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Wolves 109, Jazz 98: Another Division Win

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The Wolves put a stop to their two-game skid with a solid win in Utah.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolves entered tonight on the final game of a three-game road stretch, one that included losses at Golden State and Phoenix which further revealed flaws that were temporarily forgotten during the five-game win streak that preceded it.

On the heels of those two losses, they came into tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz looking like the team we saw during that win streak. They came out very aggressive, pushing the tempo and getting points at the rim. The lack of Rudy Gobert taking up airspace around the basket for the Jazz was something the Wolves took advantage of all night (Bjelica had a two-handed slam driving through traffic if that tells you anything) and it helped them get off to a 15-3 start to the game that was bolstered by an 11-0 run.

The Jazz came into tonight tied for fourth in the league in points allowed per game at 99.6, which the Wolves eclipsed by the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter. The fact that the Wolves came out running ultimately helped earn them some breathing room to operate on offense down the stretch.

Taj Gibson continued to prove that he’s earning his contract early on in this game. His defense was contagious (the Jazz shot 6-21 in the first), he cleaned the glass with authority and he quietly contributed on offense as he has all season so far. At the end of one quarter he had nine points, five rebounds and one block. He’s been the workhorse of this team so far this season.

In general the defense didn’t look too bad in the first half and throughout the rest of the game. The Wolves were able to contain the Jazz in their halfcourt sets and didn’t really get beat in transition like we’ve seen recently. But the Jazz poked some holes in their defensive rotations all night, getting a lot of open looks from deep that fortunately didn’t find the bottom of the net. That’s something that most teams will punish them for if it continues.

Rodney Hood had a brief streak where he started to knock down some open looks toward the end of the second quarter, but thankfully it didn’t catch fire anywhere else and the Wolves escaped the first half with a comfortable 15-point lead — in large part due to Utah shooting 38% from the floor in the first half (and 26% from three).

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Towns opened up the second half with two consecutive threes, which kept things moving in the right direction for the Wolves. After shooting poorly from deep so far this season, KAT looked comfortable letting it fly. If he can keep that up, it will open things up a lot for this team on offense, especially when Wiggins is having a quiet night on offense like he did tonight.

Towns also had a good night at the rim tonight on offense thanks to the absence of one of the greatest rim protectors in the league. The lack of Rudy Gobert went a long way in helping Minnesota win tonight, but the devil’s advocate in me is quick to point out that KAT needs the experience of going up against staunch defenders like Gobert. Obviously I’m not going to complain about a solid W (What’s that saying? Don’t look a Wolves win in the mouth?), but as a pessimistic Wolves fan I know that Towns needs those reps against the league’s best.

Speaking of highlights tonight, Jeff Teague followed up his terrible outing in Phoenix with a solid all-around game, ending up with 22 points. Like we’ve seen in his other solid games this season, he came out strong by attacking the rim and extended that confidence to the three-point line.

Despite those strong performances, however, Utah decided to stop missing shots late in the fourth quarter and went on an 8-0 run to bring the Wolves’ comfortable lead — which was as high as 26 at one point — down to 11. The Wolves eventually outlasted that momentum, but not before a sloppy stretch of basketball with some silly turnovers and poor shot selection. It was enough to induce some nasty flashbacks to the last two seasons.

But the fact that they were able to hold on in a game like this when an opponent put together a strong run late in the fourth is mildly promising for a team that became known for blowing late leads last season. If this were 2016, the Wolves very well could have fallen apart and lost this game. The fact that they stuck it out is a small reassurance that will help me sleep tonight.

Stray Observations:

  • As a whole, the Wolves shot 50% from three — in large part thanks to Teague and Towns — a marked improvement compared to their 35% performance so far this year.
  • Lots of deflections for the Wovles tonight, which helped keep Utah on its toes. That’s a promising element of scrappy defense that I think we’d all like to see moving forward, and it suggests they’re hopefully reading the passing lanes a little better than they have been.
  • The anti-Spanish Unicorn squad will have a heyday in the comments. Ricky Rubio never found his rhythm in this game, from the field or facilitating on offense, and he sat for much of the second half, including Utah’s strong push toward the end. He couldn’t buy anything from beyond the arc and he got picked off a couple different times in transition. He’s clearly being relied on to play a different game for the Jazz until they find a reliable scorer to replace Gordon Hayward.
  • Speaking of: Donovan Mitchell could end up being that guy. He finished the night 24/4/4 with four steals and one block. Barring some serious injuries to this year’s rookie class, I don’t think he stands a chance for ROY — but damn, he looks like a smart steal for the Jazz so far this season.