Wolves at Jazz
9:30 pm CST
Battle of the ball-handlers
After the Timberwolves selected Ricky Rubio with the fifth pick of the 2009 draft, fans waited while a Spanish teenager, famous for his endearing charisma and unique skillset, teased their hopes through two off seasons of ‘will-he-or-won’t-he’ execute a contract buyout and move to Minnesota. When the stars finally aligned before the 2011-12 season, Rubio made the jump and averaged an impressive 10.6 points, 8.2 assists and 2.2 steals over 41 appearances as a rookie, showing everyone that he was worth the wait.
Jeff Teague, on the other hand, took a much more traditional rout to NBA stardom. A four-star recruit out of Indianapolis, Indiana, Teague would go on to become Wake Forest’s first All-American since Chris Paul. Following a phenomenal sophomore season, Teague – like Rubio – declared for the 2009 NBA draft. In the end, he was selected 18th overall by the Atlanta Hawks. Teague was the seventh point guard drafted that night; Rubio was the first.
Since the two highly-skilled guards joined the world’s toughest professional basketball league, their careers have taken strikingly divergent paths.
Teague spent his first seven seasons with the Hawks, being named an all-star in 2014-15. He was a part of, and the featured player on a number of deep and talented teams. And as he made sure to point out when he was first introduced to Wolves fans last summer, he has made the playoffs a perfect eight of eight times throughout his NBA tenure. He has also won five playoff series - reaching four conference semi-finals and making one conference finals appearance. His team’s winning percentage to this point in his career sits at 57% (412/722) and he’s played in 91% of those matchups. Teague’s battle tested abilities to both drive to the hole and hit an outside shot make him a player that, on a good night, will never go out of style.
Over the seven seasons since Rubio made the jump to the NBA, he’s been one of the league’s most fiercely debated, intensely polarizing players. A dazzling passer and rugged defender who has never quite found a consistent jump-shot or figured out how to stay on the court, the Ricky Rubio era in Minnesota was both inspiring and frustrating. Through six seasons of highlight dimes, he and the Wolves won just 36% (173) of 476 contests, and Rubio missed 123 games recovering from varying ailments. But the Wolves seemed to find catastrophe in spite of Rubio’s uniquely effective playstyle, not because of it. And for that reason he was often the lone bright spot on a team that had a perpetually dim outlook.
Tonight, the two point guards will face off opposite each other, both on new teams, at Vivint Smart Home arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
These two NorthWest Division foes represent opposite ends of what has become a historically tight Western Conference playoff hunt. While the Wolves sit at 38-27, half of a game ahead of the Spurs and Blazers for third place, the Jazz boast a 31-30 record and remain 10th in the West. They’re two games and two teams away from the final playoff spot, but they’re also just five games behind the Wolves.
After falling out of the playoff conversation altogether, the Jazz rattled off 11 consecutive wins heading into the all-star break, soaring back to within shouting distance of post-season play. Having suffered a slew of injuries over the course of the season, they’ve effectively clamped onto the coattails of rookie Donovan Mitchell in accumulating an above .500 record. The University of Louisville standout and 13th pick in last year’s draft has averaged 21.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 45/36/84 shooting splits over 44 appearances since these two teams last faced off on November 13th. And following the return of starting center Rudy Govert on January 19th, the Jazz have gone 13-4 while posting the league’s best defensive rating (99.5) by a significant margin.
Jazz defense since Rudy Gobert came back is #1 in the NBA and it is not that close pic.twitter.com/gANH98tXPx— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) March 2, 2018
Meanwhile, the Wolves are fighting to maintain their spot in the standings while taking a turn with the injury bug. As Jimmy Butler remains sidelined, Taj Gibson suffered a left hip contusion during the fourth quarter of last night’s loss to the Portland Trailblazers. A game-time decision for tonight’s matchup, if Gibson is unable to suit up Gorgui Dieng would likely take his spot in the lineup. It’s hard to imagine that an NBA team has deployed a bigger starting five this season.
Regardless, tonight marks game two of the Wolves toughest and most important eight game stretch this season. They will rely on Karl-Anthony Towns as they have since Butler’s injury. And while their all-star center is averaging an eye-popping 27.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2 blocks on 67.8% true shooting over those three games, the Wolves will need more consistent offensive production from Andrew Wiggins and Teague if they want to fly home tonight with a victory in hand.
There’s plenty working against the Wolves tonight: it’s the second night of a road back-to-back, they’re playing in altitude, they’re dealing with key injuries, and they’re facing one of the hottest team’s in the NBA. If this season’s history is any indicator, they should play well.