There were stretches when the Wolves played well and there were stretches when the Suns played terribly. Those stretches explain the result of the game: on Saturday night at Phoenix, the Timberwolves beat the Suns, 115 to 106.
After the first 8 minutes of the game, it seemed as if the Suns had no ability to make a shot or prevent Jimmy Butler from making his. The Wolves led 22 to 6. That was a combined stretch of good Wolves/terrible Suns that, in the end, tilted the game in ‘Sota’s favor.
Another such stretch came in the first half of the second quarter. With Tyus Jones and Marcus Georges-Hunt teaming with staggered in Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves re-established the 20-point lead that had been cut to 9 by the end of the first quarter. MGH entered the game with an oversupply of defensive energy, getting whistled for a pair of off-the-ball fouls in short succession. While fouling can be bad, in and of itself — it puts the opponent in the bonus — this pair from MGH had an indirectly-good effect on the Wolves’ second quarter. That’s because the refs allowed some questionable physicality on a few subsequent plays that led to Suns turnovers and Wolves points in transition. Georges-Hunt only played 6 minutes against Phoenix, but he was a (+10). His defense substantially contributed to that swing of the game. That the Wolves ultimately won the game by 9 points suggests he was a key factor.
The final stretch of good (or in this case “decent”) Wolves play came in the final 13 minutes of the game, after the Suns cut the once-gigantic margin down to just 2 points. From this point on and throughout the entire fourth quarter, the Wolves were mostly in control of the game, and this was mostly because of Jimmy Butler. He scored 12 of his 32 points in the final period, manufacturing plays and buckets out of less-than-promising situations as he is increasingly becoming known to do in his Wolves uni. While the Suns cut the lead down to 5 with 1:44 to go in the game, the Wolves quickly scored twice in a row and ultimately won by nine.
As he is
always sometimes known to do, Thibs heaped praise on Jimmy Buckets after the game:
Thibs on JButler: "He gets to the line, makes clutch shots, clutch plays, hustle plays, chases plays down from behind, guards every position on the floor, never takes a possession off, understands how important defense is. You cant say enough about what he has done for us."
— Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) December 24, 2017
The gaps between these stretches were not pretty. The plus-minus stats reflect how the starters had some trouble at times; especially in the disastrous third quarter:
Watching the game as a Wolves fan against the season backdrop of two Suns losses and a lot of bad fourth quarters made for an anxious experience. When the lead after the first quarter was “only” 9 points, it felt like a game they might regret the terrible defensive finish to that quarter. When the second half lead was quickly diminished and Suns reserve guards Isaiah Cannon and Troy Daniels were bombing without regard for anything, all a fan could do is hold their breath and see what happens. You go into these gotta-have-them games with a mind closed to the possibility that things could go wrong and the smallest signs that they might become amplified.
The point spread from Vegas had the Wolves by 8.
They won by 9.
It was an objectively solid performance.
Where are we now?
The win over Phoenix improved the Wolves record to 20-13, good for a winning percentage north of 60. They’re now on pace to win about 50 games right on the nose. In a Western Conference rife with uncertainty after spots 1 through 3 (Golden State, Houston, and San Antonio) the Timberwolves find themselves in the 4 spot; the best of the rest. I think most find a 4 seed and a home-court-advantage playoff series to be a best-case scenario for this year’s team.
The Wolves offensive and defensive ranks have remained steady for a few games now: they’re 5th on O, 25th on D, and now have a net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of (+1.7), good for 10th in the NBA.
Tomorrow night, the Wolves play the last game on the NBA’s Christmas schedule. They play Lonzo Ball and the Lakers on TNT at 9:30 Central Time. We’ll have to see if they can win another winnable game and extend their current streak to 4 games.
Before wrapping this up, a random nugget courtesy of Jerry Zgoda after last night’s win
Surprise visitor in Wolves locker room after tonight's game in Phoenix chatting with @JCrossover, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague & others: Isaiah Rider
— Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) December 24, 2017
For the younger readers who may not remember J.R. Rider, here’s a sample to enjoy: