The Timberwolves first basket was a wide-open three pointer by Ricky Rubio. It came off of a long offensive rebound by Andrew Wiggins who kicked it out to Ricky. Their next basket was a three by Karl-Anthony Towns, also assisted by Wiggins, with the shot clock expiring. In the opening minutes they had other good looks from downtown that were attempted without hesitation, but missed — one by Rubio and another by Brandon Rush, who was filling in for Zach LaVine, who had been diagnosed with a torn ACL earlier in the day (more on this in a moment). On possessions that didn’t include an open look from downtown, the Wolves were pushing the ball in transition. Wiggins scored on an easy layup and Rush was fouled on a breakaway attempt.
The Wolves began the game playing with pace and purpose. They created good shots and fired them without thinking twice. They looked like the better team and a win seemed almost inevitable against the undermanned Grizzlies, who were resting Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Chandler Parsons.
31-15 wolves after a quarter. All five Wolves starters scored. Three had two assists or more. Wigg 9, Rubio 8, Towns 7 and 7, Rush 5.
— Kent Youngblood (@BloodStrib) February 5, 2017
Things changed in the second quarter.
After a couple of early Shabazz Muhammad baskets — a baseline driving floater, and then a cutting layup off a sweet feed from Tyus Jones — the offense stalled. They led the Grizzlies 37-20 with a little over 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter. From there, they would score just 11 points to close the half and the game was tied 48-48 at the break.
What went wrong?
A lot of different things.
Brandon Rush decided to drive to the basket and charged over a waiting Grizzlies defender. Nemanja Bjelica threw a terrible side-to-side pass to Cole Aldrich that was intercepted, and then compounded his mistake by lightly fouling JaMychal Green as he scored the breakaway layup. When the Grizzlies surprised the Wolves with a full-court trap, Jones jumped and whipped the ball up the floor into coverage. His pass was picked off and quickly converted into a Troy Daniels three-pointer.
Thibs called timeout at this point and subbed Ricky, KAT, and Gorgui Dieng back in. Initially, it seemed like they took back the momentum. They got a series of stops, and a KAT hook shot here with a Rubio jumper there and the lead was back up to 14 with six and a half minutes to go in the half. But then the Grizzlies turned it back on.
Troy Daniels buried a jumper off of a pin-down screen. Ricky Rubio airballed a jumper. Next time down, Daniels came off another pin-down, this time curling, and Rubio & KAT allowed him to slip the ball to the screener (Brandon Wright) for an open dunk. A few possessions later, Gorgui passed up a mid-range jumper — the thing he’s one of the best in the game at — for a driving hook shot that was swatted away and fed into Grizzlies transition offense. Troy Daniels converted an easy bucket against the scrambled Wolves defense. Ricky threw an uncharacteristically bad skip pass to the open space between Rush in the corner and Wiggins on the wing; out of bounds. When Brandon Rush mishandled a rebound, Z-Bo snatched it and scored — plus the foul.
Once the momentum turned decidedly in the Grizzlies favor, the Wolves struggled mightily to get it back on their side. After getting the game tied by half, Memphis built up a lead in the third quarter. They led by 11 points late in the third, before Shabazz and Bjelica did a few things to turn it around and cut the deficit to just 2 at the last quarter break, and they actually led by a point for a brief moment when Tyus buried a three in the opening minutes of the fourth.
But for all intents and purposes, the Grizz took this game over down the stretch. More than anyone else, JaMychal Green gave them fits, outworking the Wolves bigs on the glass en route to a career high 29 points on 8-11 shooting. After a series of fouls and quick possession changes in the final minute, the final score was Grizzlies 107, Wolves 99.
A few takeaways:
- First, this loss — while disappointing — isn’t quite as bad as the “Memphis was without Gasol/Allen/Parsons” line seems to suggest. Coming into last night’s game, these Grizzlies had established a pattern of playing decent basketball without each of those players. Their “off” rating without Gasol was (-0.8), Allen (+0.8) and Parsons (+1.5). In other words, while each of those players is important (Gasol in particular) the Grizzlies remain a solid team in their absence. Mike Conley was the best player on the floor last night, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph are crafty vets who can beat anyone on a given night, and Green can obviously play well. The Wolves needed to play well to win that game — it wasn’t going to be handed to them.
- Second, that was not a pretty game for Ricky Rubio. He shot 15 times, which owed to both smart Grizzlies defense that funneled the ball his direction, but also his own foul-baiting attempts that the refs were not buying. From almost the starting tip, Ricky seemed frustrated by the ball pressure put on by Memphis guards, constantly barking at the officials. He was (-14) in 38 minutes of action. Jones, who had a couple bad turnovers but otherwise played a pretty nice game, was (+1) with 10 points and 6 assists in 24 minutes; sometimes paired with Rubio as the off guard. Along with Muhammad, Jones has the best catch-and-shoot instincts on the team. He is ready to fire when left open.
- Third, those of us on the “Brandon Rush makes the Wolves so much better” bandwagon might need to tap the breaks. Whether it was rust from so much time sitting on the bench or just regression to the mean, Rush laid an egg, last night. He shot 1-5 from the floor in 24 minutes of (-17) basketball. The Wolves missed Zach LaVine, last night. Thibs did not seem worried at all about Rush after the game, emphasizing that he’ll be fine, and that he’s a pro. He’s probably right, but that was not an encouraging first game in what will likely be his role for the foreseeable future.
- Fourth, Wiggins had an excellent first quarter, but struggled to do much after that. Five of his 23 points came in the meaningless final minute. He took a lot of shots (22) to get his 23. It just wasn’t a very good game for him.
- Fifth, the LaVine news… well, for starters, it’s obviously not good. Although he had been slumping a bit of late, Zach was turning in the best season of his career, becoming one of the league’s prolific perimeter shooters and improving (if slowly) on defense. ACL injuries are not as severe a setback as they once were, but this is a setback for LaVine, no question. It will be interesting to see if Thibs continues to play Brandon Rush in the starting shooting guard role for the rest of the season, or if he uses the opportunity to get his younger bench players (Kris Dunn, Jones, Muhammad) more minutes in different situations. My guess is that it will be a little bit of both, but mostly the latter. After the Wolves recent hot stretch (against a soft schedule) fans are talking playoffs, with the West eighth seed within reach. I don’t get the sense Thibs cares much at all about a playoff berth, compared to the simple and more-important task of improving as a team. In his recent interview with Britt Robson for MinnPost, Thibs talked about his understanding of where this team is in the developmental stages (“early”) and how he is most concerned about the future and doing things the right way to establish a winning foundation. With those types of themes emanating from many Thibs decisions as both personnel boss and coach, I expect that he’ll use the LaVine absence more to give opportunities to younger players under longer term contracts than to play Rush 35 minutes per game in hopes for a late-season push for a 1-8 matchup with the juggernaut Warriors. As close as the Wolves are to the 8 seed right now (3.5 games back) they are also positioned to get a very high draft pick in what figures to be a loaded class of prospects. They are currently tied with the Pelicans for the 5th worst record in the league. Adding yet another talented 19-year old might not be what the patience-tested Wolves Nation wants most, but it might be what’s best for their long-term future, which is all Thibs & Layden, LLC seems to care about.
Last night’s game was the first of a six-game homestand. Next up are Dion Waiters and the red-hot Miami Heat, tomorrow night at Target Center.