In the National Basketball Association, you take a win in any way, shape or form. The Minnesota Timberwolves did just that, and their sloppy defeat of the Phoenix Suns tonight was just another reminder of how much this team needs to grow before they can be seriously considered a contender in the Western Conference. After playing arguably his worst game of the season in the Wolves latest fourth-quarter collapse against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, Kevin Love regained rhythm in his shooting stroke and sparked Minnesota with his scoring and rebounding. Despite shooting just 16 of 26 from the free throw line as a team, the Timberpups managed to escape with a narrow 111-107 victory in Michael Beasley’s return to the Target Center.
Regardless of the victory, it felt as if there were more negatives than positives to take from this game. To begin, the Pups were absolutely exploited in their pick-and-roll defense and did a very poor job on their defensive switches and in hard hedging screens. This allowed Phoenix to consistently penetrate the lane, leading to high percentage looks and wide-open kick outs to the perimeter. The Pups were virtually nonexistent in the passing lanes, as they managed only 2 steals while allowing effective lateral ball movement for the Suns.
This win belongs to the Timberwolves starting frontcourt, as they shot a collective 31 of 53 from the field scoring 71 of the teams 111 points while pulling down 34 rebounds. On the other end of the floor, the Wolves had their hands full from a spectacular offensive performance from Luis Scola who managed to score 33 points without turning the ball over once. Scola converted on 16 of his 26 field goal attempts, and amazingly did not attempt his first free throws until late in the fourth quarter, making one of two. The Love-Scola matchup is always an interesting one to watch ever since K-Love’s infamous “stomp”, and Scola truly brought his A game in what must have been a tough loss for him to swallow.
Free throw shooting continues to be a struggle for a Timberwolves team that ranked 22nd in the NBA coming into tonight’s game. As highlighted by Jim Petersen’s commentary, great teams are great from the free throw line and the Pups will have to sharpen up at the charity stripe if they are to move forward in their growth as a ball club.
The Timberwolves witnessed virtually no offensive or defensive production out of their guards tonight, and the lack of depth at PG has posed a significant problem for a team that is currently heavily relying on a successful recovery from Ricky Rubio. Luke Ridnour, in my opinion, has had a very poor season to this point and was an absolute non-factor directing the offense. Ridnour has had a lot of trouble when faced with double teams, as his court vision seems to have diminished to this point in his career. Currently playing through injuries, Ridnour has been unable to knock down threes and continues to settle for contested long twos. In 31 minutes, Ridnour recorded 4 points (2-7 FG), 4 assists, 2 rebounds and 1 turnover.
JJ Barea was not much better, as he constantly complained and argued with referees, receiving a technical foul at the culmination of the third period. Barea was in full tunnel vision mode, dribbling far too much and doing very little to initiate offense. While he made a few nice plays in the fourth quarter, I was largely unimpressed by JJ’s demeanor and sportsmanship in a game that Minnesota barely escaped. Barea posted 10 points (5-13 FG), 5 assists, 1 rebound and 2 turnovers in 27 minutes of action.
The only guard worthy of notice for the Pups was young Alexey Shved, who assumed the role of distributor by dishing out 10 assists to pair with 12 points (3-6 FG) and 4 rebounds. As I have mentioned all season, Shved has thrived in the pick-and-roll with Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love, being so good at finding his bigs on the roll while possessing the ability to get to the rim if given enough space.
Ricky Rubio, who was expected to see his minutes increase in tonight’s matchup, did not play due to back spasms. Timberwolves training personell worked on Rubio all day in hopes of loosening his back up, but the team ultimately decided that it was best not to risk further injury. With the Timberwolves slated to have three days off, we should see Ricky return to action in the Wolves next matchup in Utah.
Derrick Williams deserves a shout out for his strong play of late, increasing his percentage from three-point range to 37.8%. While he faces a very skeptical head coach in Rick Adelman, Williams has earned his minutes since Love returned to the Pups starting lineup and deserves strong praise for his hard work. There was an odd moment tonight when Williams – yes, Williams – played SG for a few minutes of the first half with the Wolves trying out a very big lineup. After continuously receiving criticisms about his play as a SF, it came to the shock of many to see D-Will playing 2-guard. In a very efficient 14 minutes, Williams finished with 10 points (3-6 FG, 2-3 3FG), 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 block and 1 turnover.
Three Stars of the Game
- Kevin Love - Impressive bounce-back performance for K-Love, who posted 23 points (8-20 FG, 2-6 3FG) and 18 boards after scoring only 7 against the Rockets on Wednesday. Love reportedly stayed after practice to work on his game this week and it sure looks like it paid off. While he was once again exploited on the defensive end as displayed by a 33-point outburst by Luis Scola, it was great to see Love hitting his shots and pleasing the Target Center crowd.
- Nikola Pekovic - If Pekovic is looking for a max contract this summer, he is sure making a good case for himself. Entering tonight’s game averaging 15.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, Pekovic exploded for 28 points (13-20 FG), 11 rebounds (6 offensive rebounds), 1 assist, 1 block and 1 steal in 34 minutes. Although I am not completely sold on the idea of Pek receiving max dollars, it is great to see how far he has come as a player.
- Andrei Kirilenko - It is beginning to feel repetitive in the ways that I describe AK-47s play night after night. The most consistent Pup this season in my mind, Kirilenko continues to provide a little bit of everything for the Wolves. AK ended the night with 20 points (10-13 FG), 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 turnover in 34 minutes of action.
The return of Super Cool Beas was as uneventful as they come, with Beasley’s only points coming off a Greg Stiemsma goal tend. Beasley shot 1-8 from the field in 10 minutes, and Wesley Johnson received another DNP-CD as a part of his brutal first season with the Suns. The Pups now have three days of rest before their Wednesday night game as they will square off against the Jazz in Utah.