree. But I find myself ping ponging between who I blame. The players do frustrating things all the time. They are young but it is LaVine and Wiggins’ 3rd year. Their maturation on the court has been painfully slow thus far. It’s hard not to blame them for their lack of focus and lack of adding needed skills, particularly on the defensive end. On the other hand, the coaching staff might not be teaching these guys well, nor making a very conducive learning environment. I see things all the time they do in the name of development that put the guys in a tough place. Point Wiggins is a good example. That just puts a boatload of pressure on a guy obviously not born with ‘go to guy’ personality. But it also throws off the whole team in different ways. Thibs seems to have an overly simply offense not to our strengths. The probable line of argument he would take here is that it would be overwhelming for these guys to learn a complex subtle offense, and that just letting them run transition O is the easy way out and they need to learn fundamentals of slow offense. The probable line of argument on D is that they need to learn complex D and simplifying it would be a bad shortcut for development, so they are just going to have to struggle with it. But what if they never get it in this throw them to the wolves type of scenario? What if that is a bad way to teach? When I was in art school, they didn’t ask you to paint a copy of Van Eyck’s Man in Red Turban on day one. You have to study years to get to that point, starting with basics of design. Yet, you can see the contradiction here—basically on O, we have to play simple and boring for learning sake, and on D we have to try to play complex full system D right away for learning sake… This is all speculation, but the glacial pace at which our highly talented players mature and improve raises natural speculation. Peterson can be a grumpy old man now and again, but he’s a patient guy who coaches himself. So to see him go off like that and just lose his ability to play the youth card to explain all this is telling.

    • Patrick Johnston says:

      Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting. “Mad” Jim Pete is interesting. My only gripe is that his calls for “Tyus Jones minutes” come off poorly. As he states, he has known Tyus for a long time. He clearly likes him not only as a basketball player, but also personally. Pete makes a good case for why Tyus ought to play more, but on the air it always feels like he’s a little too quick to lavish a little too much praise on Jones. And it can feely a bit whiny when he complains about Tyus’ playing time. To be fair, it isn’t easy for anyone to separate personal and professional stuff, and this is probably my only (very minor) quibble with Pete. He’s the best in the biz.

      Meanwhile, Shabazz has really come into his own. He has always been an intriguing offensive player, but his improvement on D might explain why Thibs is giving him as much leash as he’s getting. Bazz is one player you can point to whose D has clearly improved under Thibodeau. LaVine is another, even though he still has so far to go to become a “solid” (average) NBA defender. For his part, Bazz looks like he’s been paying attention in practice. He has spent most of his career playing bad positional defense. As this season has progressed, it looks like he’s getting himself to the right spots to have success in Thibs’ schemes. It’s nice to see progress like that from a 4th-year player.

  3. Mebert says:

    The wolves bought a d-league team!!!!! This is something that has been badly needed for awhile.

    • pyrrol says:

      It’s funny, I’ve been waiting for us to have our own D-league team for years. But now that it’s here, I kind of have a ‘so what?’ attitude. I mean, we have a coach who won’t even play Tyus Jones unless there is injury. Likely anyone who plays significant time in a the D league won’t see the floor much when (and if) called up. Sending Tyus down to the D-league would be silly–he’s proven capable up here. Thibs won’t send his pet project, Dunn down. As far as using the team as a receptacle for holding potential talent, it could be useful. Still I don’t see the point of keeping folks like Payne and John Lucas the 3rd down there, as they will never be of much use to us. Will our organization use it to groom the Whitesides of the world for use on the Wolves roster? Somehow this seems doubtful. I’m sure I’ll grow more excitement about this over time. It was needed. Almost all other teams are doing this, and it’s not been a good sign that we were so slow to. But now we have and it shows commitment to success.

    • Patrick Johnston says:

      Woo-hoo! I’m also excited. My (selfish) wish is that if the team were going to be located outside of Minnesota, it would move to Pittsburgh. Remote scouting would be fun. Just having a local professional basketball team would be nice in general.

  4. Jello says:

    Watching a game where the refs are so horrendous is really a terrible experience. Wiggins hitting that dagger to end it really brought the whole experience around though, and it was great to see how much it meant to him. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him that pumped before.

    Towns defense was really bad yesterday. He was consistently out muscled and out hustled. He’ll definitely need to learn from this because giving up 100% shooting and season high point totals to the opposing bigs is not good. Overall a meh game from him, but his game is well rounded enough that he can make up for certain lapses. For this team to get where it wants to go he’ll need to step up his defense, though. Especially against players who decide to get physical with him.

    Dunn should not be getting the majority of PG minutes, that’s for sure. Ricky should start, Tyus should be the primary backup and Dunn should split time between PG/SG to fit matchups. Good to see the Wolves purchased a D league team. Getting a staff in place to run our system will hopefully be great for developing our young players.

    Lastly, over the past 21 games this team is objectively better than they have been for years. It’s still frustrating but they seem to steadily be a .500 team at this point which is a marked improvement. I feel more confident than I have been in years that they can pull off .500 for the rest of the season.

  5. Ryan says:

    I am happy with the win but I found this game to be one of the more frustrating games to watch all season. There were some really positive play and then just plain awful. KAT, Wiggins & Bazz were terrific most of the game with Ricky having a nice game as well but everyone else was pretty worthless. Dunn after having arguably his best game against Denver had arguably his worst game. I get force feeding him minutes and expect inconsistency but going from one extreme to another was frustrating. And I can not understand why Tyus and even Rush don’t get more playing time.

    Belly has also been pretty frustrating — probably because I expecting so much of him this year but at this point I have as much confidence in his outside shot as I do for Rubio. Lastly, KAT had a mismatch the entire 4th quarter with Tucker on him and I can recall only one possession where he got he ball. That’s unacceptable — the wolves should have been running their offense through KAT or at least trying to get him the ball much more than they did. They were really fortunate because they didn’t deserve the win the way they played during the last quarter. Alright I’m done venting.

    • enai says:

      I didn’t have as high of hopes for Bjelica this year as others apparently did, but even so its still really disappointing: he’s basically worse in EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of the game this year- went from shooting 47% from the field and 38% from 3 last year to 41% from the field and 30% from 3 this year, his rebounds and assists per 36 min/100 possessions are down, and he’s worse in every overall metric (PER, win shares per 48 min, box +/-, VORP, etc.). His points per 36/100 and FT % are the only things that are up from last year, and the increase in scoring is actually a bad thing since he’s scoring much less efficiently but taking more shots (+3 FGA per 36 min).

      I never really expected him to develop into a quality starter, but at this point its looking like he may not even be a useful bench player on a good team.

    • Patrick Johnston says:

      Bjelica has been huge disappointment. It already appears clear that the “Bjelly Experiment” will fail. Sometimes I wonder if Thibs finds Bjelica’s poor performance surprising. Thibs seemed *very* high on Bjelly in the preseason.

  6. Tom says:

    I agree that the game was a frustrating win, but I think that KAT had a pretty poor game on the defensive end and so did Ghorgi. Both seemed soft for most of the game and let the Suns bigs get to many easy shots. Now some it was the refereeing, which was about as abysmal as NBA officiating gets (a low bar for sure.) Even Wiggins last shot was a mugging which made his game winner even more amazing.

    Rubio certainly played better than Dunn, which is why any thought of trading him scares me. Baz is in a zone of late, which hopefully helps him get paid this summer. Sadly, I suspect, not with the Wolves, Here was a guy who had as poor an attitude when he came into the league as any rookie, but has worked on his body, outside shot and just hustles. I still am mad that Flip picked him over the Greek Freak, but if that draft was done over, I think he and G would have gone higher than they did. Dunn’s lack of protection with the ball, is correctable, but the way Thibs fawns over his draft pick, it may be more difficult when he is given the keys to the offense. This is a tough kid, that doesn’t need pats on the head. He needs to learn that you can make mistakes, but not the same ones twice or you sit on the bench.

    We have about a month before the trade deadline. Lots of teams are looking to unload some pretty good players, create more cap space and get younger. I think that any player not named Andrew, Karl or Zack should be trade bait for making this team better. Just so long as they don’t spend the rest of the year in the DNP-CD like Rush and HIll.

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