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Wolves 116, Bucks 99: Hello, 2017

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The Wolves end 2016 on a high note.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — A handful of the league’s brightest young stars took the Target Center hardwood on Friday night, and the Wolves walked away victorious to close out 2016 on a high note.

Hello, 2017. You’re almost here and Wolves fans are dying for more showings like this in the new year.

Andrew Wiggins scored a game-high 31 points, on 10-18 shooting (11-13 from the free throw line), in his fourth 30+ point game of the season as the Wolves beat their young Milwaukee counterparts in front of an excellent crowd. With Wiggins’ performance, Minnesota is the only team in the NBA to have three different players each score 30+ points four times this season.

“We’re playing connected and the chemistry is building,” Wiggins said after his team’s 116-99 win. Staying connected has become the most common words uttered to the media these days in Minneapolis. That’s what Thibodeau is determined to see and the Wolves know they must do it for 48 minutes if they want to win with any regularity. That means sharing the rock like they did tonight, and defending on a string as one.

But they also need dominant games from Wiggins like this. He was simply outstanding. 31 points is great, but what really stood out was his ball-handling, decision-making and passing. He had six assists and relentlessly attacked the rim to put the pressure on Milwaukee. He also chipped in on the glass (five rebounds) and made Antetokounmpo and Parker take difficult shots and work for everything they got.

Many other Wolves played great games, and that was ultimately why they won, but Wiggins shined the brightest and closed out 2016 with one of his best performances of the year.

The artist formerly known as Bazzy Buckets—and more commonly known as Shabazz Muhammad—made his triumphant return, scoring a season-high 22 points off the bench, on 8-13 shooting (4-5 from deep). His 22 points were the most by a Wolves bench player this season and Muhammad did it in only 18 minutes.

“I thought he was terrific, I thought he was very, very efficient with twenty points in seventeen minutes,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He made a lot of good plays, tough plays; leading the floor well. He had some tough match-ups, competed defensively. Probably his best game, I thought he did a great job.”

Muhammad has really struggled in his fourth NBA season, especially with his three-point shot and overall decision making in transition and halfcourt sets when the Wolves force-fed him the ball on the left block.

"It's relieving to have one of those performances," Muhammad said. "I can definitely build on this one."

Entering the night, he was at 27.8 percent from deep but his 4-5 showing boosted him up to 34.1 percent on the year and hopefully this is something he can build on entering the new year. For whatever it’s worth, Muhammad is now 81-255 from deep in his career (31.8 percent).

“I’ve been really working on my three-point shot with Peter (Patton) each and every day,” Muhammad said with relief in his voice. “That’s really been helping me out. I think I can carry this on and really help us have scoring production off the bench.”

This was an excellent drive by Kris Dunn to get Muhammad the wide open corner three:

Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine also took care of business, per the usual. KAT finished with 18 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in his eighth game with 15+ rebounds this season, and 23rd double-double (fourth in the NBA). LaVine hit six more threes (6-10) on his way to 24 points. It was his eighth game this season with 5+ made three-pointers. Fun fact: Only Steph Curry (10) has more this year.

“We want to show we’re the better team, we’ve got better young players, but you’ve got to respect your opponent at all times,” LaVine commented when asked about playing against another young talented team like the Bucks. “They’re having a great year, they’ve got great players like we do, but at the end of the day I’m glad we came out with the win.”

Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo play in person was a real treat. He scored 25 points on 11-14 shooting and four free throws to go with seven rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block. It didn’t work for the Bucks tonight, but I liked seeing him guard Gorgui Dieng and roam around the court going for steals and blocks. That seemed like a really smart way to use him, though this was probably one of his weaker defensive showings of the season.

Jabari Parker scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds, but he was outdueled by Wiggins in the battle of the former number one and two picks in the 2014 draft class. I can’t say his defense was particularly good either but he sure is explosive near the rim and doesn’t look to be affected after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee two years ago.

“I’d rather lose to the Bulls than lose to this team,” Parker said, when asked about preparing for tomorrow night at Chicago. “It’s nothing against them, but we’ve got to win these games. But now we owe ourselves. We tip our hats off to them. They played a real good game.”

I understand what Jabari means, he doesn’t think his team should be losing to the Wolves, but the Bulls are in the East. Let’s be logical about this...

NOTES

  • I saw an old man wearing a purple Hannah Montana Forever sweatshirt at the game. That was an interesting fashion statement. Another gentleman had a throwback KG jersey on, tucked into his pants. I would never tuck a basketball jersey into my pants.
  • Nemanja Bjelica is a different player with the starters. At this point, it’s something the coaching staff needs to look at more closely. Either they get barely anything out of him or they adjust the rotations to get him more consistent minutes with Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns. In the fourth quarter tonight, which Thibs consistently says is a different game than the first three, Bjelica played all 12 minutes. He shined much brighter than normal and most of the minutes came with the starters. Towns, Rubio, and Wiggins were the first three substitutions in the fourth once Thibs went back to his most trusted players. Bjelica finished with 10 points off the bench.
  • 4th quarter minutes tonight: Andrew Wiggins: 8:21 / Gorgui Dieng: 2:39 / Karl-Anthony Towns: 9:21 / Zach LaVine: 12:00 / Ricky Rubio: 8:49 / Shabazz Muhammad: 3:39 / Nemanja Bjelica: 12:00 / Kris Dunn: 3:11 ... these are more or less the only eight players Thibodeau trusts on the roster right now and it was interesting to see the way he used them in the fourth in a game the Wolves closed out really well, which is not per the usual.
  • What’s up, Miles Plumlee. You good, man? Andrew made you look pretty bad. “I was going to do it again, but I got fouled,” Wiggins said when asked about his nasty slam over Plumlee. AND NASTY IT WAS...
  • Minnesota went 13- 25 from three-point range, the 11th time this season it has reached the double-digit mark. Tonight was also their fifth game this season with 13+ made three-pointers, the most such games in a season in club history. They had accomplished the feat just six times over the last five combined seasons.
  • Ricky Rubio was a game-high +27 in 35 minutes. He had five points, nine assists, and four steals.
  • 30 assists tonight, the team’s second time handing out 30+ assists this season (2-0). Minnesota recorded 18 assists on 23 second half field goals, including a perfect 11 assists on 11 field goals in the third quarter alone. Thibodeau said this is what he means when he talks about staying connected.
  • Happy New Years, everyone. Have fun and be safe. More games like this would be a welcome sight in 2017. Next up is Portland at home on Sunday.