JJ Barea returned from injury Wednesday night and the Timberwolves knocked off the Detroit Pistons 93-85 for their second straight victory. The Timberwolves, 6-8, are off to their best start in five years displaying significant improvement. When you factor in all of the near wins against the great teams the Timberpups have faced thus far, the Pups very well could have a winning record at this point in the season.
The improvement in Minnesota’s defense is impossible to deny. Last season the Timberwolves’ defense ranked dead last in the NBA, giving up an average 107.7 points per game. So far this year, Minnesota’s defense is an astonishing 11th in the NBA giving up only 93.1 points per game. Clearly Rick Adelman has made defense a priority and the rapid improvement on the defensive end, despite the shortened season, has exposed ex-coach Kurt Rambis for his flawed defensive scheme and inability to motivate his players to play intense defense.
Tonight was the best overall game for the Pups this year and they displayed the best teamwork I have seen from a Timberwolves team since the KG era. They overcame a brutal shooting first half (30% from the field) in which they scored just 36 points, and were able to move the ball and create easy opportunities for each other in the second half.
Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio had yet another highlight-filled game and filled the stat sheet with 9 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and a ridiculous 6 steals. His help defense and anticipation of passes lead a vastly improved team defense and he made the Target Center roar after a spectacular drive to the hoop where he spun the ball around his waist and finished at the hoop with his left hand.
Kevin Love was unable to record his fourth 30-point game in a row, but was still able to finish with 20 points and 17 rebounds, owning the offensive glass and working very hard on defense. Love had a team best +/- of +16 on the court tonight and his and Rubio’s leadership are helping to overcome the culture of losing that has been ever-present in Minnesota over the last several years.
Wes Johnson, despite only playing 22 minutes, had a very nice game and continued to attack the hoop, using shot fakes and driving through the lane. Until this point in his short career Wes has seemed to shy away from contact and driving to the rim, but it seems he is really beginning to evolve his game for the better. Wes scored 11 points on 4-6 shooting, once again not recording a turnover.
A player that deserves a lot of credit is Anthony Tolliver, who played by far his best game of the season and was a spark plug who greatly impacted tonight’s result. Tolliver broke his slump of three point shooting going 3-5 from beyond the arc and scoring 11 points while grabbing 5 rebounds. Tolliver was very active on the offensive rebounds and played spectacular defense down the stretch, looking much more like the player we were used to seeing last year.
I can’t say enough about Wayne Ellington’s play tonight. Although his numbers don’t speak very loud (7 points and 3 rebounds), he had a sensational performance. In a play where I could have sworn Kobe Bryant was on the floor, Ellington flew through a crowded lane and one hand slammed the ball with ferocity I did not realize was contained within him. Ellington is swaying the fans with his new-found confidence and ability to hit game-changing shots and I am stunned at the play I am seeing from him. If Ellington and Ridnour continue to play the way they have, the Pups do not need to trade for a SG.
Barea had a solid game in his return scoring 11, but had a technical foul in the fourth quarter, and the consequent free throw made by Detroit gave them the lead. Not very smart basketball out of a player who is known for his basketball IQ.
Tayshaun Prince led the way for Detroit with 29 points, shooting 13-23 from the field and making several shots that were seemingly impossible to defend. As predicted by my associate Adam Burger, Prince was a matchup nightmare for the Pups due to his enormous wingspan and savvy veteran intelligence.
Detroit, despite having some very talented and capable players, lacks teamwork and runs their offense through one on one matchups and contested looks. The selfishness of players like Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey take away from what could be a nice team. Detroit’s offense ranks 30th in the NBA, and as the Timberwolves showed tonight it is not difficult to cut a deficit against them.
There’s going to be games where the shooting is not there, and the truly great teams learn how to pull out wins even when they are struggling to make shots. The Timberwolves did just that tonight and found a way to win despite an underwhelming first half and an early 16 point deficit. It is hard to think that last year’s squad would have overcome the woes that the Pups encountered tonight.
Key Player: Nikola Pekovic +15, possessing the second best +/- tonight and playing 24 minutes coming off the bench. Darko started tonight but posted a -4 in just 8 minutes, and it was enough for Adelman to start Pekovic after the halftime break.
Key Stat: 46 bench points for the Timberwolves. The Timberwolves depth will only improve with the nearing returns of Martell Webster, Brad Miller, and Michael Beasley.