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.
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.