Cavaliers 116, Timberwolves 108: A love letter of sorts to basketball fun
Maybe it’s just all of those extra emotions of love floating in the air during the commercial holiday of Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s just heart emojis permeating the cold, dead muscle inside my chest. Whatever the reason is, I walked away from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night beaming about the game of basketball. Sometimes you get so caught up trying to break down the minutiae of the contests we watch night in and night out that you don’t get a chance to sit back and truly enjoy something fun.
For whatever reason Tuesday night as I watched LeBron James, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Derrick Williams (yes, that Derrick Williams) go off for relatively spectacular games, I just allowed myself to relax and watch the game for what the game is. There was a certain point during a scoring flurry from both sides at the end of the first half in which I realized, “whoa nobody is playing defense right now.” That can be frustrating at times; it can also be a spectacle just worth experiencing.
If I may, I’d like to express my appreciation for what we watched by paraphrasing Nat King Cole’s song L-O-V-E.
L is for the way you don’t look at me
You can’t walk away from the Wolves’ loss to the Cavs without that special feeling of what LeBron was able to do on the court. There was a point from five-minute mark of the second quarter to the 7:40 mark of the third quarter in which LeBron seemed like he was done messing around. The Cavs went on a mini-run twice during this stretch. They closed out the first half with a 7-1 swing that pushed the lead to eight. Then they went on an 8-0 run early in the third quarter to push it to 82-69 — their second biggest lead in this game.
During that stretch, LeBron just put on an incredible display of basketball. He was dropping dimes. He was setting up shooters on the weak side of the court. James was cutting down the lane and delivering thunderous dunks. He was attacking the pick-and-roll, and making defenders wish they had taken a sick day. LeBron was ridiculous. He accounted for 29 of the 33 points they put up during this stretch of basketball. He scored 13 of them and assisted on the other 16 — four of them 3-pointers.
Prior to that moment, LeBron had one of the most ridiculous passes you’ll ever see. The amazing thing with him is you actually end up questioning if it’s even in the top 10 passes of his career. That’s how special of a passer he is. A few minutes into the second quarter, James was bringing the ball up in transition. He had Derrick Williams and Kyle Korver on the left side of the break. Korver flared out toward the left corner and Williams ran a loop that took him toward the hoop on the baseline.
Wiggins was the only made on the left side to defend both of them. Kris Dunn was tasked with stopping James in transition. LeBron looked toward Korver, which sort of froze Wiggins toward the lane. Then he whipped a two-handed, backhand bounce pass through Wiggins’ legs for a Williams And-1.
I mean… what? Who does that? Who thinks of that? Was it an accident? It’s rare that Ricky Rubio isn’t the best passer in a game. Playing against LeBron is one of those rare instances.
O is for offensive explosion we get from Wiggy
Wiggins was absolutely spectacular, aside from getting nutmeg’d by a pass from LeBron. He has that extra little something almost every time he plays the team that drafted him. Maybe it’s extra motivation to show LeBron what he could’ve theoretically had (although, winning that championship kind of makes it moot at this point). Maybe it’s wanting to go at LeBron because he’s the best player in the game and that puts a target on your back. Perhaps, he’s long been a League Pass zealot and wants to have enough good moments in the game to silence the incessant screaming of Austin Carr.
Whatever it is, Wiggins loves playing the Cavs. After his 41-point performance Tuesday night, Wiggins is now averaging 29.8 points on 55.8% from the field and 51.6% from deep in six games against the Cavs. This game was the third time this season Wiggins has gone for 40-plus. He had everything working in this game:
His 19 points in the third quarter, including that mini-flurry at the end, kept the Wolves in this game, and kept LeBron from getting a lot of fourth quarter rest.
After this shooting performance, Wiggins is now up to 46.0% from the field and 35.2% from deep. Those are both currently career-highs for him, but there are a lot of games to go until that dust settles. He’s getting pretty close to the league average of 35.9% from 3-point range. All of that work with Drew Hanlen has improved so much of his shooting process this season, and it shows.
Wiggins has hit career bests from 10-16 feet, 16-23 feet, and 3-point range. From the handle into a pull-up jumper to just catch-and-shoot rhythm, you see a lot of change. There are still changes and improvements to be made moving forward with his shot, but this is the jump as a scorer you want to see from him this season. Ideally, the next step would include improvement at the free throw line, where his 75.4% is a career worst. Eventually, he needs to be up over 80% and preferably setting the floor at 85%.
Another good performance from him and another L in the process. Despite all of this success individually against Cleveland, Wiggins is still just 0-6 against LeBron’s team.
V is very, very Ricky Rubio gamey
5 points, 8 rebounds, 16 assists, 2 steals, and 2-of-8 shooting. +1 in the box score. Over the previous nine games, Rubio was averaging 14.6 points on 43.8% from the field and 43.8% from long range. That scoring efficiency ran out against the Cavs, and with the way he played the game, that was probably to be expected. You can only expend so much energy on the court and Rubio was pushing the ball, setting up teammates, and playing his ass off on defense.
Kyrie Irving finished with 25 points in the game, but needed 27 shots to get them. A lot of that had to do with Rubio pestering him, rarely getting lost in Kyrie’s Three-Card Monte game of dribbling, and contesting shots. Some of it was pure luck too. Irving missed a few open jumpers that went halfway down and then popped out. Mostly though, Rubio was both being an effective help defender while recovering to make things a little harder for an All-NBA point guard.
Rubio and Wiggins came back into the game together with 7:02 left in the game. The Wolves were down four points at the time. The magic we saw in much of the game from Ricky wouldn’t really be there again. He had a couple of assists during that final stretch but none in the final 3.5 minutes. Great game by Rubio, but they just needed a little more juice in that final stint on the court.
E is even more, this KAT guy we really adore
Until Wiggins really got going, it was Karl-Anthony Towns who carried this offense early. Tristan Thompson is a good defender, but he really couldn’t do much to slow Towns at all. That’s the kind of performance you want to see from Towns against a smaller guy. Thompson is great at leveraging his lower center of gravity, which makes him a nightmare on the glass. It also makes him a fairly solid post defender because it’s hard to get deep position against him.
That wasn’t a problem for Towns though (aside from Thompson’s six offensive boards). He used his size and length. He used his quickness to get a couple of easy buckets. KAT even gave a fake hand-off that froze the Cavs perimeter defense, powered through a hand-check from LeBron, and ripped home a dunk that nobody on the backside wanted to challenge.
Towns with the big slam pic.twitter.com/6AY5AGzSfm
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) February 15, 2017
Towns finished with 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting. He also had 8 rebounds and 4 assists. On the NBA TV broadcast, Kevin McHale and Chris Webber kept saying the Wolves needed to play through Towns more to set up for the future. While the offensive imbalance was there because Wiggins took 11 more shots, I actually think it was about right for most of this game. We often complain about a player getting hot and then the team not continuing to go to the rolling scorer. The Wolves didn’t do that in this game.
KAT got plenty of touches to be an impact player and they played through Wiggins, who had it going. The main issue ended up being the slow decisions of weak side helpers, and the crap-fest we saw from the bench for most of their time on the court. I would love to see Towns get more and more opportunities on the floor and I do believe he should be the top option most nights. I also think he isn’t quite there yet with negotiating double teams thrown his way, and that creates some hesitation in continually pounding the ball into him.
That aspect of his game is close and the balance between him and Wiggins is usually where it should be.
One parting note
Lance Stephenson rolled his ankle on a non-contact play during the first half. He had to be helped off the court and into the locker room. His 10-day contract will expire during the All-Star break. You have to wonder if this ankle injury will affect his standing with the team. If it’s not that bad, then he’ll probably find another 10-day offer sitting in his inbox. If this will keep him out for a couple of weeks, there’s a chance the Wolves move on and Stephenson gets scooped up by someone else when he’s healthy.
He’d played relatively well for Tom Thibodeau. And the perimeter defense is a must for someone coming off the bench right now.