The Minnesota Timberwolves played the closing portions of this game with a lineup of Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Tayshaun Prince, Damjan Rudez and Gorgui Dieng. That sounds like the recipe in a double-digit loss that had been in no question throughout, rather than a lineup to close out a victory over the Atlanta Hawks. But, in a strange and wonderful game, that is exactly what happened, as the Wolves won their second straight home game and beat the Hawks a second time, 99-95.
Not everything about the evening was wonderful, however. Before the game started, it was announced that Nemanja Bjelica would sit out a third straight game with the knee contusion that has not fully recovered. Ricky Rubio left the game at his normal time halfway through the third quarter, but did not return due to a return of the ankle injury that has been bothering him for most of the early regular season. Karl-Anthony Towns also did not play in the fourth quarter.
Towns did not play because the lineup on the floor was working so well. After the game, Sam Mitchell addressed his choice to stick with the less-used lineup: "I have confidence in our guys, they were following the game plan, we were getting the shots that we wanted. We were doing things defensively. Why take them out? It's an 82-game season. I told the guys after the game, it's not that Karl or anybody else did anything wrong, it's just that the group on the floor were executing so well on both ends of the court, it was hard to take them out of the game." The lineup, while not what the Wolves have used early in the season, successfully closed the impressive win.
With Bjelica's absence, other members of the Wolves' frontcourt have the opportunity to step up, and tonight was Rudez' first real opportunity. "He's a true professional, he stays ready," Mitchell said after the game of Rudez. When Rudez joined the Wolves in a trade from the Indiana Pacers, the scouting report was simple: he shoots threes. Tonight, he took and made his shots, with 13 points on 4-5 shooting (3-4 from beyond the arc), and provided another outlet on offense with other options struggling. "[Rudez] was incredible, making timely shots, timely threes. He's shooting like he does in practice, wet ball. He was very clutch," LaVine said after the game.
Those other options, namely Andrew Wiggins and Kevin Martin, were not up to their usual standards, and in Martin's case, his severe shooting struggles have not been fixed by his return to the starting lineup. Martin scored 11 on 3-12, and Wiggins tied for the team lead with 18 on the night, but only shot 5-17 from the field and missed all four of his attempts from three. His streak of games with ten or more free throw attempts also ended, as he only made it to the line eight times (five makes). After a stretch of dominating performances, a weaker one was due.
The scoring slack was also picked up by LaVine, who had 18 points of his own in likely his best game of the year. He shot 7-13 from the field (2-5 from 3) with 5 rebounds, 6 assists and only 2 turnovers. With Rubio out, LaVine played the last eighteen minutes of the game, and while a one point lead slipped to a six point deficit near the end of the third quarter, the Wolves came back and took an 81-80 lead with 8:05 left that they would never relinquish. The questionable shots were still there, the decision making was not perfect, but LaVine could have lost the Wolves this game, and did not.
Sam Mitchell recognized that LaVine's play on both ends had made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. "I thought Zach did a lot of good things, but more so defensively," Mitchell said postgame. "He made some big shots for us obviously, but he kept [Hawks guard Jeff] Teague out of the paint. Teague is their facilitator, he gets those guys to the three's, he gets layups, he'll put you in foul trouble." Teague got the better of LaVine early in the game, but LaVine stayed in front of him well during the closing stages.
So many of the things above look like hallmarks of a loss, but the Wolves won this game, and two wins over last season's first seed in the Eastern Conference is a remarkable feat and a continued sign of the changing fortunes of this team. Even with injuries and weaker games from the team's best players, there is much to be thankful for tomorrow and in the future.