This was closer to the 48 minutes of quality basketball that Tom Thibodeau has been searching for all season. It wasn’t all the way there, and 41 points from Andrew Wiggins was not enough to beat John Wall and the Washington Wizards, who finished the Minnesota Timberwolves off 112-105 in a fun, close game.
It would be very difficult to start a recap of this game with anyone but Wiggins. While the last five minutes of the second quarter featured Wiggins’ oft-repeated act of unwise drives and long jumpers, his scoring kept them in the game, and he finished with one of his best efforts of the season with 41 points on 16/30 shooting. He couldn’t quite hit enough shots late, but the Wolves wouldn’t have been close without him.
Before the end of the second quarter, the Wolves were given life by a surprising combination of scoring from their bench unit. They left the first quarter trailing by three, but good efforts from Brandon Rush, Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich gave the starters a tied game. Rush’s 10 points were his most in a game this year in his first appearance since December 11. The starters did promptly throw it away to take an eight point deficit to halftime, but it could have been worse if not for the bench.
The Wizards’ lead swelled to fourteen early in the third quarter before the Wolves turned the offense on. Wiggins hit shot after shot, and a couple of big threes from Zach LaVine pressed the advantage, with the Wolves closing the quarter on a 34-15 run and taking a five point lead to the fourth quarter. This time, the bench wasn’t good enough, giving up an immediate 9-0 run, and the starters were back early to close the game.
Late in the game, the Wolves kept it tied until very late, but defensive miscommunications, John Wall being very good at basketball, and Wiggins finally missing shots caused the Wolves to slip away at the very end. Wall finished the game with 18 points and 18 assists, and was serenaded with “MVP” chants by the crowd on his last trip to the free throw line.
“I got the shots I wanted,” Wiggins said of the close to the game. “Just missed.” It was another night where the Wolves had one force on offense, but others went missing. LaVine finished the game with just 8 points, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ 18 points and 10 rebounds weren’t a huge factor in the game, which was a sad result after his efforts inside had gotten two quick fouls on Marcin Gortat and sent him to the bench for most of the first half.
The defensive end was the problem, once again. Too often throughout the game, John Wall would drive into the lane. The big that was assigned to cover Gortat (or his backup Jason Smith), usually Gorgui Dieng, would get sucked towards Wall, and the Wizards would have an easy backdoor layup or dunk. It happened over and over, with two particularly damaging occasions pushing the Wizards to a two possession lead in the closing minutes.
Thibodeau was predictably exasperated with the team’s defensive effort. “We didn’t play defense all night,” he said after the game. “It only takes one guy to jog back, and then that crushes you. There’s a lot of closeouts in which we’re two steps off, and then we don’t challenge the shot correctly.” The Wizards finished 12/22 (54.5%) from outside the arc, with Bradley Beal (5/7) particularly punishing.
Thibodeau was also unsatisfied with both Wiggins and LaVine. “He [Wiggins] played well offensively. Defensively, he’s gotta improve. He’s gotta do a lot better. Zach struggled all night, offensively and defensively. What we’ve gotta learn is you can play well when you don’t shoot well.” As good as Wiggins was on offense, it was his late closeouts that contributed to many of Washington’s open threes.
The bottom line remains the same: the effort and discipline on defense isn’t enough. “We need to be able to count on each other. The effort sometimes is not there,” Dieng said. “We come back, your man cuts to the basket, and nobody wants to attack or help you. We rarely do that. We rarely tag, or help the helper. We need to do a better job.” He’s right, but when is that all going to change?
- Rush did exactly what he was supposed to do from the beginning of this season: make shots. He hit all four he took, and while his effort on defense could still be questioned, was it really any worse than what Shabazz Muhammad (who missed the game with an illness) would have given? Single-game plus-minus is what it is, but Rush was the only Wolf that was positive at +8.
- One would suspect that Muhammad will remain out for tomorrow’s game back in the Twin Cities, as flying doesn’t tend to be that great for any kind of illness. That’s nothing more than a guess, but it should be noted.
- On the other side of the plus-minus, LaVine was -18, by far the worst on the team. The two threes he hit were big at the time, but he was a non-factor, finishing the night 3/14, and the defense was not promising tonight.
- The Wizards’ starters were immense late in the game, none of them having fewer than 15 points. Markieff Morris paced them early, Beal and Porter pushed the lead with three-point shooting in the second and third, and Wall and Gortat destroyed the defense late. Wall’s speed and control of his dribble is unbelievable, and he was fantastic the whole night. He should absolutely be in the crowded conversation for the East’s All-Star backcourt.