It happened again. The Wolves lost another close one in which they squandered a double-digit lead in the second half. But the news wasn’t all bad.
This time, the loss came against the 20-51 Los Angeles Lakers, in LA, on a historic night in which the Lakers honored Shaquille O’Neal by erecting a giant statue bearing his likeness outside of Staples Center. The Diesel was in attendance, but in keeping with proper Los Angeles decorum, he either left early or absconded to a luxury box to hang with other celebrities.
What happened in the game is essentially this: the Wolves got off to a so-so start, playing sloppy basketball in the first quarter, which the Lakers matched with their own brand of slop. Careening, colliding, grabbing, falling and flailing characterized play in the first. The Wolves were ahead by 1 point, 27-26, at the end of one.
After a slow start to the second quarter with Ricky Rubio was on the bench, Tom Thibodeau brought Rubio back and Ricky catalyzed a Wolves’ run that reversed the only real resistance the Lakers showed from the middle of the second to fourth quarter. The Wolves’ largest lead was 15, in the third quarter. But in the end, ‘Sota snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the umpteenth time this season.
Let’s deal with the bad stuff first. There wasn’t just one problem.
On offense, the Wolves scored a lot of points before crunch time, but went dry during it (and overtime). Wiggins and Towns both scored a lot of points, but the boom-to-bust effect from the first half to the second half was staggering. Despite a superb all-around game from Rubio (19 points and 15 dimes, along with his usual defensive peskiness), there was no real third option who could be relied on for buckets down the stretch. Shabazz Muhammad, who attended UCLA and is usually the team’s energy scorer off the bench, did not score on the night and had a team-worst -20 in plus-minus. And neither of the other two starters, Gorgui Dieng and Brandon Rush, is the kind of player who can or should be asked to resuscitate a failing offense. Zach LaVine isn’t dunking through that door (this season, at least), and lack of depth remains an unsurprising problem.
On defense, the Wolves were torched by Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, who went for a career-high 35 and made big bucket after big bucket down the stretch. D’Angelo Russell didn’t put up the best numbers or even play the greatest game, but his dribble penetration and ability to pass and shoot put pressure on the Wolves defense. The Lakers main big, Julius Randle–who, incidentally, is not that big at 6’9”–gave Karl-Anthony Towns problems on defense. (Editor’s Note: Randle also inflicted numerous unforced errors on himself. He not not out of control when he does stuff with the ball. All in all, it was that kind of game.) Randle is an entertaining if occasionally cringe-inducing player. He’s a human bull in a china shop, with a lot of strength and bulk and energy and explosiveness. Oh, and recklessness. His coast-to-coast attempts remind of a less-skilled and coordinated Anthony Mason. The moral of the story is, the fact that Randle outran the entire Wolves defense in transition at least once (I think more than once, but I’m not 100% certain) WHILE handling the basketball is troubling for Tom Thibodeau & co.
Down the stretch, the Wolves couldn’t buy a basket. The offense stiffened up, spacing was poor, and shots didn’t fall. People didn’t box out. Corey Brewer was instrumental in the comeback.
There’s no need to belabor it. You’ve seen this movie before, basically.
Now for the good stuff.
First, Ricky Rubio played a hell of a game. Yes, the team lost, but it wouldn’t have been close if he hadn’t shown up. I mentioned his 19 & 15 above, but the chemistry he’s developing both with the team’s offensive sets and with individual teammates within those sets continues to make one wonder what the upper-bound of his potential could be if he stays in Minnesota as the starting point guard for the long term. Ricky did lots of stuff tonight. Maybe it was the LA sunshine, but he even brought a little extra swag to the passing game beyond his usual theatrics.
Rubio behind the back pic.twitter.com/fS2YjYTdKP
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) March 25, 2017
Granted, the Lakers don’t have the best defense in the league, but it was fun to see Ricky having fun just dissecting LAL’s defense with his whole bag of tricks.
Second, Andrew Wiggins was aggressive, and in a (mostly) constructive way. Wiggins scored 36 on the night. It wasn’t the most efficient game ever played: it took him 28 shots to get there. But, on a night when few teammates looked prepared to pick up any scoring slack, Wiggins’ work carried the team a considerable distance. Oh, and in case you missed it, he has cornrows now.
Third, Kris Dunn was a real disruptor on defense. This is his calling card, yes, but Dunn appears to be gaining confidence in what he can do on that end. And while he’s still very far from ready to run an NBA offense full-time, he made some nice passes and was an able ball-handler when Thibs went to a small lineup that included all three point guards.
Like many others in the 2016-17 campaign, it was a fun game until the end. And rest assured that somewhere tonight in LA, Shaquille O’Neal is also having fun.
Here’s a tribute.