The Minnesota Timberwolves have started the 2015-16 season better than almost anyone could have expected on the court. They have away wins over two of last season's playoff teams. Karl-Anthony Towns has been an incredible force in his first seven NBA games. Ricky Rubio is second in the NBA in assists per game and remains the key cog on both offense and defense. They have been good. Tonight, they will have to be incredible.
The ridiculous juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors has arrived in Minnesota, and will give the young Wolves the stiffest test available in today's NBA tonight. The reigning champions are beating the stuffing out of everything put in their path to start the season, and there has been very little sign of them slowing down. The Wolves' wins over the Bulls and Hawks were some of the more impressive wins this team has produced in recent years. Handing the Warriors their first loss of the season would be even more remarkable.
By the Numbers
|4-3 (11)||Record||9-0 (1)|
|44.1% (12)||Field Goal %||47.3% (3)|
|34.9% (14)||3 Point FG%||39.8% (2)|
|45.6 (12)||Rebounds/Game||47.1 (5)|
|22.6 (9)||Assists/Game||28.8 (1)|
|16.1 (24)||Turnovers/Game||15.7 (18)|
|98.7 (20)||Offensive Rating||109.8 (2)|
|96.0 (6)||Defensive Rating||92.0 (1)|
|+2.7 (11)||Net Rating||+17.8 (1)|
As the league rankings noted beside each stat show, it's not just that the Warriors are better than the Wolves at everything, it's that they're better than almost everyone at almost everything. The Warriors' one weak area, turnovers, has been an area where the Wolves have been even weaker throughout the season. The Wolves are solidly middle of the table in almost everything, and a well-above-average defensive team (which is still so strange to say). The Warriors are ridiculous.
Stephen Curry vs. Whoever Guards Him
The reigning MVP has been just ridiculous on offense to begin the season, leading the NBA in scoring with 31.9 points per game. He has made one more three per game than any other player in the league (4.9/game to Damian Lillard's 3.9). His 10.8 attempts from distance per game also leads the league, with only James Harden within two attempts per game of him. Curry can get to the basket, can make shots from in the lane and from distance, and he's also an unbelievable passer.
A blueprint for slowing him may have been found in the Warriors' game against the Detroit Pistons earlier this week. Curry was guarded by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP stuck to Curry like glue for almost the entire game, rarely letting him get even the slightest bit open to launch a shot. Curry was held to 22 points on 7-18 shooting (3-7 from 3) in the game with five turnovers. From the Wolves' perspective, this raises the question of Andrew Wiggins taking a shot at guarding Curry. Wiggins has the length to bother Curry, and if he can stay out of foul trouble, could use his size advantage to create problems. It would be a major challenge, but could be something for Sam Mitchell to try.
However, the counter is this puts Ricky Rubio on Klay Thompson, a matchup which heavily favors Thompson. Not coincidentally, Thompson had his best game of the season in that same game against the Pistons, leading the Warriors with 24 points in a favorable matchup against Reggie Jackson. Rubio has had mixed results guarding Curry in the past. In their one matchup last season, Curry had 25 points and 8 assists, but was only 2-10 from beyond the arc. In 2013-14, Curry had his two best performances against Rubio with 33 points and 15 assists in January and 32 and 15 in April.
An aside: the Wolves actually won that game in January 2014, their last victory over Golden State. A basket from Kevin Martin with eight seconds left sealed a 121-120 win. The best thing from that stat sheet: Corey Brewer's 149 ORtg in 33 minutes.
Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Andrew Bogut
Towns has had an interesting series of matchups to start his young career, with strong performances in a variety of matchups. Bogut is a new challenge for him, and one that he may be able to exploit if the Warriors allow it. Bogut is a strong rebounder and is physically larger than Towns, so Towns' ability to establish position on the offensive and defensive boards will be key to watch early in the game. Towns will also have to stay out of foul trouble if Bogut tries to go through him through pick-and-roll action with Curry.
On offense, Towns may be able to pull Bogut away from the basket with the threat of his jumper, possibly even from beyond the three point line. This could open up angles to the basket for other players. However, the Warriors will likely counter by switching Draymond Green to guard Towns while Bogut guards Kevin Garnett, who is less able to pull Bogut out of position. Nemanja Bjelica's ability to be an offensive threat from beyond the arc may be necessary to give Towns the space to work.
How the Wolves Win
This will be a true test of one of the early season small sample size stats for the Wolves: their opponents are only shooting 30.6% from 3, good for third best in the league (number one? Golden State). Keeping the Warriors from easy, open looks at three is one of the only ways to keep the game close against them. If the Wolves can stay within ten points of the Warriors, anything is possible at the end of the game.
Second, the Wolves will have to have a balanced attack on offense. Using that January 2014 victory as a template, the Wolves had three players with over 20 points: Kevin Martin, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic. In the present, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Martin, Rubio, and even Zach LaVine off the bench will need to be effective offensively and score at least in double figures.
If the above things happen and the Wolves are within reach at the end of the game, their other calling card will be put to the test: their suffocating defense at the end of games. In clutch situations (as defined by NBA.com/stats), the Wolves are holding opponents to a completely ridiculous 19.7 eFG%, almost a full ten percent better than any other team in the league. The 9-0 overtime against Chicago and 11-0 run to finish the Atlanta game will need to be replicated to finish off a win to shock the entire NBA world.