Wolves 112, Denver 99: Rocky Mountain Highlights

Andrew Wiggins scored 40 points in the Wolves’ win over Denver

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.

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.

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11 Responsesso far.

  1. enai says:

    Yeah I remain unconvinced that a higher draft pick will be more beneficial than ending the season with a strong push and getting some playoff experience. Accumulating talent is great, but at some point that talent needs to learn how to win, and I also wonder about the potential effects of so much losing on young players psyche and development.

    • Jello says:

      Yeah, I have a lot of that sentiment too, enai. The only reason that I disagree, though, is that Jonathan Isaac is such a perfect fit for us and is going to be picked in the top 5. His build is very similar to KD, giving him position flexibility between the 3 and the 4, but he’s already a very good defender. He’s averaging over 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 steals per 40 while shooting a average 35% from three and over 80% from the line. His offense isn’t nearly at KD rookie levels right now but his defense is already tantalizing. If he could be a good defender who shoots average from three he’d already be an amazing stretch forward for us. Getting him on a rookie contract would be amazing.

      The other part of me feels just like you on how the culture and psyche of the players would benefit from winning. Not to mention how winning attracts free agents. With the new bargaining agreement, though, I gotta just say we role the dice on another draft pick and hope we can bring in some savvy, defensively skilled vets in the offseason. If we’re building the talent through the draft anyway we can afford to overspend on the key role players in order to entice them to come. We just wouldn’t get the big name stars, but that’s always been a hard sell anyway.

      • Tom says:

        Please don’t have the pick made for this team. Four of the five top picks this year are PG and Thibs still sees something none of us see in Dunn. If the Issac kid is the next KD or KG, he could be gone and we may add another young PG. If we are in the Lottery again, does that pick become the alpha male? What does that do for free agency and all the cap room?
        I say they still have a shot and should play to be that 8th seed. Players take notice of teams moving up and decide to come here as FA. We can still get a quality player, Giannis, Jokic and many great players go in that non lottery area of the draft. And our players get a chance to experience playoff ball. They need to push themselves and win road games after ASG. Anything else is loser ball.

  2. Karth says:

    Sure, a top 5 pick would be great and it’s hard to say what would be more beneficial. But, I would gladly take the wolves getting crushed in the first round. Even if they slouch their way to the playoffs, a little, tiny, minor bit of excitement to play the warriors would fantastic. Playing against the warriors and seeing them play the same consistent defense every game and not make mistakes would be extremely valuable.

    Isaacs is a great prospect but a high pick should be a fall back if the playoffs don’t work. I would actually rather trade the pick for whatever shooting or defense they could get

  3. pyrrol says:

    Wiggins was on fire! I still consider a chunk of the shots he takes to be ‘bad shots’ but lately he’s been hitting those tough midrangers at such a high clip. He was focused in this game and though he mostly just scored, 40 efficient points is very helpful. And he did a few non-scoring things to help the team. He had another massive dunk. I’m shocked by them every time because he lulls you by not finishing strong, and then suddenly you realize when he decides to be emphatic that he’s got a 9 foot standing reach and freak leaping ability.

    It felt like we were playing ourselves in this game. How many games have we just not had the luck roll our way, come out soft and slow against a team that just played the night before and just been one step behind? In this game, we kept a bit of a lead most of the way, we frankly came out smelling like a rose on some biffed plays and played sprightly even on the back end of a back to back at a mile above sea level. I was really proud of the guys.

    The officiating was really biased in this. Denver was hacking us all night, particularly Towns, and not getting called for it. Then late, when we had the game in hand, we finally started getting calls as if the refs said, ‘OK Denver is NOT going to win this thing, better even the calls out so this doesn’t look bad.’ Yet Denver was frustrated. They lost their cool. Particularly, Towns got under Jokic’s skin.

    I’m with enai (surprise). I think our number one concern is learning to win and the best way to do that is by… winning. I’m just not that enamored by the risky start over game of draft picks, particularly after all these years of that being our only real hope as Wolves fans. Enough. Focus on winning and take the pick you get. Kris Dunn is exhibit A. I mean, at this point he’s either a semi useful flop, or a guy who will be good but will take an indeterminate amount of time to get it. For a team that needs to start rapidly improving and winning starting now, the prospect of waiting and checking our watch on Dunn is not very appealing. And he was taken with the 5th pick. We need to focus on developing what we have into a winning group and have sort of an off the cuff attitude about the draft–aw, maybe we’ll pick up someone who can help us out, and if it doesn’t work out, oh well’. Not, ‘lets rely on this draft for something.’

    The second dimension to this is ‘development’. Thibs is rightly focused on it. Does development mean tanking for a pick that could help develop our team in the future? I tend to think we’re mostly past that stage. We can tweak or re-imagine our team with a decent to good pick, but our main developmental focus is getting the guys we already have to turn into productive vets and a winning core that outer pieces can readily be shifted around as needed to compete year after year. I guess I don’t see this as Thibs’ current idea of development. His doing some things that don’t help us win isn’t so much a method of tanking, as his perception of ‘getting it right’. By that he means teaching the guys to play right, playing guys huge minutes even if they aren’t playing right yet in order to get them there, and pushing players into the roles he feels they need to fill. He’d probably not admit it, and doesn’t experiment enough to do a good job of it, but he’s also assessing what players value is, their future here, and what their true strengths will be once they grow as players. This even includes Rubio (though older), who Thibs seemed skeptical of early but has relied more on, and with that reliance Rubio has shown a surprising scoring knack and a more comfortable, aggressive overall style. Again, exhibit A in this is Dunn. He’s clearly getting minutes to try to develop him into what Thibs wants him to be, thinks he will be in the future, not because he ‘deserves’ them or our team is better with him getting those minutes now. He also remains the full back-up PG. A different type of man would maybe have Tyus be the primary back-up PG and have Dunn play back up SG minutes like a bench Tony Allen. But Thibs is steadfast… or stubborn. One must ask if this is too big a current sacrifice for an uncertain future (will Dunn be that good at his career best?). Is it fair to take a big hit at a whole teams worth of guys for the sake of developing one guy who has not looked good yet? Would other good coaches with a team at Minnesota’s developmental stage play Dunn so much to get him developed, making a major sacrifice to current winning and team dynamics? Translation: I have some doubts about Thibs’ developmental decision making at times.

    A bit more on Dunn… Someone over on Canis said something to the effect of, “For guards in today’s NBA, offense is much more important than D. You can get in on MVP discussions by being a mostly O guard. You are lucky to be a starter as a mostly D guard.’ Right now Dunn has no offensive skill close to average. His feel for D and his physicality are his strengths. But even given that, he’s an up an down defender right now with lots of team D issues. Assuming that’s mostly due to being a rookie, he looks to be an above average defender and below average offensive player with no go-to skill on the O side of the court, including simply running an offense without being an offensive threat or great passer. I’m not convinced Thibs is being objective about Dunn.

    Shew, long all star edition comment, I guess. I think we need some rest time so I’m glad the break is here. Thibs rides some guys really hard as far as minutes go. Ricky, in particular has looked tired the last two games. The guys have earned some recoup. Going into the season, we were touted as a young, exciting, developing, NBA league pass team. Sort of funny that we don’t have a single participant at the All Star festivities. Oh, well. Hope the guys enjoy their time off, including Thibs.

  4. gjk says:

    This discussion about how to handle the rest of the season is oversimplified. Looking at how the season has gone so far, it’s very clear that the focus has been to prepare Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine for competing for 82 games while sorting out who else stays. They wouldn’t really reap benefits from playing Towns and Wiggins all these minutes unless they finish out the season that way. That means they’ll likely keep trying to win simply by virtue of playing them as much as their bodies can handle.

    But that also doesn’t mean mortgaging the future to chase the 8 seed. They can’t afford to give up more picks; aside from the Atlanta one that’s owed, they’ve wasted so many 2nd rounders. If they don’t want to keep Muhammad long term and someone else offers an asset, they should take it. Ditto any of their veterans. Keeping Rubio fresh so he’s sharp is also important and probably should require a slight boost in Dunn’s minutes.

    Also, this team doesn’t have much of a shot at the playoffs anyway. They have 25 games to overtake 5 teams. They’ve lost the tiebreaker with the Pelicans (the only team they don’t have a worse conference record than), need to win out against the Kings to split that one, and have 3 games against the Blazers, a team they’ve struggled against. It’s fine that they keep trying to win, but trying and succeeding are 2 different things, especially since none of those other teams is currently without their 3rd-leading scorer for the rest of the season.

    Currently, they have the 6th-worst record in the league. Even if they surge, that might not get them out of the top 10 because a lot of West and East teams close to them are trying to win. The 5 teams with worse records than them will likely commence tanking that would require them to shelve Wiggins and Towns to keep up. And then there’s the likelihood that any of the guys they could get in the top 10 are likely better prospects than Dunn (who might not have even cracked the top 10 in this draft) and could end up being better than LaVine. Even if such a player is worked in slowly, that could end up being an important asset for a franchise with questions about whether their core is championship-caliber.

  5. The discussion between a playoff push vs tanking is moot. We have been semi-tanking for this entire season with the minutes to Dunn or this point Wiggins thingy. A playoff contender would have given Dunn marginal amount of minutes, let Rubio run the team in those final 5 minutes of every game and would have had 5-10 more wins by now. A playoff push would mean giving the ball 30 minutes to Rubio and 15 minutes to Tyus every night and I don’t see that happening.

    We should have traded last years 5th pick for multiple 1st round picks down the list. For example we could have got Denzel Valentine in the SG rotation and Hernangomez in the PF. Nobody we could have drafted at 5 would solve enough problems of ours.

    I think we should try to draft Ball and get a PF from free agency / trade meanwhile giving more playing time to Tyus at SG.

    Being an outsider I am not familiar with every detail of NBA so I have 2 big questions that I really wonder:
    1- is there any trade value of Dunn at the moment? What can we get in exchange for him?
    2- just as an example, who might be the biggest player we can lure in free agency?
    3- we need a rim protecting PnR defender who can space the court to play as PF so we play KAT as our center (as I see it now Dieng is more like a center and KAT is a PF and I feel we cannot utilize him enough). This imaginary PF should also be in place to collect an offensive board even though he was spacing the court. Does this player exist? Who is he?

  6. pyrrol says:

    Ooo, looks like I was wrong, Towns is in the ‘rising stars game’. This year it is the US against the world (how appropriate)!

    I personally don’t think we should throw the term tanking around. Or use terms like semi taking. I mean, what does that even mean–taking is going all in trying not to win so you get the best draft pick possible. Goodness knows I disagree with Thibs on a lot of his choices, but I don’t think they suggest he’s tanking or ‘semi-tanking’. I don’t think it has anything to do with draft position. I think Thibs is just trying to get this team to grow up and get where it needs to be in the future. I don’t agree with a lot of his methods in doing this, but there is no evidence he’s in ‘partial tank mode’ now or has any intention of tanking after the break. I don’t think he’s that kind of guy and so far evidence we have does not support it.

    To gjk’s point, this is a much better draft. Dunn was overrated even in his own draft which was a very off year. Maybe there isn’t that marquee guy yet, but this draft looks deeper and more useful at the NBA level. Still, I don’t think it’s a runaway great draft or anything just yet. We’ll have to see. A pick from it will indeed be helpful. But it isn’t just about our position. One thing you see competitive teams doing is making useful picks at not the top slots. We need to learn this. There is some ratio between position picked vs. usefulness in the NBA that we need to learn to play because not all the top tier picks end up being good and there are treasures sprinkled in many parts of a draft. Dunn is a good illustration of this, as are many past high end picks by the Wolves.

    • Turko-Dutch timberwolf says:

      Just for clarification; I didn’t imply Thibs was playing to lose for a better draft pick by saying semi-tank. I was just saying the decision to groom Dunn has an effect similar to tanking.

      • pyrrol says:

        Oh, yeah. I also think he’s making too many team sacrifices to get Dunn PG minutes. So far it has not payed off, but perhaps it will.

  7. Tom says:

    I agree that this is a much better draft, but I don’t see a player like LeBron or Shaq, so you have a bunch of players that may flame out because they have the pressure of being a star and can’t live up to it or they may surprise you with talent like a Kawhi Leonard or Paul George later in the draft. Winning teams find players at all parts of the draft or find talent in the D league and World players that mesh with their program. Layden came from the best franchise at making stars out of suspects. Let’s see if he learned anything from that experience.

    Thibs is supposed to be the ultimate competitor, so I will trust that we will push our team to win as many games as possible. I just don’t want to hear “Stop winning, or we lose that first round pick” if we have a chance to make the 8th seed. Being viewed as a playoff team (even a below .500 club) is important. Look at how lowly teams in the Eastern Conference Playoff picture are viewed by the league, refs and Free Agents. Far better than NOLA, Sacramento, Denver or Minnesota. Free Agents want to go to a team where they can get paid and play for rings. Non-playoff teams aren’t on their radar, even for top dollar offers.

    Thankfully, Thibs has shown that he is not in love with his bench. Baz is the only player that has consistently gotten minutes and he may be shopping him. Dunn gets time, but at the expense of Tyus and neither of them have really shown that Rubio is expendable. The best case scenario is to find a True Power Forward, moving G to the Bench as a quality low post sub and moving Belly to the end of the bench and more as a three than a stretch four. Getting a reliable three point shooter like Jae Crowder or JJ Redick to replace the aggressive, but one-dimensional Baz as first player off the bench. You aren’t going to get guys like that to leave playoff teams, unless they see you are on a faster track to the championship than the teams they are currently on. That means making the playoffs now.

    If however, we do fall short, I hope that they get another piece of the puzzle, even if it is another PG. The wolves have to stop worrying about who they don’t get to pick and pick the best guy in the position they have. Many is the year that they didn’t get the first pick, when they probably should have, but then misfired when All-Stars were still on the board when they did pick. Hopefully, we are still talking NBA basketball games and not ping pong balls well into the start of the Twins season.

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