Not long before the trade deadline the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Mo Williams to the Charlotte Hornets and in return received a future second rounder and Gary Neal. Hornets' coach Steve Clifford was asked before the game what type of impact Williams has had since his arrival in Charlotte.
"He fits what we needed." Clifford said, referring to Williams, "He's a good organizer, he's obviously a terrific scorer, and he just knows how to play NBA offense."
Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Flip Saunders thinks the trade worked out for both teams. "We weren't going to be able to give Mo (Williams) the amount of minutes he needed to play, because we were also going to play Zach (LaVine)," Saunders told media before the game.
Saunders continued: "We really need to know where we're at with Zach, and what he needs to work on (to become a better player)."
Williams, a 12 year veteran, has played arguably the best basketball of his career since he arrived in Charlotte, averaging 19.4 points and 7.1 assists per game in 16 appearances. Charlotte has scored at a rate of 103.1 points per 100 possessions--2.9 points higher than their season average--during the 542 minutes Williams has been on the floor.
As it turns out, LaVine is averaging 20.5 minutes per game since the trade was consummated. This is a decline from a 21.7 MPG average recorded when LaVine had been playing behind, or beside, Williams. Since the All-Star Break, LaVine is averaging 9.3 points, 2.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 2.3 turnovers per game.
With Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Bennett, Robbie Hummel, Justin Hamilton and Shabazz Muhammad sidelined, Saunders went with LaVine, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng to start the game. Neal, eager to battle his former club, Chase Budinger, Lorenzo Brown and Sean Kilpatrick, who recently signed to a 10-day contract, were available off the bench.
When the game started the Wolves were, without question, energized and ready to play, communicating at the defensive end and moving the ball well on offense. LaVine, matched against Kemba Walker, attacked the basket early while also making conscious efforts to find open teammates. He knocked down three buckets early, setting the tempo, and finished the first quarter with nine points and four assists.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, rated 29th in the NBA in Field Goal Percentage, hunting for a postseason bid in the East, struggled to find any rhythm early on. The Hornets finished 9-of-27 (33.3%) from the field and trailed Minnesota after the opening frame, 27-18.
It was only a matter of time, really, before Williams would begin finding ways to hurt his former team on both ends of the floor. He called out plays before the Wolves could run them, while shooting 5-of-6 from the field en route to 12 first half points.
After a solid performance to start things off, Minnesota seemingly began to deteriorate as the evening progressed. They were outscored during the third quarter, 28-19, despite connecting on 61.5% of their field goal attempts (8-of-13).
It was obvious Charlotte had a strategy in place to try Andrew Wiggins at bay. Coach Clifford even said how the Hornets planned to defend the Rookie of the Year frontrunner prior to tip-off.
To me, you've gotta try a way to keep his energy baskets away; the fast breaks, the cuts, the second chance points, and you can't give him any angles to the basket. He's so explosive, and quick, and he's just got a great feel for where the open areas are.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did an admirable job guarding Wiggins, and making effective contributions on the glass. Entering the final frame, Kidd-Gilchrist had scored 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds (5 defensive, 2 offensive). By this time his team rallied to take a four point, 82-78, lead after three quarters.
The Wolves looked to be in a bit of trouble.
Kevin Martin, looking to create opportunities for teammates, entered the fourth with eight assists--one shy of a career marker. Martin ultimately tallied his ninth assist (a career high) by finding Budinger under the basket, who then made a reverse layup that kept the Wolves within striking distance as time slowly ticked away.
There was little Minnesota could do to resist the inevitable comeback by the Hornets. Charlotte made 36-of-62 (58.1%) attempts from the field after the 33.3% start in the opening frame. When the clock expired the Wolves had been defeated, 109-98.
Mo Williams shot over 60% (10-of-16) from the field and finished the contest with 24 points. His counterpart, Gary Neal, did not find much success against his former club, scoring just seven points while tweaking his left ankle not long after the start of the fourth quarter.
Zach LaVine, after looking like a legitimate professional player for a few minutes, struggled to sustain a positive impact on either end of the court. He scored just two points after the his aforementioned, glowing first quarter performance, hitting just 1-of-5 from attempts from the field and committing three turnovers throughout frames two, three and four.
Adreian Payne was perhaps the brightest performer for the Wolves. He scored 11 points by hitting all five of his field goal attempts. Entering Sunday, Payne was shooting over 45% from the field, and may be getting more and more comfortable as his rookie season continues.
At this point, I assume most of the Canis Hoopus community cares less about what happens on the court, and more about the upcoming draft. That isn't to say lackluster performances are acceptable, though, and, for the most part, Sunday's game was more competitive than many of the others we've seen this season.
Before the game someone asked Flip Saunders about the draft; how much stock does he put into NCAA Tournament performances? Will the Wolves select the best player available?
Refreshingly, Saunders explained that a thorough scouting process does not begin and end during March Madness. I have a feeling he won't make a selection in the draft based on someone's tournament performance. As for whether or not Saunders plans to take the best available player on the board...
I think when you're a lottery type team, you have to take the best player available. I don't think that you can (afford not to). Because you're probably there (a lottery team) because you lost. And you're probably still a lil' ways away.