What a difference a few more healthy bodies can make. Coming into the Target Center on a 5-game losing streak, the Timberwolves fended off a slumping Houston Rockets team that has now lost 7 straight games. Playing without Dante Cunningham (illness), Alexey Shved (left ankle sprain) and Nikola Pekovic (right thigh contusion), the Wolves saw huge contributions from newly signed players Mikael Gelabale and Chris Johnson, both of which recently received 10-day contracts to fill in for the numerous injured bodies the Pups have this season.
The Timberwolves got in front early thanks to some poor shooting by the Rockets. After scoring 30 points in his previous matchup against the Pups, James Harden was ice cold last night and was 5 for 18 from the field, including a miserable 0 of 7 from three. Given a mismatch playing opposite of Timberwolves starting SG Luke Ridnour, Harden was unable to use his size advantage to exploit the 6-foot-2 Ridnour. To the Timberwolves credit, they did a very good job helping on defense and effectively neutralized the Rockets’ new superstar.
Leaving his Spanish league team in Valencia, Spain, Mikael Gelabale played 21 minutes in his first game for the Timberwolves and did what was asked of him despite not being familiar with the offensive or defensive sets. The long and athletic French small forward previously played two seasons for the Seattle Supersonics before a torn ACL suspended his NBA career. With Minnesota more injury-riddled than ever, the swingman was once again given an opportunity to earn an NBA contract and I have to say he made a good case for a rest of year contract with his performance last night. Gelabale finished his Wolves debut with 11 points on 3-6 shooting, 4 rebounds and 1 assist without turning the ball over.
Ricky Rubio was able to contribute 30 minutes last night, which marks the most minutes he has played in a game this season. Having Ricky on the floor for the fourth quarter drastically improves the Pups’ ability to manage games, and a few torn knee ligaments were not enough to take away from his late-game poise. It is still blatantly obvious that Rubio’s knee is continuing to give him trouble in his acceleration and on his cuts, but he is undoubtedly improving. If Ricky can avoid any setbacks and get back to nearly full strength following the All-Star break, I completely believe that the playoffs are by no means out of reach. Tricky Ricky ended the night with 7 points on 1-3 shooting, 6 assists, 1 rebound and 2 turnovers.
Facing against a weak opposing frontcourt due to Omer Asik being in foul trouble, Minnesota’s starting frontcourt of Derrick Williams and Greg Stiemsma played very strong defense holding Houston’s starting frontcourt to only 5 points. Stiemsma, a defensive specialist, was +20 on the floor and contributed 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in nearly 22 minutes. Williams was inconsistent on the offensive end and highlighted his struggles finishing at the rim with a missed layup in transition that infuriated the Pups’ coaching staff. However, he did provide 11 points and 5 rebounds and was +12 on the floor. Williams’ inability to finish at the rim continues to baffle anyone who watches the Wolves play, and I simply do not understand why someone so athletic and coordinated cannot get the ball in the hoop from 5 feet and in. Relatively speaking, Williams’ problems are not as concerning as other problems he may have in his transition to the NBA game, because I think that with time it is totally fixable. In the meantime, his struggles around the rim are hurting the Timberwolves chances in closer games, and he needs to begin to knock down his high percentage chances if the Wolves are to make a legitimate run at the playoffs.
Last night saw huge performances from both Andrei Kirilenko and……Chris Johnson?! Yeah, I was just as shocked as everyone else watching last night by the play from the virtually unknown D-Leaguer who recently signed a 10-day contract with Minnesota. For those who did not see the game, Johnson reminds me of an Anthony Randolph without the “sad dog” face. Standing at 6-foot-11 and weighing in at a thin 220ish pounds, Johnson is very athletic and showed off his bounce with some very fun-to-watch slam dunks coming off screens and off offensive rebounds. Despite his lack of great strength, he held his own on defense and literally brought Minnesota fans to their feet on multiple occasions last night. I am excited to see his next game, because I hate getting overly optimistic from such a small sample size. Regardless, last night’s performance was encouraging to say the least. Oh yeah, and he even received a “M-V-P” chant during a pair of free throws.
Keys of the game
- Personal Fouls – Houston 29, MN 19: Foul trouble was a big factor in the second half, especially the third period as Minnesota was in the penalty for much of the third period and took advantage of their chances at the free throw line. As a team, the Pups shot 29 for 36 from the charity stipe, good for 81%. After having a big night against the Timberwolves in the previous matchup of the two teams, Rockets center Omer Asik had a very quiet night due to foul trouble which limited him to just under 16 minutes of playing time. And although the Wolves did not have Nikola Pekovic in the lineup to take advantage of Asik being on the bench, newcomer Chris Johnson contributed a tremendous debut performance on both ends of the floor.
- Turnovers – Houston 20, MN 15: Too many unforced errors for the Rockets who are clearly out of rhythm offensively in the midst of a 7-game slide. With James Harden struggling to produce offensively, there has been increased strain on secondary players to make plays, which has in turn led to too many turnovers. As Ricky Rubio continues to get stronger and play more minutes, the Pups have done an increasingly better job of securing the basketball and making smarter passes.
Three Stars of the Game
- Chris Johnson: Johnson was the spark that fueled not only the Timberwolves players, but also a home crowd that was in desperate need of optimism. In a home environment that almost sounded eerily quiet at times, Johnson gave Minnesotans a reason to stand up and scream due to his emphatic slam dunks and timely defense. Although it was only one game, Johnson gave the Timberwolves a reason to smile. In only 18 minutes played, the big man out of LSU recorded 15 points on 4-4 shooting (7-8 FT), 6 rebounds and 1 block.
- Andrei Kirilenko: It is very difficult to properly put into words what AK-47 has meant to this ballclub this season. With a track record for being injury-prone, Kirilenko has been the team’s rock and most consistent player up to this point in the season. AK held opposing SF Chandler Parsons to 7 points on 2-10 shooting, while netting 21 points on 8-11 shooting with 11 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals in 42 minutes.
- Luke Ridnour: Ridnour has seen big improvement in his game ever since being moved to starting SG with Rubio starting alongside him at PG. It is very evident that at this point in his career, Luke is much more suited to play the SG position. In 36 minutes, he finished with 16 points on 6-13 shooting, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 3 turnovers.