MINNEAPOLIS — Two days ago the Wolves gave the world champion Warriors everything they had to give for 48 minutes in front of a sold out home crowd ripe with enthusiasm.
Against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night, the atmosphere was certainly different as the Kings were in town playing without superstar center DeMarcus Cousins (bruised right knee) in front of an announced attendance of 12,151. In the first half the game felt like most contests have between the teams every March over the past decade when ping pong balls take precedence over building a winning culture. The play was sloppy, the win completely up for grabs.
In the third quarter, the Wolves outscored Sacramento 34-24 to gain some much needed momentum heading into the fourth. Eventually they won 113-104 behind key performances from the same starting five head coach Sam Mitchell has been leaning heavily on (rightly so, because the bench continues to be non-existent) after the All-Star break.
"I think one of the reasons we've played as well as we have on the road is because most of the time when you go on the road it's loud, the crowd is into it and you feed off of that. I thought we fed off of that Monday night against Golden State," Mitchell said.
"Obviously we didn't have it tonight, but I thought our guys, they just grinded it out," he continued. "We made some mistakes early but I thought in the third quarter we just came out and executed, scored some baskets, got some defensive stops, picked up our energy and we were able to win the game."
Towns (12), LaVine (11), Wiggins (6) and Dieng (5) scored all 34 points in the third on 14-18 shooting. "In the third quarter we just didn't have any presence and it felt like they scored on just about every possession on the offensive court," Kings coach George Karl said.
"Fourth quarter we fought back, but their skill set is pretty impressive. Their good players played well. I thought Rubio played well as the orchestrator and of course Towns and Wiggins, we never could find a pulse or a control of them and they were mostly in the paint."
Karl-Anthony Towns continued his rookie dominance. Make that 42 double-doubles now (sixth consecutive) in his young career with 26 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in 29 minutes. Marveling at his immediate, out of the box greatness never gets old to me. Towns' four swats were his 21st game of the season with 3+ blocks, the best mark among rookies.
"We did very good today," Towns commented. "I was very happy with us. We did a great job of not only moving the ball but just playing physical and mentally staying sharp. The game plan went perfectly."
A Major Response
Held scoreless in the first half, Zach LaVine responded with 23 points after the break, finishing 7-12 from the floor and 4-7 from 3-point land (more catch-and-shoot!). His second half surge was likely the difference in the outcome.
"Zach just seemed like he was a little bit dragged. Zach has been playing a lot of minutes lately. We talked to him at halftime and, you've got to pick it up... Little did I know, you're thinking ‘pick it up,' but not 23 [points] in the second half. Zach just has that talent, he's explosive, and we need it."
LaVine's hot hand since the All-Star break continues. He is now shooting 50.6 percent (118-233) from the floor and 46.1 percent (41-89) from deep. Make that fives straight games that he has two or more triples, matching the longest streak of his bright young career (Nov. 13-20, 2015). The second-year guard is 18-34 in the past five while starting at shooting guard and logging major minutes.
He also put Marco Bellinelli on skates, which is something I would point to when critics question all of those frustrating point guard minutes he was given. There is no doubt they were tough to go through in the moment, for all parties involved, but moments like this make his usage last season feel worthwhile. LaVine has shown flashes of a tight handle (below) plus improved decision making and excellent pocket passing throughout his sophomore season.
LaVine's bounce brother, Andrew Wiggins, continued his assault on the Kings by recording his 42nd game of the season with 20+ points, finishing with 23 on an efficient 10-15 shooting night that started out quickly with 11 first quarter points. Mr. Maple entered the game averaging 27/8/3.5 on 51.4 percent shooting in the two prior games against Sacramento this season.
"I thought Andrew, for the whole time, he just kept attacking," Mitchell commented. "That's something that we want him to continue to do."
After the game I asked Wiggins how his powerful slam, as he put the ball on the floor with his left, took two dribbles, and threw down an extremely nasty dunk over Willie Cauley-Stein felt.
"It felt good, I felt like it brought energy to the team and momentum that carried on for the rest of the game," he responded. When I showed him the highlight on my phone he smirked and said, "Dang, I took off from far away."
The Wolves iron man Gorgui Dieng appeared to be limping after tweaking his knee during the game, and was still walking somewhat gingerly in the locker room afterwards, but seemed to be fine. He collected another double-double with 16 points (7-10) and 12 rebounds. G added two blocks in his 13th double-double of the year.
It has almost become tradition for Dieng and Towns to shout "Money Team" back and forth to each other after wins at home in which the two both go for double-doubles. Rookie point guard Tyus Jones, who did his job by holding down the fort in the second when Ricky Rubio hit the bench midway through the quarter with his third foul, had something to say about that claim.
Jones interjected: "Isn't the 'Money Team' Floyd Mayweather?"
Dieng and Towns were quick to get on Jones for his witty response, but it was all love between the trio. I wanted to award Tyus 10,000 Canis Hoopus points on the spot for that, though I was worried he would ask the question everyone in this community has been wondering for years. What do the points actually get us? One of these days we will have to set up an official rewards program.
He's Amazing To Me
Ricky Rubio went about his business as usual, scoring seven points, dishing out 12 assists, and being everywhere the Wolves needed him to be. He added three steals, which puts him in the league-lead with 28 games now with 3+ steals this season (Ariza, 28, h/t Timberwolves_PR).
"He's amazing to me," Sam Mitchell said about Rubio.
"Every single play—offense and defense—he competes as hard as he can, and that's something just rare in this league. Not to take anything away from the other guys, they all play hard, but the way Ricky gives 100 percent on every play ... he's just a unique player. For our team, he just gets us in our stuff and makes the right decision and passes the ball and defends. I think quietly Ricky has had an unbelievable year. He's in the weight room, he's working on his body, he's been resilient, he's taking care of himself. I think Ricky likes playing with this core of young guys that we have, and he's included in that; he's only 25."
The Wolves finished 23-33 (69.7 percent) from the floor in the second half and 56.3 percent on the night. After being signed through the rest of the season earlier in the day, Greg Smith made his impact felt with a season-high seven points and five rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. As an aside, Smith has quickly become the official hype man for the team.
For the Kings, Rajon Rondo led the way with a season-high 25 points (10-16), 12 assists, eight rebounds, and three steals in 37 minutes. Kosta Koufos started in place of Cousins, posting 15 points and a season-high 15 rebounds. Sacramento's bench outscored Minnesota 40-18 tonight, including double-digit efforts from Belinelli (14 points), Casspi (12 points), and Collison (12 points) but that was not enough to stop the Wolves starters in crunch time.
One thing I found to be funny in my research after the game was that Rudy Gay is now 13-46 from the field in three games against the Wolves this season. His shot selection has been horrible.
Wolves Guard Zach LaVine on the first half of the game…
"I felt fine. I was little tired, it’s just that you’ve got to get into the rhythm of the game. Sometimes that’s hard, but I just looked to be a little more aggressive in the second half and just knocked down shots. I can already hear my dad about to call me about my free throws [5-10 on the night]. I should have hit at least two more of those, you’ve got to get at least 70%."
On the second half…
"We knew we had this game and we really wanted to win. We could have won yesterday, we had the champs on the ropes and we couldn’t close that out better. We needed to come out today in a game that you’re tired, you’re sluggish after you know you played hearts out the night before so we just had to come out and be ready to go."
On Sacramento playing without DeMarcus Cousins…
"They’re like two different teams. He’s such a big presence on their team that you know the whole offense probably doesn’t go through him a lot of the time. [Rajon] Rondo and him have the ball a majority of the time, so as a group they move the ball a lot more, they get up a lot more shots. Then again, you don’t have Cousins out there picking and popping and getting all these types of rebounds and dominating the game almost. They’re two different teams."
On the comparison between Monday’s game and tonight…
"It was a different vibe. People are going to come out for the Cleveland games, the Oklahoma City games, Golden State games. We’re just trying to bring people back – winning more games and playing hard every night and giving the fans something to watch. Hopefully next year we can just keep adding. More people will come and it will be the environment to be in."