The Wolves entered tonight following two consecutive losses to teams that are direct threats to their playoff chances. If there ever were a “must win” situation this season, this was as close as we’ve come. At a time when teams like New Orleans and Portland are gunning to upend the second tier of the best teams in the West, the Wolves need to scratch and claw out every single W they can manage.
Needless to say, with 14 games left on the schedule and Jimmy Butler still sidelined with an injury, every game counts from here on out.
With Kyrie Irving back from a knee injury, the Celtics were scrappy on offense and ravenous on defense from the get-go, quickly turning this one into a game of catchup for the Wolves.
Minnesota was careless with the ball at the beginning of the game, committing six of their 12 total turnovers in the first quarter alone, which fueled Boston’s transition scoring and helped get them out in front early on.
Despite those costly turnovers and the usual lapses in defense, an early and consistent spark for Minnesota came from Nemanja Bjelica, who started off with a couple quick hits from beyond the arc within the first few minutes of the first quarter. At one point he pulled in a defensive rebound, took the ball down the court and pulled up for an open three all on his own. It’s the kind of play Wolves fans have been clamoring for from him all season long, and it’s one of the few silver linings that stemmed from the Wolves’ performance.
Aside from the expected strong performances from Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, Boston got great minutes out of Marcus Morris, who ended up with 17 points and five rebounds. It was fun watching him and Taj Gibson go back and forth against one another during the first half. Morris looked really impressive coming off the dribble from around the elbow in addition to hitting 3-5 from three, while Gibson was working his usual post fundamentals with great efficiency.
Somewhere in the middle of the second quarter, the Wolves started coming apart at the seams. It’s not a great sign when a rookie like Jayson Tatum (however impressive he may be) is scoring at will and players like Marcus Smart are skying for putback dunks. Boston just looks like a team at all times. They’re cohesive in transition, crisp in their halfcourt sets and disciplined on defense. The only time when they don’t function as a comprehensive unit is when Kyrie Irving goes into iso mode, but even then he’ll zig-zag his way into the paint and then zip a pass back out to the perimeter for a wide-open three. The way Boston operates as a unit compared to the Wolves is like night and day, and that showed tonight.
By the end of the first half, the Wolves trailed by 14, which should come as no surprise when you realize the Celtics’ bench outscored the Wolves 23-2. Two points off the bench in one half of basketball is obviously abysmal and unsustainable. As appalled as I am by the Wolves signing Derrick Rose (who dressed but did not see the floor tonight), the least we can hope for from him is to score a damn bucket off the bench.
But it wasn’t just the bench that had issues tonight. For how well KAT, Bjelica and Gibson performed, Andrew Wiggins really struggled from the field, shooting 6-21 and 1-8 from deep. He was missing from all over the court, and on open looks at that — the kinds of shots a max-contract player should have no problem making. With Butler out, this really needs to be Wiggins’ time to rise to the occasion.
A truly scary moment came late in the third quarter when Jaylen Brown dunked in transition and landed on his upper back/neck. He immediately went stiff when he hit the floor and stayed on the ground for quite a while. It was an awful moment, and there’s no one worse it could have happened to than someone like Brown who’s been through so much personal stuff already this season. Thankfully he was able to walk off under his own power, but he was apparently taken to the hospital for testing, so here’s hoping he has a quick recovery.
Following Brown’s injury, Minnesota went on a 9-0 run into the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, bringing the deficit back within single digits. And for a moment it looked like the Wolves might miraculously crawl their way back into this one with continued buckets from Bjelica (who finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds) and Jamal Crawford, who finally brought Minnesota’s bench to life.
But ultimately the Wolves were out-coached, out-played and out-executed by a clearly superior team. With this win the Celtics have officially secured a playoff spot while the Wolves continue to fall in the standings and their record is now stained with their first three-game losing streak of the season. From here on out, Minnesota’s schedule only gets tougher with the next four games coming against the Warriors, Wizards, Spurs and Rockets. Jimmy Butler can’t return soon enough.