The Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Phoenix Suns Sunday by a score of 117-87, securing the Wolves first win since the calendar flipped over to 2016 and their first victory since defeating the Utah Jazz 94-80 on December 28th.
The Wolves started off the game heavily featuring Andrew Wiggins, who made the Suns pay, by recording 12 points (on 6/8 shooting), three rebounds, and an assist in the first quarter. Wiggins, who's passing ability and lack of assists so far this season has been a concern for many fans, made a few great passes throughout the course of the game, which resulted in him tallying four assists on the night. Three of his best passes included finding Karl-Anthony Towns rolling to the basket after a pick-and-roll, finding Ricky Rubio on the top of the key for a wide open three, and finding Rubio wide open in the right corner with a cross court pass while in transition. All in all, it was a very encouraging game for Wiggins, as he finished with 18 points, four rebounds, and four assists in 28 minutes of play (it should be noted that none of the starters saw action in the fourth quarter because the Wolves were up by so much; you have no idea how good it felt to type that.).
Wiggins was far from the only player who had a good game tonight, however. Here are a few fun numbers: The Wolves had seven players score in double digits (lead by Wiggins and Rubio with 18 a piece), every player who played for at least 15 minutes posted a double-digit positive +/- (lead by Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica, and LaVine who each recorded a +20), and the team even outshot the Suns from beyond the arc (7/18 for the Wolves; 3/15 from the Suns). Surprisingly, this was the second time in the last three games that the Wolves outshot their opponent from three. In addition, the Wolves bench accounted for 61 of the team's 117 points and out rebounded the Suns bench, 20-8.
Karl-Anthony Towns played very well tonight in only 26 minutes of play as he posted a stat line of 14 points, eight rebounds, and one assist. It appeared as if Towns had hit a bit of a slump, much like the rest of the team, as of late as he entered the game only shooting 44.4% during the month of January. Over the last few games, Towns had not looked confident while shooting his midrange jumper or while handling the ball in the post. Today was a different story, however, as Towns looked more confident after hitting a couple of shots early. He finished the night 5/8 from the field, including hitting his only three-point attempt.
Shabazz Muhammad had an "off night" when compared to the rest of his games in January, in which he was averaging 14.3 ppg on nearly 50% shooting. He finished the game with only 11 points off the bench (on 10 shots), but tallied eight rebounds, which was one off his season high. Muhammad stayed aggressive all game, however, and threw down a couple of monster dunks in the second half.
Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng, on the other hand, provided some of their best minutes during the month of January. LaVine only scored 11 points tonight in addition to three rebounds and three assists. However, he did a great job of playing within himself, especially in the second half, and, for the most part, did a good job of playing within the offense. Of course, there were a few times in which he passed on an open three for a fade away long two, but I left encouraged by LaVine's play today. Dieng played his best game since January 4th against the Philadelphia 76ers by providing 15 points and six rebounds in only 18 minutes.
Overall, the Wolves put forth a great team effort against the Suns, something which has been lacking over the last month and a half. Forget that it was against the Suns, a team that has been in the process of going supernova all season; it was just nice to see the team get out in transition and move the basketball like an NBA quality team once again.
A player who deserves a lot of credit for the team's improved ball movement against Phoenix is Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelly continued his streak of good play by contributing six points, two rebounds, and three assists in 23 minutes. Those numbers won't pop off the stat sheet, but it was his ball movement and smart decisions on offense that really helped the bench put the game out of reach in the second half. Bjelica is improving every game and his last handful of games have been very encouraging. His ability to shoot the three and be an effective facilitator on offense for the second unit will be invaluable for the team going forward.
This team is still far from perfect and much work still needs to be done, but the team was desperate for a win, especially one of this magnitude. Interim head coach Sam Mitchell has said from the beginning of the season that development is the primary focus for this season, with wins coming secondary. While I see and understand the logic, and even agree that development should be the priority, wins are important for keeping team morale high and prevents players, especially young players who are accustomed to winning at the high school and college level, from becoming too down on themselves. Losing streaks, such as the one the Wolves faced coming into the game (1-13 over the last month), can be demoralizing for a team and it had appeared as if the team was headed down that dreaded path. It remains to be seen if the positives that were seen during this game will carry over into subsequent games (the team next plays at the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday), but this should be a game that improves the morale and confidence as a team and one they can use as a springboard to get back on a positive track.