In one of the most important games in recent Timberwolves memory, the Wolves fell completely flat. Coming into this game, we knew that the Wolves depth would likely be tested. Both Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose were gametime decisions, leaving the Wolves’ backcourt perilously thin. Neither player was able to play, which meant that the Wolves were forced to play Aaron Brooks as their backup point guard.
The Wolves actually came out strong, bolstered mostly by Andrew Wiggins who had a tremendous first quarter. Wiggins looked engaged, firing away from beyond the arc, unafraid to challenge Rudy Gobert at the rim, and locked in on defense. He basically kept the game at an even keel in that first quarter, which saw the Wolves down 28-26.
Then everything fell apart.
While Aaron Brooks played about as well as can be expected for an older third-string point guard, the defensive backcourt of Brooks and Jamal Crawford was less than ideal. Dante Exum, who has looked impressive since he has returned this year, carved up the Wolves with ease. Exum was great off the bench for the Jazz, finishing with 14 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds in just 17 minutes. He adds another dimension to this Jazz team, as his length is obviously an issue on both ends of the court and he is just so fast.
After that first bench stint, the Wolves made a brief run coming within 6 points near the end of the 2nd quarter, but then the Jazz put the clamps down at the end of the half and in the third quarter and the game was never in question during that point.
The main story of the night, other than how disastrously the Wolves played on defense, was former Timberwolf Ricky Rubio. Rubio was aggressive from the start of the game, shooting a few pull-up jumpers with no hesitation. His infamous inability to shoot from deep was certainly not the case tonight, as Rubio set a season high for threes shooting 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. Rubio ended the game with 23 points, 3 assists, and 7 rebounds.
After the recent dustup in Utah, as well how things ended with the Wolves, this game must have felt good for Rubio.
For the rest of the Jazz, they just looked like a much more complete team than the Wolves. Donovan Mitchell was out of sync most of the game and looked all over the place, but he still scored 21 points and looked every part like a superstar in the making. He can just go on scoring runs all by himself, like in the third quarter, and he plays with absolutely no fear.
Rudy Gobert played like his Defensive MVP self, notching 4 blocks and altering countless shots. Derrick Favors served as the glue guy, Joe Ingles wasn’t firing away from deep but his playmaking led to 9 assists, and the Jazz got great contributions from Jonas Jerebko, Royce O’Neill, and Jae Crowder off the bench.
This sounds more like a Jazz recap. That is because no one on the Wolves really showed up tonight. Sure Wiggins had a great first quarter, but he lost his shooting touch and ended up 10-22 from the field with a ton of long-twos clanking away. However, Wiggins did put together another strong all-around game with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals.
In Jeff Teague’s steed, Tyus Jones probably had the best game of anyone else on the Wolves. Jones played mostly solid defense, grabbed a few steals, and scored pretty well from the field.
As for everyone else, they were pretty much the worst versions of themselves. The rapid decline of Gorgui Dieng continues, as he looks just lost on the court. Karl-Anthony Towns was just unable to get anything going against Gobert and the Jazz attacked him all game long in the pick-and-roll. Nemanja Bjelica barely showed up until the fourth quarter. Jamal Crawford was bad Jamal, which seems in-line with him after he saved the day in Dallas. Taj Gibson is not going to win the game by himself, that is just not who he is.
The Wolves defense was just awful. The Jazz are not a strong team on offense, but they do play well together and move the ball well. Against the Wolves, the Jazz shot 60.5 percent from the field. At halftime, the Jazz had an effective field goal rate of 69.3 percent and were shooting 17-22 from the paint. The Wolves just cannot stop anyone on defense.
A lot of what happened tonight was due to injuries. No team is going to look good without two of their starters, particularly if one of them is Jimmy Butler. The Jazz, for example, were lottery-bound until Rudy Gobert came back.
But the Wolves really do not have any lineup versatility to combat these deeper teams. The Jazz can go small with Crowder at the four, which the Wolves cannot guard, or they can go super big like how they started the 4th quarter with Exum, Ingles, Crowder, Jerebko, and Gobert, which the Wolves also cannot deal with. This Wolves team is simply hamstrung by their preponderance of centers. Jamal Crawford has become the Wolves primary backup wing, or in games like this one, the backup wing and point guard.
The Wolves have not looked up to this playoff race for a few weeks, as they have gotten by with barely beating lottery-bound teams. Without Jimmy Butler, they look several steps below the playoff-caliber teams. It still will be tough to fall out of the playoff race, but the Wolves are doing their best to make us nervous
The only positive excitement of the night was that Justin Patton made his NBA debut and scored his first NBA bucket. Hard to say much about his three minutes, particularly when Aaron Brooks is chucking away from deep, but at least we have finally seen Patton hit the court.