MINNEAPOLIS — After a recent heat wave hit the Twin Cities, in regards to both the weather and the local NBA team’s play, we knew the frigid temperatures were bound to come back.
True enough, the thermometer hit sub-zero tonight as the Wolves welcomed the Knicks to Target Center. What we didn’t know was whether or not this team’s recent fire would continue to flare, or if it would fizzle. Here’s a look at the team since December 18th:
Wolves since Dec 18...— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) January 11, 2018
ORTG: 113.3 (#1)
DRTG: 102.8 (#4)
NetRTG: +10.4 (#1)
and their record.... pic.twitter.com/cSsqhbt90W
Do my eyes deceive me? What’s happening? I need an adult.
Minnesota has been the best team in basketball for nearly a month. Like certain pundits said of the team’s offense earlier in the season, THIS IS ABSOLUTELY UNSUSTAINABLE!
It turns out when you have a totally overhauled roster, it may take some time to figure things out. Though the Knicks snapped the seven game streak of the Wolves holding their opponents to 100 points or less, the team clamped down when they needed to most, pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 118-108 victory.
Jimmy Butler provided timely defense in moments, a few clutch buckets, but was largely missing for most of the game. His play resembled that of what he looked like to start the season, flashes throughout but absent for the majority. He finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three steals.
The team didn’t need him to be ‘Jimmy Buckets’ tonight because they have Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, of course. The two former number one picks led the team, despite a slip in defense relative to recent games, with great playmaking.
“I think it’s a big statement, especially this far into the season to be doing what we’re doing. I think it speaks volumes that we didn’t play our best tonight, especially defensively. We found a way to scratch out a win, so I mean we’re doing a great job,” Karl said after the game.
KAT missed out on a triple-double just barely, with 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. He ran point on the final play and Jeff Teague got a good look from three but just missed. Wigs had only two assists but consistently made the extra pass, the right pass, that may not have necessarily shown up on the stat sheet.
JUST LOOK AT THESE PASSES.
KAT’s passing has become elite for a big man recently and it’s very encouraging to see. He’s going to see double-teams the rest of his career and he’s already showing he has the knack to find the open man. The decision between going for the bucket off an offensive rebound or dishing out is becoming instinctual.
Team defense wasn’t amazing, and it wasn’t terrible either. But check out what these youngsters were up to tonight.
Karl-Anthony Towns rejects a fadeaway by Michael Beasley. pic.twitter.com/gNmkhqKujm— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 13, 2018
Wiggins stuffs Porzingis (!!!) and Tyus Stones takes care of the rest. pic.twitter.com/idt3GFqxC1— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) January 13, 2018
This was a really fun game to be at, and in front of a sixth straight sellout crowd no less!
Wiggins also had two steals and although his individual statistics don’t necessarily illustrate a defensive dynamo, recently he has passed the eye test as a good defender.
I’ve noticed after he scores at the rim, when Andrew senses the opponent is trying to get out in transition, he attempts to jump the inbound pass. It’s resulted in turnovers on occasion, but most of the time he only delays the opponent a second or two, but that can be the difference between an easy basket and a defensive stop.
Transition defense for the Wolves was atrocious to start the year, and I’d like to think Thibs has gotten on everyone with Wiggins clearly taking it to heart. I’ve seen him cause chaos in the backcourt to allow the defense to get set, which doesn’t show up on a stat sheet.
When the team struggled early in the season, Tom Thibodeau would consistenly call on KAT and Wigs to step up. This is what he had to say about them after the game:
“I thought Karl had an exceptional game, just the way he played all around, offensively and defensively. The nine assists were terrific. He and Wiggins are really coming on. Wiggins rebounding, making some plays and attacking the basket in transition. I think those things are huge plays for us.”
And later: “The thing that’s encouraging to me is the way KAT is seeing the game right now; the same thing with Wiggins.”
While he still thinks the team needs to play for a ‘full 48 minutes’, his comments there tell us the team’s improvement is in part due to the two young stars starting to ‘get it.’
Those two weren’t the only reason the team pulled this off. Taj Gibson proved yet again that he has been a major addition to this squad. He had 17 points (8-11 from the field) because he was always in the right spot at the right time. When anyone drives to the rim, he finds the space to provide a dump off should anything go awry.
If he doesn’t get the dish, he’s right there for the offensive rebound. He had five of those tonight, with one on the defensive end. Anyone bemoaning his contract at this point should just stop (I don’t think anyone is).
Jeff Teague played fantastic as well. He had three steals in the second quarter alone, four overall, which was a big reason the team was still close at half-time after a slow start. He slowed the ball down at times but was actually more aggressive tonight than what we have seen. He was attacking the rim, drawing fouls and facilitating ball movement with drive and kicks. He finished with 12 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
The bench was the X-factor tonight, as they scored 37 points on 16-26 shooting. The combination of Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng plus KAT was the group that played at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth that put this game away for good.
This is the best three-point shooting lineup the Timberwolves have and it showed.
The ball movement was dizzying as KAT and Bjelly hit threes after a whirlwind of passes on multiple possessions. Nemanja was an efficient 4-4 from the field with two threes and has appeared to have rid the rust after returning from his foot injury.
Jones and Dieng were disruptive on defense and deadly on offense. Gorgui’s jab step and step back make on Kyle O’Quinn in the second half created quite a stir in the Target Center. I am not sure the fans knew G had that in him but he’s done it before.
“On a night like tonight, you just have to find a way to win. The group that was playing at the end of the third and start of the fourth did a great job of getting control of the game,” Thibs said in the post-game presser.
When this group was done, the lead was 106-92, and the starters came in to finish it out with their ‘prevent offense.’ It worked, though it was a few mistakes away from getting a little too close for comfort, which goes back to Thibs talking about playing a full game.
Kristaps Porzingis has struggled from the field as of late, and that continued in this game. He had 17 points on 6-19 shooting, though he was a monster in the first quarter on defense, where he had two steals and two blocks in the first seven minutes. He stifled Jimmy, KAT, and Taj at the rim as if he were playing little kids.
Tim Hardaway Jr. returned to play in his first game since November 29th, and was one of the few bright spots for the Knicks. He had 16 points, 4-8 from deep, and played great defense in 25 minutes.
That makes four wins in a row overall, seven in a row at home. The team is cooking and they close out their five game home stand this Sunday against the Blazers. Here’s to five of five.