The Timberwolves played in Oklahoma City on Sunday evening. The outcome was 115-113, when Andrew Wiggins and the Timberwolves bested the Thunder and Russell Westbrook’s late-game heroics via a last second shot for the win.
As exciting as the game-winner was, it was not the game’s full story. The story was that the Wolves were the better team than OKC. The Thunder, with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George flanking Russ, is a formidable opponent. But the Wolves, for most of the game, looked like the better team.
The common theme, until the end, is that both teams are trying to figure out what they have. The Thunder has the newcomers mentioned above, and the Wolves have Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague as newcomers to their starting lineup.
Let’s look a bit at the game’s dynamics.
So, Wolves versus Thunder. Andrew Wiggins was the hero. His buzzer-beater was the hoop that won the game.
However, the Wolves are now helmed by Jimmy Butler–Thibs’ right-hand man and a killer on the court. Along with the theme of figuring out what we have in our new players, we’re also still figuring out exactly how newcomers like Teague and Gibson fit into the Wolves’ team concept.
The same goes for the Thunder. We know there has been tremendous personnel tumult as well. The keys, of course, were to complement All-World Guard Russell Westbrook with other top-tier players. And the Thunder did just that, adding both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to the roster. Along with Westbrook and Steven Adams–(Editor’s Note: I wish Adams were still here in Pittsburgh)–the Thunder have put together a formidable lineup of veteran stars and high-quality role players. So tonight’s game was an interesting matchup. The Thunder are, on paper, better than the Wolves. But not necessarily by a lot. Which means that the Wolves should be gunning for teams like OKC, which they did tonight in enviable fashion.
In the first half, the Wolves played well. They got the ball to Andrew Wiggins where he could score. And he did. That’s what Andrew Wiggins is arguably better than any other Wolves player. Jimmy Butler didn’t score a lot, but that’s fine. He set up the offense by putting pressure on the defense while still playing within the team’s half court sets. Butler has not scored like he did last season with the Bulls, but for the Wolves, it mightn’t be appropriate. Butler is currently more valuable as a playmaker who creates easy looks for his talented teammates than he is as the 23+ ppg he averaged last season in Chicago.
One nice look overall was that Jeff Teague played well. He didn’t have the Westbrook assignment on defense for the most part–Jimmy Butler spent a lot of time guarding Russell–but Teague played the offensive game we expected. He pushed the tempo when appropriate, made some shots, and set up players for good shots. This was encouraging. He continued his solid play in the second half, ending with 19 points on 12 FGA, to go with 9 assists and 6 rebounds. Jeff Teague finally looked like Jeff Teague, which is reassuring for fans pining for Ricky Rubio after the Spaniard outplayed Teague at Target Center last week.
Steven Adams dominated the first half. He exposed our biggest weakness: the lack of a strong defensive big who can mix it up with physical bigs like Adams. Taj Gibson played a nice first half, but Adams’ combination of strength and energy, when OKC needed it, was a real problem for Minnesota.
The Wolves had a 13 point lead heading into the 4th quarter, but had to win on a buzzer-beater by Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is especially interesting this season because he seems much more comfortable scoring in Thibs’ system than he was last year, when his ascent to being “The Man” was forced if necessary. Now, Wiggins seems able to get buckets when the ball comes to him, often in difficult situations. The Wolves have some amazing weapons–Butler, Towns, Wiggins–but for Wiggins, scoring is his comparative advantage. Butler and Towns can and are doing other things to make the team win. Wiggins is scoring to make the team win. It isn’t always efficient, but he’s looked so far like the player you go to for a last-second shot when you need to win or preserve a game. That’s nothing to sneeze at for the so-called third-option on this good team. (Editor’s Note: Yes, I’m jumping the shark and declaring the Wolves a good team.)
Tallying the results, Wiggins ended with 27 points on 10-20 shooting. KAT had 27 and 12 on the night. Jimmy had 16, 6, and 6. It was a team effort throughout, even if on this night, the starters had to carry the second unit, which had an off night.
For OKC, the results are unfavorable. Paul George looks like an afterthought. Melo gets his shots because he’s Melo. But OKC still relies far too much on Russell Westbrook’s improv. Billy Donovan’s reputation as a lackluster NBA coach is only mounting, as he fails to adapt the team to the new weapons he has. It’s extremely early–far too early to judge–but the fact that the Wolves–another team starting over with a lot of talent–beat the Thunder on their home court with Westbrook doing his thing says as much about the Thunder as it does about the Wolves.
Until next time.