The Minnesota Timberwolves fell short to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (which was also 90's Night, a night in which the team didn't wear their *fire emoji* 90's jerseys) by the score of 101-96, in front of a Target Center crowd that was anything but a Full House. The Wolves, particularly Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns opened up the game flatter than a two-day old bottle of Surge (I'll stop the forced 90's references here), going only 8-21 from the field in the first quarter, including 0-3 from beyond the arc.
The Thunder, on the other hand, came out firing on all cylinders, especially point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was unstoppable during the opening minutes and the Thunder's first six possessions looked like this: Westbrook drawn foul, Westbrook bucket, Westbrook pass to foul, Westbrook bucket, Westbrook assist.
The Thunder were monsters in the pick-and-roll throughout the first half, a byproduct of Westbrook's hyper aggressive drives to the hoop to start the game. Westbrook found big men Steven Adams and Enes Kanter a few times on lob plays and the Wolves simply could not figure out how to contain it. The Wolves made adjustments during halftime, however, and the pick-and-roll became less of a factor during the second half.
Minnesota saw good minutes from the bench tonight, as every player ended up with a positive +/- and kept the Wolves within reach all game. The team saw particularly strong performances from Shabazz Muhammad (who posted a line of 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists) and Zach LaVine (21 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists). It was really nice to see LaVine finally break free from his long slump, accomplishing his first 20+ point game since December 13th against the Phoenix Suns; you could see his supreme confidence return after hitting his first two shots of the game. LaVine hit some key threes during the fourth quarter comeback (he finished 3-4 from beyond the arc) and hopefully this success carries over into the coming games.
Nemanja Bjelica and Gorgui Dieng also provided good minutes tonight, though the numbers don't really pop in the box score the same way Muhammad's and LaVine's do. Bjelica hit a couple of key three-pointers and made a few good passes as the Wolves were working their way back during the fourth quarter and Dieng provided fairly stout defense accumulating six blocks.
The starters, however, laid the proverbial egg tonight. Andrew Wiggins started off slow again tonight on his way to scoring 22 points on 19 shots, though it should be noted he played better in the second half. That being said he had a few costly turnovers, including not catching an entry pass that could have gotten the Wolves within a single possession late in the fourth. Karl-Anthony Towns also started off slow, though he finished with a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds). Ricky Rubio was virtually ineffective on both ends of the court tonight as he only posted three points (1-5 from the field), two rebounds, and six assists in only 21 minutes and Sam Mitchell elected to place him on guard Andre Roberson rather than Westbrook. Roberson isn't an integral part of the Thunder's offense, so not putting arguably the Wolves' best perimeter defender on Westbrook is a bit confusing.
In the end, Kevin Durant turned it on during the fourth quarter, scoring 12 straight points for the Thunder (he ended with 30 points), which, combined with a few untimely turnovers, ultimately kept the Wolves from being able to complete the comeback.
Interestingly, Sam Mitchell made decision to ride or die with the bench during the fourth quarter and kept the starters (save for Wiggins) on the sideline for the vast majority of the period (Towns came in at the very end, just in time to grab his 10th rebound). As was mentioned before, Rubio only played 21 minutes, Towns only played 28, and Tayshaun Prince only played 14 tonight.
On one hand, I can see why Mitchell stuck with the bench; they were playing well and put the team in position for the victory. It is important for players, especially young players, to know their coach trusts them enough to go out and make plays in crunch time and getting young players experience during those times will provide invaluable developmental experience. On the other hand, it is possible the starters could have been able to execute better both offensively and defensively, especially within the final minute, which could have given the Wolves a much needed victory.
It's a precarious situation as both decisions, to ride with the bench or go with the starters, can be looked at as both the correct and incorrect choice. It is easy to sit back and say that going with the starters would have provided the team with a better chance to win (which may very well be true), but there is no way to prove that. The bench preformed very well tonight and at some point you have to reward them for putting the team in a position to win. The bench needs to develop and be reinforced as much as the starters do. That being said, Towns, specifically, needs to get minutes during the fourth quarter, not just the final minute, too.
This is a situation where I both like the decision to stick with the players (in this case, the bench) who are performing, while also not liking the decision to not get Towns back in the game sooner. This is something we have seen a few times this season, and each time I grow a little more perplexed. Towns needs to be in the game for the Wolves to have the best chance to win, and while development for all players is important, the team needs to go for development AND a win when the opportunity presents itself. Would the Wolves have won had Towns gotten back in the game sooner? Probably not, but I think the odds would have been increased.
No matter what, the Wolves hung in there and fought hard against a tough Thunder team, which is something that has not been said much around these parts lately. I was encouraged by how the team played during the second half and it will be interesting to see how the team responds tomorrow against the Houston Rockets.