MINNEAPOLIS — Make that two consecutive wins at Target Center for the Wolves, as they walked away victorious on Saturday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Late-game collapses, blowing double-digit leads under aggravating circumstances, playing with bad pace, and defaulting to isolation-heavy offensive sets have come to define this years Wolves squad; closing out games in the final moments has proven to be an exasperating experience.
Tonight, the Wolves walked a familiar path.
In the second quarter they led by 16 points, but again found themselves dangerously close to losing their 12th game of the season when leading by at least 10 points. The game was tied at 101 with 35 seconds to play and the team was playing tight again as emotions ran high. Sam Mitchell was jumping up and down, angrily slamming his feet on the ground and screaming at Nemanja Bjelica, almost publicly shaming him in front of the hometown fans, for not switching correctly on defense; the poor switch resulted in Ryan Hollins (Mr. 10-day contract!) getting the clear path to the rim for an easy two-handed slam, and Mitchell completely lost his shit over the sequence. I'll have to watch the play again to see how justified Mitchell's response was.
Anyway, the next play down Bjelica came over to the sidelines and started talking back to Sam (I have no idea what he was saying but the two were clearly in disagreement and Bjelica was pleading his case for the moment) but they seemed to settle their differences. Bjelica stayed on the court, continuing to act as one of the key floor spacers the team desperately needs. Towns, Wiggins, and Rubio can only truly strut their stuff when surrounded by shooters. Bejlica is also blessed with the rare ability (for big men, anyway) to fire fastballs all over the floor to guys like Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine, and Kevin Martin, for catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. That skill has been evident more than a few times over his rookie season.
Speaking of tensions being high, Ricky Rubio was getting on Karl-Anthony Towns' case late in the game for what he deemed to be horrible pick-and-roll defense. The Grizzlies had cut the deficit to five points after being down 10 a few possessions prior. You could feel everything falling apart. Another game was seemingly within minutes of coming to a crashing halt with the Wolves on the wrong end of the result.
But not tonight, my friends. Not tonight. The dreaded second half collapse was avoided this time around. Rubio and Muhammad led the Wolves high-tempo attack in the first half*, while Rubio's free throws (he matched a career-high with 13 attempts tonight) and Muhammad's scoring (he chipped-in a season-high 25 points off the bench on a perfect 8-8 from the charity stripe) helped them close out the victory.
*Wolves outscored Memphis 21-10 in transition, including a 15-2 edge in the second quarter alone, but didn't score a single fast break point in the second half as the Grizzlies closed the deficit. This was easily one of the best examples of how beneficial it is for this team to play with pace, using the youth (and Rubio as the QB) to get out and run on opposing teams in transition when they get stops. Minnesota entered the night averaging only 11.6 fast break points per game.
It was another nail-biter at home.
Rubio split his free throws, putting the Wolves up by one (102-101) with 35 seconds. Memphis called a timeout to talk over their plans. Then, Jeff Green froze up and was called for a five second inbounds violation. For what it's worth, it felt like the fastest five seconds of all time. Of course, that pivotal play gave the Wolves the ball back and Rubio drew a shooting foul on Mike Conley with 14 seconds; he hit both attempts at the line to put them up, 104-101.
Conley missed a 9-foot jumper with six seconds on the clock, the Wolves secured the rebound, and Andrew Wiggins (19 points, five rebounds, one assist, and one block in 34 minutes) put the game on the ice with two free throws.
Rubio was dynamite in almost 29 minutes, finishing with 15 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, and three steals. It was his fifth double-double of the season and he was particularly impressive in the second quarter alone, scoring or assisting on 20 of the 24 points on Minnesota's quarter-ending run. They used a 24-8 run to close out the second, which including a 20-1 over a 4 minute stretch in the period.
Karl-Anthony Towns (14 points on 6-6 shooting to go with nine rebounds and three assists) got into the mix in transition as well, which was great to see. His eye-opening slam lit a fire inside Target Center, giving the fans something to rise out of their seats about. A possesion later, Muhammad added to the party with a slam of his own. The energy was building and the players were feeding off it.
Shabazz Muhammad with the strong finish! https://t.co/GWcjj7BwV3— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) January 24, 2016
Shabazz Muhammad: @Timberwolves 'had energy on both ends of the floor' in win over #Grizzlies https://t.co/5WplfE1AUz— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) January 24, 2016
With 12 assists tonight, Rubio (1985) officially passed Pooh Richardson (1973) for sole possession of second place on the Wolves all-time assists list. He trails only Kevin Garnett (4216). Tonight was his 10th game of the season with 12+ assists. Only Rajon Rondo (23), Russell Westbrook (12) and John Wall (11) had more entering the night.
On beating the Grizzlies:
"I thought we learned a lot in that Dallas game. I thought even though we lost the game and Dallas just kind of pushed it ahead in overtime, we just keep going back to the three shots we got in under a minute to go. We got great shots and trusted each other and moved the ball. We keep telling our guys, we just want to get a good shot. The ball is going to find the hands of the right person. Putting the ball in Andrew [Wiggins] hands, he's trusting his teammate and those guys. Shabazz [Muhammad], that they can make a play. And Andrew's just being very unselfish, moving the basketball. A lot of things start with him because teams are going to put pressure on him when he has the ball, especially in pick and roll and he's doing a great job of moving it.
It's kind of hard to win games when you're getting beat by 20 because you're never in the game to win it. I've said before the game and been saying, I know it's frustrating for the fans and certain people to see we keep getting close and don't always win it, but they're young. The thing that I'm proud of and the thing that I feel very confident about going forward is that the more opportunities they keep giving themselves to learn how to win, eventually we're going to learn it."
On the pace of the second quarter:
"I think for our guys, just understanding that... It's kind of hard to explain...Everyone thinks that it's just easy to roll the ball out there and say ‘run.' It's a lot to run when you count eight exhibition games, you're talking about 90 games with the travel and the practice time and it's hard. I think with what teams have done to us with the way they've loaded up on Andrew and some of our other guys, it's kind of been a blessing in disguise for us, because we've been as a coaching staff getting on them about running and running and spacing and moving the basketball."
On the stretch late in the game:
That's what we kept on talking about: keep playing hard, keep playing on the offensive and defensive end. I think we did a really good job on defense, especially on Marc (Gasol) and Zach Randolph. We did a good job of just rebounding the ball also with security. That was a big thing. Karl played well on the defensive end. That was one of the best games he's had so far on the defensive end. That's something we need all the time."
On the second quarter:
"That was so much fun to play in. I know it was fun for everybody to watch, too. Ricky running the point, me and Wigs (Andrew Wiggins) ... If we do that we will be a really dangerous team. We can both run and we're both athletic and strong. We can finish in transition. That's something we've been really trying to do. Coach is finally satisfied about that. We have to continue to do that throughout the rest of the season."
On the loss:
"Tough game for us. We played with a lot of heart and defensive energy in the fourth quarter. We needed to do that in the first three quarters. We didn't guard. They shot 50% for most of the game and we fouled too much in the first couple of quarters. Put ourselves behind the eight-ball. Give them credit. They made a lot of shots tonight, they got a lot of different guys they can run at you. Their starting unit is pretty good. I don't know what the numbers bear out offensively and defensively, but that starting unit is as solid as you can see. You can look at their +/- and see that they had a terrific game for them. We didn't make a lot of shots. We didn't finish some fast break that were pivotal. We were 1-for-7 in fast break opportunities where we have a 2-on-1, 1-on-0 or 1-on-1, where we don't get fouled, we don't get to the finish and they run down and it not only costs you the two you didn't get, but then they run down in a spread situation and they capitalized and we didn't."
On the offensive struggles in the second quarter:
"We started standing with the ball. They shot 23 free throws in the first half. That's incredible. They average 26 a game. So that's pretty hard to guard, but we have to play better without fouling I guess."
On being known as a fourth-quarter team:
"It's nothing new. We feel comfortable at the end, the ball bounces their way and they won the game. You've got to stay positive and think about the next game on Monday against the Magic. Right now this game is over with, can't try to analyze it too much and we've got to move on and be positive and move on to the next one."
On playing against Karl-Anthony Towns:
"He had a lot of tools in the toolbox — a lot of them. Every time you play against him, you see a couple new things that I didn't see the first time and I like them. Obviously the game slows down for him, they win the game... He's already special. If he gets working and he stays humble and worries only about basketball and the right things... He has the best guys around to do that - obviously being around Kevin [Garnett] and Tayshaun [Prince]. I know what Tayshaun is about and if he listens to those guys, I know they have a tight connection, he's going to be just fine."
On the loss:
"I think it was more so our lack of offense. Our offensive flow wasn't there. We were throwing the ball away and giving them opportunities to run out and get to their strengths. You can't turn the ball over against a team that likes to run."
On the end of the game:
"It was very tough. We worked very hard to get to that spot. The game ended the way it ended, but we gave ourselves a chance to win. We shouldn't have put ourselves in the position to begin with."
On if they thought they had a chance at the end:
"For sure. A couple things happened that were out of our control, but we gave ourselves a chance to win. It's unfortunate that we lost the way we did, but we fought and hats off to our second unit getting us back into the game and giving us an opportunity to win."
Towns talked about today being the first time it's really hit him that he's playing in the NBA:
#TWolves' @KarlTowns suddenly realized he's in the #NBA before today's win over #Grizzlies https://t.co/1Yw45PzRdL— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) January 24, 2016