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Wolves 120, Pelicans 110: Minnesota Conquers Mt. Zion

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New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The sky may no longer be falling in Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Timberwolves got the train back on the tracks with a 120-110 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in a crucial, must-win game for Ryan Saunders’s pack.

From the jump, the Timberwolves played with more energy, effort, and desperation than the Pelicans came to town with. Much of that can be attributed to Ricky Rubio, who started at point guard for the resting D’Angelo Russell, making life easier for key Timberwolves role players.

It was evident that Saunders wanted a more structured offense tonight with Rubio at the helm. In his post-game press conference, Saunders noted that Rubio has played in more structured, playcall-heavy offenses in Utah and Phoenix, and made more calls and had the team play more up-tempo tonight to help make Rubio more comfortable. It definitely worked. Rubio had by far his best game of the season, scoring 9 points behind a 7/10 night from the free throw line, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, and a steal in 28:29 of action.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

While that was successful in getting Rubio into a rhythm, it was also a huge factor in the ball moving more and the entire Timberwolves offense looking the most in-sync it has been without Karl-Anthony Towns in the lineup. Six Timberwolves scored in double figures, led by career nights from its frontcourt starters. Naz Reid and Jarred Vanderbilt dropped 20 and 16 points, respectively, against a physical New Orleans frontcourt of Zion Williamson and Steven Adams.

Reid’s chemistry with Rubio is real, and the battery’s success tonight was a key part of the victory. Rubio’s playmaking helped the second-year big man put all aspects of his expanding game on display tonight; he rolled effectively and finished around the rim, popped out to the 3-point line for a couple of 3s, scored with his back to the basket, and took Adams off the dribble for scores two or three times. Reid came through for the Wolves in big moments; he had several good shot contests when the tide of the game turned, made a couple of big 3s, and kept the Pelicans’ bigs on their heels all night long. The Wolves’ backup 5-man left the floor with a new career-high and a much-needed W largely on his back.

It’s pretty safe to say that Jarred Vanderbilt isn’t a gimmick or a “let’s throw him out there and see what happens” player. The former 5-star recruit is a legitimate defensive playmaker that is a force to be reckoned with on both backboards. In a career night, JV produced 16 points on 8/13 FG, 11 rebounds (5 offensive), 2 steals, a block, and was +7 in 21 minutes of action. Pretty damn good for a guy on a minimum contract who spent all of last season in the G-League.

When sharing the floor with Reid, who spent a most of his time on the perimeter as a screener, hand-off man, or shooter, Jarred Vanderbilt consistently crashed the glass and cut to the open lane. He had five offensive rebounds and converted four of them into put-backs. On defense, Vanderbilt helped make life very difficult for Zion Williamson, who scored 19 on just 6/16 shooting. Most of those points came on put-backs and free throws, rather than in the flow of the offense, which both a credit to Vanderbilt’s defense and also a sign that the Wolves need to do a better job collectively crashing the glass when an opponent has an offensive rebounder as strong, aggressive, and athletic as Williamson is.

Not to be forgotten in the frontcourt praise, Ed Davis was excellent tonight as well. He had 9 boards, (4 offensive), 3 assists, 2 steals, and was tremendous in the hand-off game tonight. Davis made good decisions with the ball in his hands, kept the defense guessing, and did the little things: digging on drives, communicating, battling on the glass, and setting good screens. It doesn’t always come up on the stat sheet, but it matters a ton in helping other guys get going offensively and coming away with stops on defense.

Outside of excellent frontcourt play, the Wolves got massive production from the “volatile confidence” role players: Jarrett Culver, Anthony Edwards, and Josh Okogie.

New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Jarrett Culver had his best game of the season, turning in 16 points on 6/9 shooting and 2/4 from deep, 5 rebounds, and a steal in 24:47 of action. JC’s activity level on defense was tremendous, and he created a dynamic, playmaking defensive duo along with Jaden McDaniels, who had two blocks. The Wolves also used Ed Davis more in hand-off actions tonight, which dragged the defensive big further away from the basket. In doing so, it opened up the lane for guys like Culver to get to the rim and score inside. Minnesota outscored a much bigger Pelicans team 52-48 in the paint, which is rather impressive considering KAT is out and Ed Davis, who averages 2.3 points per game, played 19 minutes.

Despite needing 14 shots to do it, Anthony Edwards scored a bench-high 18 points that provided the Wolves a spark early in the second quarter and late in the third quarter. A key part of his scoring resurgence was his aggressiveness in attacking the basket. The #1 overall pick got to the line six times, making all six shots. Minnesota ran more dribble hand-offs (DHOs) with him tonight, which enabled him to get down hill more frequently. Edwards also added in two steals on the defensive end, which was nice to see after he struggled to defend in the PnR at times in the first half.

Josh Okogie hit the dagger 3 with 1:27 to play, but his impact was much larger than just that. Okogie continued his NBA All-Defense Team campaign tonight, racking up a career-high five steals in just 27 minutes of action. Brandon Ingram had 14 points in the first quarter, but only scored just three in the next two, and was largely absent (until garbage time in the fourth quarter) because of Okogie’s ball pressure and shot contests. Okogie is a defensive stabilizer who finally has two teammates - Vanderbilt and Towns - capable of matching his effort and output on the defensive end, which allows him to be more aggressive in guarding the other team’s best player. While the Okogie/Vanderbilt/Towns trio is yet to take the floor this season together for more than a few possessions, it is one that should create a ton of turnovers with how athletic and rangy JO and JV are. Okogie is a soul crusher defensively and he proved his worth tonight. Everyone will talk about Rubio running the show or Reid scoring 20, but Okogie’s defense on Ingram was a huge reason why the Pelicans scored just 14 points in the third quarter and why the Wolves went on a run to take hold of the game.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Tonight, the Ryan Saunders had his team playing exactly how he envisioned they could on a nightly basis. The team played with excellent pace; the ball movement was beautiful; players were moving with conviction off the ball on cuts and relocations; bigs were setting good screens; the help side defense was consistently there, and the Wolves won on the glass, in the paint, and in the turnover battle. Every player that took the floor bought in.

We’ve barely, if at all, seen that this season but it needs to become a constant. We’ve all seen the flashes of excellence this team has shown, but in order to more consistently turn flashes into wins, every single player needs to be connected and to trust one another. The biggest question for the Wolves moving forward will be whether or not they can string together nights like tonight and climb the standings to crawl back into the playoff race. With Karl-Anthony Towns set to end his 10-day quarantine on Monday and potentially rejoining the team in San Francisco for a game against Golden State on Wednesday, the Wolves have a real opportunity to make a push. Only time will tell if they’re up to the occasion.

Game Notes:

  • The Timberwolves bench outscored the Pelicans bench 50-17. It is the fifth game of the season in which the Minnesota bench has scored 50 or more.
  • Minnesota is now 4-2 when committing 13 or less turnovers. They are 0-9 when committing 14 or more.
  • Naz Reid (20) and Jarred Vanderbilt (16) each had career-high nights in scoring.

Full Game Highlights:

Minnesota is back in action on Monday night at Golden State at 9 PM CT on NBA TV.