If there's any one good thing about the Wolves dropping close battles to superior teams, it's this: games against teams of equal or lesser talent start feeling easy.
Tonight's contest wasn't a disparity in ability so much as a disparity in mindset. The Pistons aren't particularly less talented than the Wolves. But where Detroit is mired in a losing atmosphere that has sapped the confidence of even former champions Rip Hamilton and Tayshain Prince, the Wolves have been full of positivity, seeing themselves stick with some of the top teams in the league and confident that a major breakthrough is just around the corner.
The first half of the first quarter non-withstanding, the Wolves played a very complete game tonight, getting it done on both ends of the floor. For really the first time this season, the Wolves won a game off of performances that can be reproduced on a nightly basis. This isn't a red pill versus blue pill scenario. The Wolves executed on offense and covered the floor on defense, that's all there was to it.
The Wolves shot 52% tonight, riding strong shooting performances from Kevin Love, Luke Ridnour and Wesley Johnson. On the other side of the ball, the Wolves held the Pistons to just 38% shooting, mostly thanks to Corey Brewer's incredibly disruptive presence and Darko Milicic's absurdly good interior defense.
'Sota is now consistently beating the bottom-feeder teams....the Detroits and Clevelands and Sacramentos of the NBA. That puts them a level above, could be considered faint praise, but should be considered progress. This team is better than its record indicates....better than a lot of teams with better records, particularly those in the Eastern Conference.
Minnesota's early schedule has been a trial by fire. Already, the Wolves have faced the Magic, Heat, Mavericks, the Lakers twice, the Spurs twice, and the Thunder twice. And while they did drop all those games, the mere fact the team was consistently playing against that caliber...and lately has been making real contests out of them...has put the Wolves in a very competitive state of mind. So when a team like Detroit rolls into town, things feel perhaps easier than they otherwise would or should. The Pistons simply don't play at the same level as the teams 'Sota has become used to facing. They don't put arms in the passing lanes, bodies in the driving lanes, shots in the hoops or athletes in the sky the way the Wolves have become accustomed to seeing, and suddenly the court feels open, shots feel uncontested, and things that were difficult become easy because the Wolves learned how to do them against much stronger/bigger/faster/better competition. The Wolves put that on display against the Cavaliers and again tonight.
Other game notes:
- Luke Ridnour posted a points-assists double-double (20-10). For the Jazz or Hornets or Celtics, that's business as usual for the point guard, but for the Wolves, it borders so closely to rare it's practically an anomaly. Tonight was only the fifth time in the last three years that a 'Sota point guard has logged more than 10 assists in a single contest. Luke's shot selection wasn't the greatest, but he at least hit them, and he deserves a ton of praise for his 5/1 asst/TO ratio in this contest. It's something that hasn't happened much in the last few years and something that hopefully will happen a lot more in the next few.
- Darko Milicic's 7 blocks is the most by any Timberwolf since Kevin Garnett in 2006. The Big Manna didn't show much ill effect from the quad injury that kept him out against the Thunder, logging 32 minutes and also contributing 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and some insanely good paint defense.
- Also of note, Darko might actually be showing some signs of progress at the free throw line....the last and most hopeless of his many "hopeless causes" that have begun miraculously improving this season. He shot 5-6 from the line tonight and has gone 19-28 over his last ten games....a 68% clip that far exceeds his career average.
- Kevin Love was MIA for most of the first quarter, but played brilliantly the rest of the way. It's amazing that numbers like 27-18-3 have started to feel like the norm for him....something not particularly noteworthy anymore. For any active player not named Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, or Tim Duncan, 27-18 would be a career game. For Kevlar, it's just his latest 5 game average.
- Wes Johnson played like the Wes Johnson we have been hoping to see all season and hope to see the rest of the way. He needs be aggressive with the ball the way Brewer and Ellington are. Tonight there was one shot he hit in particular that really showed something...a three where he was a good 2-3 feet beyond the arc, with a defender running straight at him. That's the kind of shot that he's been passing up this year that he shouldn't. He hasn't quite figured out how uncontestable his jumpers are when he gets his feet under him. He has more than enough time, range, and lift to get that shot off and make it a good one.
- Corey...again....for all his faults...has been more positive than negative this season. Whether that says more about him or the team is open for debate, but I don't understand at all the comments about how he isn't a legit NBA player. The guy is...as S-n-P put it...a defensive terrorist, who rebounds his position, gets in the passing lanes, and makes life generally difficult for the other team. No, his shooting isn't very good and won't ever be, but he makes up for it in other ways.
- Pekovic still fouls a lot, rebounds very little, and forgets he's not playing Euroleague ball anymore (seriously, one more 3 second violation...) But he sure can score in the post.
- It's a shame the Pistons are stuck in inertia right now. They have to get their ownership situation figured out before they can make any dramatic moves, but Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince should both be playing for contending teams right now, and the Pistons would be able to get on with the rebuilding project when they make it happen.
- Rodney Stuckey has been said to have Randy Foye-ism, and did nothing to disprove that tonight.
- Greg Monroe is going to be good. He got shut down in the scoring column by Darko tonight, but he rebounded the hell out of the ball (15 boards, 8 of them offensive) and made some nifty attempts at facilitating that will turn into highlight reel assists when he gets used to how fast the NBA moves. Just a very very skilled player.
Timberwolves play again tomorrow at Chicago in what promises to be a much much much more difficult contest. Joakim Noah is to the paint what Corey Brewer is to the perimeter, and the newly acquired (and finally healthy) Carlos Boozer isn't too bad either. Oh, and they have that Derrick Rose guy as well.
But what's really important, of course, is Martell Webster will be back for the Wolves. So don't miss it.