After taking a nine point lead late in the 4th quarter on what looked like a dagger three by Nemanja Bjelica, the Wolves had to sweat out a last second miss by Lou Williams to hang on for the victory at Staples Center tonight.
But hang on they did in a back and forth contest that looked at some moments that it was going to get away from the Wolves. They stuck around though, and made a furious 4th quarter run fueled by Ricky Rubio's brilliance and, well, Kobe Bryant's missed jump shots.
The Wolves got off to a strong start behind an unusually aggressive Ricky Rubio, who was looking for, and making, his shot early. However, Sam Mitchell went to the bench quite early in the first quarter, removing Ricky in favor of Zach LaVine after only seven minutes. Things went quickly south after that, as the bench unit had an absolutely abysmal time of it through the rest of the first quarter and into the second, and the Wolves fell behind double digits. By the time Rubio returned, the Lakers had found their groove and the Wolves were only able to trim the lead to nine heading into the break behind several terrific passes by the point guard.
The third quarter did not start particularly well, as nobody but Rubio could score the ball (there's a phrase I wouldn't have expected to write), but in the second half, the bench unit looked much better. Shabazz Muhammad was active, and Kevin Martin got his unattractive but effective offensive game going, and the Wolves clawed their way back in, down 95-88 at the end of three.
The fourth quarter was Rubio time, as he made several jumpers and a fantastic conversion on a drive to push the Wolves into a lead they would not relinquish. The Wolves went with a closing lineup of Rubio, Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Bjelica, and Towns, and they all made big plays to get the lead to nine points. They all made dubious plays as the Lakers mounted a final charge as well, but ultimately they hung on for the win, which has to feel good not only since it's the first game of the season, but also given it's their first game since the death of Flip Saunders.
The story tonight on the court was, without question, Ricky Rubio. He played like a star, accepting responsibility when his team needed him to, finishing with a career high 28 points, 14 assists, and one turnover. He was magisterial, making jump shots, getting to the rim, finding open guys and controlling the action everywhere on the floor. It was a supreme performance by the Wolves best player.
The other side of this coin is: They cannot run Zach LaVine out there at point guard. The combination of LaVine, Martin, and Muhammad is so horrible defensively, and LaVine cannot run an offense, and it's just asking for catastrophe. Rubio was able to get LaVine a couple of looks when the briefly played together in the 4th quarter, and if he's going to play at all, that has to be his role: shooting guard off the bench. Forcing him into the point guard position is not doing anyone any good.
In other happenings of interest, Karl-Anthony Towns had a terrific debut. He finished with 14 and 12 in 32 minutes, going 6-10 from the floor. He absolutely looked like he belonged, fighting Roy Hibbert underneath, finishing off a couple of Rubio passes with dunks, and making a spectacular turn around baseline jumper over Hibbert in the 4th quarter that was huge. He looked comfortable and strong on the boards, made some very smart plays and set some terrific screens. He's going to be a star.
Now some bullet points:
- The Wolves only turned the ball over 8 times tonight, which is incredible. The Lakers turned it over 14 times.
- On the other hand, rebounding was, as expected, a bit of a problem, as the Lakers hauled in 15 offensive boards to the Wolves six.
- Andrew Wiggins had a terrible game. There seemed to be some trouble with his shoulder starting early, as he was getting it wrapped when he was on the bench, and he only played 29 minutes, but it wasn't good. 2-10 from the floor for nine points, 1 rebound, 2 turnovers. No assists, blocks, or steals. He was very quiet, and not in a good way.
- Nemanja Bjelica has game. Unfortunately, he also gets whistled for fouls when he breathes, which limited him in the first half despite making his first two shots. It's clear that Mitchell has some trust in him, though, as he was in the game in the 4th quarter, and contributed several big boards and that massive three discussed earlier. His 8-5-2 is modest, but he helped out there.
- The Wolves went only 5-20 from three, and I would like to see them take more, but 20 is a start. The got to the line 37 times (making 30) and shot it very well inside the arc. Overall their FG% was 46% tonight, compared to the Lakers 37.5%, which I'll take every time.