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Wolves 104, Pelicans 98: Another Close Win

The Wolves survive an onslaught from Demarcus Cousins for their third win in a row

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans are some sort of strange anomaly in today’s NBA after doubling down on big men last season when they acquired Demarcus Cousins in a league that is getting smaller by the year. This experiment has been interesting so far, but it’s still unclear if the combination of Cousins and Anthony Davis can truly be successful in the NBA or if those two will continue to dominate independent of the rest of their team.

The answer to that tonight landed somewhere toward the latter, with those two combining for 59 points and largely overshadowing their already bleak supporting cast.

At the beginning of the game, Taj Gibson got off to a quick start with six of the team’s first eight points — including one of those deep corner shots that I’m still not used to seeing from him. But the Wolves were plagued by a lot of sloppy turnovers in the first quarter that prevented them from pulling away when New Orleans wasn’t hitting their shots.

Sure enough, Cousins stepped up and started getting buckets in a big way, hitting shots from deep and bullying his way to the basket. For all the talk about Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Boogie is a phenomenal big man who really does it all. He has a shooters touch from beyond the arc for a center, he snags boards with the best of them and his passing is surprisingly smooth. He finished the night with 35p/9r/6a/6s/3b.

However, after a brief lead in the first for the Pelicans, Nemanja Bjelica nailed a three to tie it up with four seconds remaining followed immediately by an intercepted inbounds pass and subsequent 40-foot three-pointer at the buzzer by Jamal Crawford to put Minnesota ahead going into the second. Being on this side of one of those JCrossover buzzer-beaters is so satisfying.

Overall the bench was fantastic tonight, which isn’t saying a ton because one of the biggest issues for the Pelicans is lack of depth, but Bjelica was especially great again in this one. He had a solid stretch all the way through the second quarter where he was hitting those treys we’ve desperately needed from him and otherwise being smart with the ball. He was the highlight of the second unit in this game, as he has been all season so far, and it’s great that the flashes we’ve seen from him in previous seasons very well could be sustainable. If he keeps being aggressive and can keep shooting as efficiently as he has been, he’ll be a real boon to this Wolves team.

Jimmy Butler meanwhile had himself one of those nights where it’s clear he is the glue that keeps this team together. He finished the night with 23 points, but he also continued to do some great things on the other side of the ball. The impact this man has on defense is nothing short of astounding, and it’s a shame a lot of it is immeasurable even in the golden age of NBA stat geeks. If you take a few possessions and just watch Butler’s off-ball defense, it quickly becomes clear that his placement on the court and his instincts are invaluable for this young team. Vision on defense isn’t something that’s often talked about, but Butler sure has it — and he has it with the best of them.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The second half saw more of the same kind of action, with the Pelicans’ bigs coming out strong. Cousins had a big block on Towns in transition followed by him goading KAT into committing an offensive foul. Cousins is one of those players that either gets in opposing players’ heads or gets in his own. And unfortunately tonight he worked Towns mentally and physically, which contributed to the fact that KAT had one of the worst games of his entire career, ending up with two points, four turnovers and five fouls.

The Wolves were lucky that almost no one other than Cousins was hitting from three, though, because the Pelicans were getting plenty of open looks but were unable to connect on many of them. They finished just 8-31 from deep on the night and guess who made five of those. By the end of the third the Wolves were up by six, but New Orleans was still in the game because we couldn’t find an answer for Boogie.

Cousins was also flopping all over the court all night, and one of those instances came late in the fourth when he Meryl Streeped Taj Gibson, which led to two free throws and brought the Pelicans back within four. (The refs were fine for most of the night other than when it came to Cousins getting two — if not three — calls off flopping.)

This game ultimately came down to a little bit of luck (like that blown layup by Tony Allen with less than a minute to go) and the steadfast game of Jimmy Butler (who had a clutch, smart and-one bucket that helped seal the game with 30 seconds left). Things weren’t always pretty, but at the same time this game left me with a little hope that things are slowly moving in the right direction. Beating New Orleans is the kind of game the Wolves probably should win, sure, but after that brief stretch of unbearable basketball we were playing just last week, it’s promising to see that we’re able to pull things off even when someone like KAT has a career-worst game.

Stray Observations

  • Really though, Jimmy Butler’s help defense could easily be worth 1,000 words on its own. Those kinds of basketball instincts are a treat, and they remind me of a certain Spaniard who I wish could have played with him. Teague v. Rubio debates aside, the thought of Ricky and Jimmy wreaking sneaky havoc on offenses together is what I’ll dream about tonight.
  • After just eight games in a Wolves uniform, I am unreasonably confident in Jamal Crawford’s ability to hit clutch shots with the clock winding down. He did it multiple times in this one. Seriously, give this man my heart with five seconds left on the shot clock and I’m cool with it.
  • In regards to Boogie getting in KAT’s head tonight, I think that mental aspect is something KAT really has to work on. He has the tools and he has the confidence, but he also has a small tendency to get knocked off track by aggressive players.