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Timberwolves 92, Hawks 84: Progress!

A win based around defense and rebounding against a tough veteran team on the road for the Wolves’ first winning streak of the season? Not too shabby.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Even through all of the bad basketball of the last year and a half, the Minnesota Timberwolves have had the Atlanta Hawks’ number. Tonight’s 92-84 win in Atlanta makes the third straight win for the Wolves after sweeping the Hawks last season, and while the note that Dwight Howard did not play in this game is a necessary one, this was a pretty quality team win by the young team.

Howard’s absence was felt most keenly in the defining statistical difference in the game: the Wolves’ total dominance on the boards. The Wolves had 52 rebounds overall to the Hawks’ 35, and the 15-8 advantage on the offensive boards was key in the Wolves eating up possessions late in the game, even if they didn’t score as the offense slowed its way down.

As one might suspect, Karl-Anthony Towns had a bit to do with the Wolves’ rebounding superiority. He had a double-double by the end of the first half, and finished the game with 17 points and 18 rebounds, and while his second half was quiet on the scoring side, his defensive work inside and passing out of double- and triple-teams (which led to five assists) were a key cog in what did work for the Wolves.

After a first quarter which saw first a big run to push the Wolves to an early ten point lead at 12-2, then a nearly matching Atlanta run to even the score back up, this game was only rarely separated by more than five points. Both offenses went through long ruts of not scoring (or good defense!), and neither team shot well: Atlanta finished at 41.5% from the field, with Minnesota just barely better at 42.2%.

The third quarter woes returned once again, but they were not fatal this time. The five-point buffer the Wolves had at halftime provided the leeway they needed to only trail by two entering the fourth quarter, and a couple of key buckets and a steal from Ricky Rubio kept them close when the Hawks threatened to pull away. Rubio continues to look more comfortable than he has all season, and his 10 points, five rebounds and eight assists were good value, although the six turnovers were often not ideal.

Turnovers were an opening for the Hawks, and while they did punish the Wolves on a few of their 17 turnovers, often late in the game the Hawks gave it right back. Five different Wolves registered steals in the game, and Zach LaVine’s steal with just over a minute left and a six point lead effectively finished the game. LaVine had several important moments on defense and continues to show distinct positive signs on that end of the floor.

That said: the Hawks just missed a lot of shots, even with what they got going. Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore found their way to the rim on a few occasions, Paul Millsap gave Towns quite a battle inside, and Mike Muscala had one of his best games with 16 points, including the first eight of the third quarter. But, 7/26 from three just wasn’t good enough tonight, and Kyle Korver in particular was problematic for Atlanta with four turnovers and just 2/6 on threes.

However, that shouldn’t take away from a solid performance by the Wolves’ defense. This was the second fewest points they have allowed to any opponent this year (and the fewest was the Memphis game in which the Grizzlies played basically no starters), a solid achievement against an Atlanta team that typically plays fast and scores 102.6 per game on average.

The Wolves have their first back-to-back wins of the season, and have reached a portion of their schedule that features many winnable games. Their next game against Sacramento at Target Center on Friday is definitely winnable, and they could be riding a nice three-game streak into the big Christmas Day showdown in Oklahoma City before a back-to-back the next day against these same Hawks. Progress is good.