Marching into the Target Center looking for their 13th consecutive victory and sitting in first place with a record of 21-4, the Oklahoma City looked to try their luck against an up-and-down Minnesota Timberwolves team recovering from various injuries. The Thunder were without SG Kevin Martin, who was a main piece to the blockbuster James Harden trade and he has had a tremendous season for OKC averaging 15.1 PPG.
Playing on TNT for the first time since the 2006-07 season, the Wolves looked great on prime time and snapped the Thunder’s 12-game win streak behind big performances from Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Alexey Shved and even some 4th quarter heroics from JJ Barea. Shooting 45% from three-point range, the Pups knocked off the Thunder 99-93.
The Timberwolves got hot early, outscoring the Thunder 30-18 in the first quarter. Last night was the first time Minnesota was able to show off their new offseason acquisitions against the defending Western Conference champions, and Andrei Kirilenko was able to slow down superstar Kevin Durant just enough. KD was able to finish with an impressive line of 33 points (12-21 FG), 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals, but also committed 3 turnovers and 5 personal fouls in 41 minutes of play.
After sitting out the latter half of a back-to-back in Miami, Ricky Rubio was back in action against the Thunder and played all of his 18-minute time restriction that the team currently has him on as he regains his lower body strength and conditioning. The Timberwolves team and fans had a scare with around 6 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter after Ricky came up limping after hard-planting on his left foot on a drive to the hoop. After being looked over by team medical personnel, Tricky Ricky was cleared to play and returned in the 3rd period.
It is clear that it is going to take some time for Rubio to get up to speed and regain strength in not only his left knee, but also the muscles surrounding. When suffering an injury as severe as the one Ricky endured, there is a tendency for the muscles surrounding the injured spot to overcompensate which can cause injury to different muscles in the leg. When faced with a matchup of arguably the fastest and most athletic PG in NBA history in Russell Westbrook, Rubio had a tough time – along with everyone else – keeping the extremely dynamic Westbrook in front of him on the defensive end. In 18 minutes of playing time, Rubio was limited to 0 points (0-3 FG), 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 turnovers. On the opposite end, Westbrook finished with 30 points (9-28 FG), 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals and an atrocious 8 turnovers in 44 minutes of play.
Despite being 1 assist away from a triple-double, Westbrook was extremely out of control when penetrating the lane and Minnesota played absolutely phenomenal help-side defense triggering turnovers. On the offensive end, the Wolves moved the ball very well and head coach Rick Adelman’s impressive offensive scheming was on full display for a national audience. The Wolves found a lot of success with the high pick-and-roll, forcing mismatches for both Love and Pekovic rolling to the basket. The Wolves frontcourt combined for 52 points and 21 rebounds and dominated a OKC frontcourt that is praised for its defense. Kendrick Perkins, who was once considered as one of the top low-post defenders in the NBA, has fallen off dramatically this season averaging only 4.8 points and 5.1 rebounds despite earning nearly $8 million this season with three years remaining on his contract. Perkins played just 20 minutes while grabbing 2 rebounds and failing to record a point.
JJ Barea came up big in the 4th quarter as he provided a few critical late-game shots while drawing an offensive foul on Durant which also led to a technical foul from the NBAs top scorer. After review, while I believe Barea was fouled, it is clear that he contributed a little bit of “flop” and may be receiving a call from the NBA soon. With Luke Ridnour having an off-day scoring only 4 points, Barea provided 18 points (7-13 FG, 3-4 3FG), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers in a productive 23 minutes.
Minnesota tallied 27 team assists on 37 made FGs, and used effective passing to create easy opportunities for one another. Their team defense was very effective tonight, and even K-Love was able to provide a few nice blocks on the defensive end.
Three Stars of the Game
- Kevin Love: Love had by far his best game since his now infamous interview with Yahoo! Sports and showed off his entire skill set for the national audience. Playing 40 minutes and matched up against one of the top interior defenders in the NBA in Serge Ibaka, Love finished with 28 points (9-20 FG, 4-9 3FG), 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks and only 1 turnover. Not only was Love hitting his threes, but he was also doing an excellent job of setting up teammates in the half-court offense as well as hitting teammates with crisp, full-court outlet passes in transition. Maybe it was the fact that Love has never gotten the chance to play on TNT before, but he was very active on the defensive end and was truly the best player on the floor. Big tip of the cap to K-Love, and I hope that he can continue this trend of outside shooting, passing, and defensive intensity.
- Nikola Pekovic: Apparently the rest of the NBA community had no idea how good Pekovic is, for the TNT commentators seemed to be baffled by the level of production that Pek brought tonight. Big Pek topped the night off with another double-double of 24 points (10-18 FG), 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal and 2 turnovers in 38 minutes and thrived off the pick-and-roll.
- Alexey Shved: Congratulations to Alexey Shved, who notched his first career double-double and nearly a triple-double. Shved, who is known to thrive in the spotlight, had an absolutely fantastic performance and finished with 12 points (5-10 FG, 2-4 3FG), 12 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal and only 1 turnover in 33 minutes. Shved resembled nothing of a rookie and I am sure that OKC will not soon forget his name, as he provided several highlight-reel passes while coming up big shooting the ball when he needed to. Although there is tough competition in this season’s rookie class, consider Shved a dark horse for Rookie of the Year.
Concerning the national commentators seeming lack of knowledge surrounding Pekovic, who was runner up for Most Improved Player last season, Jim Petersen had this to say:
Smart analysts would give Pek props for being one of the "Most Improved" players…instead of making jokes about Superman villain.
— Jim Petersen (@JimPeteHoops) December 21, 2012
All-in-all, this was arguably the Wolves best team win of the season and several players stepped up and provided the “little things” which swung the game in Minnesota’s favor. The Pups are set to take on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden this Sunday beginning at 4PM CT.