Faced with the task of competing without three key starters - Rubio, Young and Pekovic - head coach Flip Saunders tinkered with the starting lineup on Wednesday night.
Mo Williams started at point guard over rookie Zach LaVine, who had been filling in since Rubio went down in Orlando seven days ago, and Shabazz Muhammed got the surprise start at power forward over Anthony Bennett, who many expected to start for the second consecutive game in place of Thad Young.
The changes by Saunders paid dividends as the Timberwolves snapped a five-game losing streak with a 115-99 win over the Knicks on Wednesday night. In Williams' first start of the year he delivered his best performance - 14 points and 13 assists. His presence in the starting lineup also helped Kevin Martin, who looked out of sync next to LaVine over the previous four games, score a season-high 37 points on 14-for-20 shooting. That included seven three-pointers, which matched a career-high.
(Update: Martin played most of the game with a broken right wrist, which makes his performance pretty remarkable)
Only hours before the game it wasn't clear if Martin or Corey Brewer would even suit up. Both apparently got food poisoning the night before and received IVs during the afternoon in an effort to have them available against the Knicks. Like Martin, Brewer stepped up and performed well through illness.
He finished with 14 points and 6 steals off the bench, but more importantly he turned in his most complete defensive effort in recent memory. He made life miserable for the Knicks on offense, constantly flying into passing lanes and double-teaming the unprepared. It was an impressive showing for a player rumored to being shopped.
Saunders discussed the gutsy effort by his team after the game:
"I told our guys that I was extremely proud of them. Just in the perspective of coming off a long road trip, it's always tough to come back and play. Then we had some guys dropping like flies that hadn't been around, this afternoon we had two guys that were getting IVs so we really weren't sure who was going to be ready to go tonight. So I told them, you've just got to go out there and compete and play hard. I thought we had some great performances from a lot of guys and the main thing was we just went out there and played hard. It was good to see our frontline was all guys with two years or less and they went out there and competed."
While the veterans carried their weight it was Shabazz Muhammad that brought a serious spark to the starting lineup. In his first career start he posted 17 points and 8 rebounds, playing a crucial role as the teams main power forward on the floor. He also looked more explosive than ever...
"You can't question how hard he works," Saunders said about Muhammad. He continued:
"Sometimes he's in the wrong place and I yell at him, but he plays so hard. I just thought that what we needed, especially with Carmelo and their lineup, we needed physicality. He brings us that. He's pretty relentless in going to the glass, relentless in trying to get to the basket and the more he plays the more comfortable he'll get."
After the game, Muhammad was asked about his first career start:
"It was definitely exciting. It's always exciting to start and that was great tonight. I just thought we played really well as a team. We had two really hard practices and it was great for all of us to get this win tonight."
- Andrew Wiggins has been tasked with guarding the best wing night in and night out. It's only been 10 games through his rookie season and he's already faced the likes of Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Chandler Parsons. After the game I asked if Carmelo Anthony was his toughest test yet. "He's different than those players, he's more of mid-post, post-up, isolation player. Harden's coming off pick-and-rolls, stuff like that," Wiggins said. Was he the most physical guy you've faced yet? "Him and Joe Johnson," he said.
- Mo Williams is averaging 13.5 points and 10.5 assists while shooting 52.6% over his last two games. He shot 6-for-38 the previous six games.
- The Wolves shot 15-of-21 (71.4%) in the second quarter, including 4-of-6 from three-point range.
- Gorgui Dieng finished with a career-high five steals. He added 8 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in 32 minutes. After the game Dieng jokingly proclaimed himself a "Point Center" in the locker room.
- Andrew Wiggins scored all 12 of his points (4-for-13) in the second quarter. It was arguably the most aggressive quarter of his young career, but he's still struggling to consistently show it throughout an entire game.
- Minnesota matched a season-high with 26 assists.
- Kevin Martin on coming back from a tough road trip:
"I think this one showed a lot of character with the 11 guys we had that were able to suit up. Because after the road trip we had, where we started off on a high and ended very badly on and off the court. I know a lot of guys that would've just wanted to lay down. Flip came in here and had one of the most intense practices I've seen in my last 10 years so we knew we had to respond."
- Robbie Hummel's stat line won't impress you - 2 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 16 minutes - but good things seem to happen when he's in the game. He always seems to be in good position to make the right play.
- Carmelo Anthony finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but didn't play in the fourth quarter. Anthony has been dealing with a sore left knee and the Knicks were down 93-73 after the third ended. Fisher probably decided it was best to cut his losses. Amare Stoudemire also sat out the final period, but managed to score a season-high 19 points (bathing in red wine must really help).