Tonight’s 114-96 win over the Los Angeles Lakers followed an eerily similar pattern to last night’s win in Indiana against the Pacers. Once again, the Wolves flew out of the gates, scoring the first 16 points of the game (17 last night,) and wound up winning wire to wire despite a push by the opponent. A final explosion late in the third quarter and tonight, early in the fourth put both games out of reach, and allowed the Wolves to cruise to the finish.
Also once again, the Wolves were facing an opponent that was shorthanded. No Lonzo Ball, Brook Lopez, or Kantavious Caldwell-Pope limited the Lakers even more than usual, and a particularly quiet game from Kyle Kuzma, who scored only six points after hanging 31 on the Wolves on Christmas, left them with limited options. They still pushed the ball as they always do, but 24 turnovers and 44 percent from the field wasn’t nearly enough against a Wolves team that appears to be brimming with confidence.
Plenty of things we could highlight in this one, but let’s start with some kudos for Andrew Wiggins, who, while he didn’t shoot it great (7-16 from the field,) had one of his better all-around games in some time. Nine rebounds is a season high, and he added four assists, a couple of them excellent looks, and two steals. He was especially effective early when the Wolves established their lead and dominance of the game. He also made six of his seven free throw attempts, a turnaround from recent games. And not just the makes—he got to the line for seven or more attempts exactly once in the month of December, and it’s a huge part of his game. He had several impressive paint attacks tonight, something that has been sorely absent from his play, but is absolutely essential if he’s to be an effective scorer on a consistent basis.
Poor bench play once again plagued the Wolves, with the exception of Gorgui Dieng, who was pressed into action early due to foul trouble for Karl-Anthony Towns. Dieng wound up with 17 points on 7-8 shooting, with much of his damage coming in the first half when Towns had to sit for a long stretch. He helped keep things moving in the absence of Towns and Tyus Jones, who was also saddled with foul trouble in the first half that featured a lot of whistles. Both teams attempted more than 20 free throws before halftime, though the whistles were much quieter in the second half.
It made for some choppy and sloppy play especially in the second quarter, but the Wolves managed to maintain much of their big early lead an head to the half up 12 points. An early push by the Lakers got it as close as five points, but key buckets by Jones and Jimmy Butler ultimately pushed the lead back out and the Wolves were not seriously challenged in the fourth quarter.
Which...this deserves, and will get, a much longer article, but man Jimmy “They can’t fuck with me” Butler is good at basketball. We knew this, of course, but seeing him every night is a revelation. Frankly, it was not his best night tonight, as he was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and was charged with seven turnovers. But he also poured in 28 points on 8-14 from the field and dished out nine assists. More than that, he makes things happen at both ends of the court, he has a tremendous desire to win, and is the center of everything the Wolves, now 24-14, do. He takes over when he has to, he comes up with multiple big defensive plays every night, and has brought an entirely different mentality and level of toughness to this team. Dave Benz has mentioned his name in connection with the MVP award the last couple of nights, and while that’s probably not realistic, he’s a true All-NBA caliber player. What a gift.
Finally I want to mention Karl-Anthony Towns. He was limited by foul trouble tonight, but his defensive improvement over the last month or so is worth noting. His pick and roll coverage in particular seems much better to me—he’s hedging and recovering much more quickly, which is cutting off easy one-pass finishes for opponents. He’s also waiting for plays to come to him, and then blocking or altering shots, as opposed to lunging out of position as we saw so often earlier in the season. It’s been much better, and it’s beginning to show up on the scoreboard.
- At least Nemanja Bjelica made a three tonight, but his struggles continue as he just can’t seem to get in sync with the flow of the game. Still, 5-4-1 with no turnovers in 15 minutes...could have been worse.
- Aaron Brooks should not play anymore. He’s finished, and the Wolves should go with Crawford/Butler as primary ball-handlers when Jones is out. Hopefully Jeff Teague returns sooner rather than later.
- Next up is a two game trip to Brooklyn on Wednesday and then Boston on Friday.