The Timberwolves defeated a beleaguered Denver Nuggets team 112-99 on Wednesday night in Denver. The Nuggets were coming off a signature win of sorts, after 132-110 drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on Monday in Denver.
The Nuggz team that dominated the league’s best team didn’t show up at the Pepsi Center Wednesday night, at least in spirit: Despite the Nuggets hanging around and keeping the deficit to within five or six points through the middle of the fourth quarter, the Wolves were clearly the better and hungrier team. Watching the game, you just didn’t get the same feeling of dread in your gut that the Wolves would lose this one. Minnesota owned the second half of this game.
Another Big Night for Andrew Wiggins
Andrew Wiggins was the star of the night. The 21-year-old recorded his second consecutive 40 or greater-point game, notching 40 on 15-26 shooting. He made threes. He dunked. Oh, and so as not to bury the lede too far, he really dunked.
All the angles of Andrew Wiggins smashing on Jokic. Wolves win tonight behind Wiggins' 40 pts pic.twitter.com/I2Qm0YX44M
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) February 16, 2017
You kind of feel bad for Nikola Jokić (more on him below) here until you realize how much fun basketball is for him in the 99.9% of the time he plays, and Andrew Wiggins isn’t dunking on his face.
Why is it he refuses to participate in the Dunk Contest again?
Nikola Jokić: Don’t Miss Out
To make a long story short, the game comes way too easy for Jokić. His passing, ball-handling, and shooting range are uncanny and largely unteachable. People who aren’t already watching the Nuggz on the regs should be. Because Jokić. The kid is something else.
Jokic does not get the same kind of attention as other prodigies like Giannis or Kristaps. But he’s nearly their equal in the competition for “most interesting young basketball player in the world.”
Last night, Jokić didn’t shoot the ball very well, going only 6-19 from the field en route to 15 points. But it was his 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, and 1 steal that reflect the “do-everything (well)” style Jokić represents.
That said, Denver just didn’t put much of a supporting cast around Jokić.
Inventorying the Nuggets roster was like an unpleasant visit to an infirmary. None of the following played for Denver: Danilo Gallinari (groin), Emmanuel Mudiay (back), Kenneth Faried (ankle), Wilson Chandler (illness) and Darrell Arthur (knees). There are some good players there. It’s hard to know how the game would’ve turned out had Denver been healthier.
Former Nuggets giant Jusuf Nurkic was traded to Portland for human triple-double watch Mason Plumlee. Plumlee played big minutes in his first game for Portland, looking gassed in the second half in 34 total minutes. Former Michigan State star Gary Harris played fine, and demonstrated that he can shoot and score, but did not match up well overall.
Big Man Skillz
Back to the Wolves. Beyond Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns was outstanding. He complemented Wiggins’ stellar scoring performance with a very strong game of his own. KAT grabbed 19 rebounds to go with his 24 points. Most of all—and this recap can’t really do this justice—is the excitement of seeing Towns and Jokić on the floor with each.
As we are now at the break for All-Star weekend, and we just saw KAT head-to-head against Jokić, it is interesting to remember that KAT somehow defeated the diminutive Isaiah Thomas in last year’s Skills Challenge. (Eds. Note: The best part of the video is Steph Curry’s and Kyle Lowry’s reactions to Towns’ victory over their fellow small Thomas.)
Like KAT, you get the feeling that Jokic—a late addition to this year’s competition–could walk away the 2017 winner.
Looking Past the All-Star Break
The dominance of Wiggins and KAT was sufficient to push the Wolves to a double-digit win over the Nuggets, a team which, based on the standings, would make the Western Conference Playoffs as the 8th seed if the season ended today with a very low winning percentage in what amounts to a seven-team conference.
While it was nice to see the Wolves defeat the Nuggets last night, and it was nice to see Wiggins score 40 again, and it was nice to see KAT’s 24 & 19 game, the Wolves are still looking less like a playoff contender than they are like a playoff pretender at this point.
At 22-35, Minnesota is not only proximate enough to the 25-31 Nuggets to think that a playoff push isn’t inconceivable, but the Wolves are also proximate to bottom-tier NBA teams: only five teams (Philly, Orlando, Brooklyn in the East, and the Lakers and the Suns in the West) currently have a worse winning percentage than the Wolves’ .386 clip.
For more perspective, the team is 25.5 games back of the top team in the West, Golden State, and it’s All-Star Weekend, not the end of the season. While there are debates about whether how much – if at all – Zach LaVine makes the Timberwolves a better team, it appears to me that the team is more likely to hang about where it is this season than surge toward the playoffs despite the improvement we are seeing not only from Wiggins and Towns, but also guys like Rubio and Bazz, as they become more comfortable with and confident in Tom Thibodeau’s system.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to see the Wolves win as many games as possible in the second half, and to grow together toward becoming the kind of young, elite team that we all envision as their potential in a few years.
But the more I watch the team, the more I’m convinced that Thibs’ stubborn resistance to changing #TheProcess as he has envisioned it is smart if probably very difficult for a competitor like him.
What the Wolves need now is more depth and talent. This year’s draft is supposed to be among the best in a decade, and it seems like the Wolves are at least somewhat likely continue to make progress on the floor, this season, as they’ve been doing, but also to have a chance at a very good player in this year’s draft. This outcome might end up being even more fun and beneficial for the Wolves and their fan base than would be slouching into the playoffs and getting crushed in the first round.