The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves won a game without Ricky Rubio, it was their final win of 2014-15, an overtime victory over the Utah Jazz in which Sean Kilpatrick played nearly 20 minutes. It is a good reminder of just how bad things got, and how much better they are this season. Rubio did sit out, but merely as a precaution, and the the Wolves led the entire second half in a relatively comfortable 101-91 win over the Sacramento Kings.
For a second straight game, the winning stretches of the game were not played by the starting lineup but by the increasingly solid bench. With Rubio out, Andre Miller's presence at the backup point guard position is a boon of stability, and Miller's 12 points were his best effort in a Wolves uniform. Miller keyed a decisive 12-0 run early in the second quarter which turned a 34-29 deficit into a 41-34 lead that the Wolves never relinquished.
Miller's 12 were not even the most on the bench, as Shabazz Muhammad one of his best games of the season with 15 points and, more importantly, 3-5 from outside the arc, season highs in both attempts and makes. In fact, only once before in his career has he topped those numbers in a game, in his career high 30 point game in December 2014. Muhammad is now 5-8 in his last three games from outside, which is an encouraging trend after his shooting struggles to open the season.
All the Wolves were feeling the three-point love this evening, as the Wolves made nine threes for the second straight game (and made more threes than their opponent for the second straight game). Via Timberwolves PR, the seven different players that made a three tonight (Muhammad, Miller, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Martin, Karl-Anthony Towns (!) and Damjan Rudez) tied a franchise record for different players to hit from outside in a game. They still have not passed the barrier of double-digit threes, but they are trending in the correct direction.
Every time the Kings threatened to make a run and cut the deficit down to a single possession (usually via Marco Belinelli, who was excellent for Sacramento), the Wolves found some way to rebuff it through LaVine, who had another solid game when necessary with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists (which was tied for the Wolves lead in rebounding) or Wiggins, who led the team with 22 points and 6 rebounds (5 on the offensive glass, where he was a frequent customer). In a rare event that may have been influenced by the Kings missing Demarcus Cousins, the Wolves comfortably won the glass, 46-36.
Unfortunately, the talking point after the game strayed from all of the good things about the game; the comfortable win, the passable three point shooting, the dominance on the glass, the return of the team to .500. Instead, the discussion centered around Sam Mitchell's choice of minutes distribution among his centers. For the second straight game, Karl-Anthony Towns (7 points and 8 rebounds) played fewer minutes on the evening than Gorgui Dieng (8 and 8) and did not appear in the fourth quarter.
Does this mean that suddenly Dieng is the future of the franchise and Towns will be traded away by the February trade deadline? Of course not. Does this meant that Dieng is the better player? Of course not. Does this mean that Sam Mitchell has lost all belief in Towns' ability to close games and will never play him in the fourth quarter again a la Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio? Seems unlikely.
Wolves broadcaster Jim Petersen discussed Towns' absence as the game drew to a close. "You know, I think people are going to be saying 'hey, play Towns, play Towns', but Gorgui Dieng is just as important in terms of development as anybody else is. I mean, Gorgui Dieng is a talented young player who you're trying to get to play better. Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be fine, ladies and gentlemen. Trust me," Petersen said, and he's absolutely right.
Towns getting rest as the last two games closed is not a bad thing. He will be fresh for the game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday and a challenging matchup against DeAndre Jordan. Had this game gotten back to a single-possession game during the last nine minutes of the game, I have very little doubt Towns would have been in the game immediately.
The Wolves led by no less than six for that entire stretch, and finished the game up double digits. This was not crunch time. This was not some one-point slugfest between two giants. This was the evening's better team comfortably closing a game out and letting their starters get rest. That is, among many things, something to be thankful for.