Playing their last game before the NBA All-Star break, the Minnesota Timberwolves hosted the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night and saw big performances from second-year players Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams. Despite a near triple-double for the Spaniard and a 24-point, 16-rebound explosion from the streaky Williams, the Wolves dropped their 16th game over their past 19 games as they fell by a score of 97-93.
Still without Kevin Love as he targets a mid- to late-March return from his broken hand, the Timberpups went against a talented and deep Utah frontcourt without the services of Andrei Kirilenko as he recovers from a strained right quadriceps. The undersized Pups had a very difficult time keeping the Jazz out of the lane, and their overall lack of depth was too much to overcome against the 30-24 Jazz.
In the first quarter of play, the Timberwolves had their fair share of difficulty shooting the ball and had a tough time keeping Utah’s bigs out of the lane. Derrick Williams faced a difficult matchup opposite of Paul Millsap, and allowed his opponent to establish deep inside position in the paint. Despite giving Millsap (and Jefferson on switches) a positioning advantage, Williams did an adequate job in his man defense and even pulled down 9 first-quarter rebounds. On the offensive end, Nikola Pekovic was stymied by the interior defense presented by former Pup Al Jefferson, Millsap and substitute Derrick Favors. Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour were the catalysts to the Wolves early 17-10 lead, as they were matched against a smaller and less talented Utah backcourt.
Minnesota trailed Utah 42-40 at the half, with Ridnour and Williams leading Minnesota scorers with 12 points a piece. Despite a first-half line of 12 points and 9 rebounds, D-Will struggled immensely in one particular area: finishing at the rim. Perhaps the most overlooked area of his game around the time he was drafted, it has become evident that Williams is very poor at converting on what is to most players the highest-percentage looks. When considering his freak athleticism and good size, it is immediately confusing as to why the former number-2 overall selection shoots below league average from around the rim. It is not to say that these problems are a red flag and that the Timberwolves need to get rid of him, because I actually believe the opposite. However, it is going to take Derrick a lot of practice and dedication in order to become comfortable driving through crowded lanes while creating separation and body control in order to put himself in a position to score. At this point in the season, I strongly believe that his blatant lack of confidence when attempting shots in the interior is contributing to his poor respective shooting percentages. In the NBA, confidence is everything. It is up to Derrick to go out and continue to not shy away from these shots because he is going to need to fail over and over again in order to ultimately master that part of his game. If and when he is able to become a great finisher at the rim, he will have an opportunity to be a threat to score from all over the floor, a skill that very few players in this league have.
The Pups did their best to hang with the much bigger and more talented Jazz squad in the third quarter and ended the quarter with a relatively small 5-point deficit. Utah’s decision to go with a bigger lineup that included Favors, Jefferson and Millsap paid dividends as they ran Millsap off curl screens and crowded the lane with the three natural power forwards. Minnesota’s inability to score on the low block or from beyond the arc was a large inhibitor from making a big run, and their lack of physicality on defense (with the exception of Rubio) kept the momentum in Utah’s favor.
After falling behind by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter, Tricky Ricky fueled a comeback that brought this game down to the last seconds. The Jazz were able to make their free throws in crunch time and Ricky’s dazzling passes were not enough to ultimately win this one. As cliche as this is beginning to sound, the Timberwolves are simply not big enough to compete with a number of teams as injuries have taken away much of their size and versatility.
Timberpups Notable Performances
- Derrick Williams finished with his best line this season of 24 points and 16 boards. Not only did he finish with only 1 turnover in 37 minutes, but he was even +6 on the court despite his difficulties defending Utah’s frontcourt. All was not perfect for the former Wildcat, however, as he shot just 7-17 from the floor and struggled mightily around the rim. What I did enjoy seeing was how much improved he was at getting to the free throw line, regardless of if some of his shots should have resulted in and-1s instead of 2 free throws. The more Derrick can make the game easier on himself by getting more and more free trips to the charity stripe, the easier it will be for him to build his confidence and continue to grow as a professional player.
- Luke Ridnour is so much more appeasable as a shooting guard than as a point guard, and I have been thoroughly pleased with his play as of late. Starting side-by-side with Ricky, Luke was a game high +14 on the floor and finished the night with 18 points on 7-15 shooting while turning the ball over once. Meanwhile, JJ Barea had a nightmarish performance on 2-10 shooting in 24 minutes.
- Nikola Pekovic was initially overwhelmed by the interior defense brought on by Utah, but turned it on late in the game to finish with 19 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes. His inability to play above the rim helped the long and athletic Jazz frontcourt slow him down, but he did face more double teams and help defense without Kevin Love by his side. To his credit, Nikola had a strong performance and is starting to really get into a rhythm since returning from injury.
Keys of the Game
- Points in the Paint - The combination of Millsap and Jefferson combined for 41 points and 19 rebounds, and as a whole the Utah Jazz scored 54 of their 97 points in the paint – the Timberwolves recorded only 30 in the interior. Utah took advantage of Minnesota’s lack of size and athleticism and did a very good job establishing inside position and creating second-chance opportunities.
- Shot-Blocking - Utah out-blocked the Pups 9-3 with an astounding 7 different players recording at least 1 block. Minnesota’s most talented shot blocker, Chris Johnson, received less than a minute of playing time.
- Bench Scoring - The Jazz bench outscored Minnesota’s bench 43-12. Yes, you read that correctly. Alexey Shved’s tailspin leading into All-Star weekend culminated in an 0-4, 0 point performance last night and he appears to have totally lost his confidence in his shot. Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors all provided important minutes for the Jazz in the second half and helped set the tone on defense and in transition.
Three Stars of the Game
- Paul Millsap - Surrounded with trade rumors for the past month, Millsap has kept his mind clear and was the key to last night’s W for Utah. Asked to play both small forward, power forward, and even center at times, the versatile 6-foot-8 tweener forward scored 21 points with 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in 36 minutes. What Millsap lacks in ability he makes up for with a tireless work ethic and tremendous attitude. D-Will should take a page from Millsap’s book and realize that he does not need to be 6-foot-10 in order to be a very effective player in this league.
- Al Jefferson - The former face of Minnesota’s franchise continues to dominate on his old home floor, finishing last night with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals in 34 minutes. Jefferson, who is making $15 million this season, is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely demand top dollar from a number of suitors. The question remains if Utah will keep both Jefferson and Millsap (who will also become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end) before the trade deadline in an attempt to strengthen their postseason run, or if it will be more feasible to trade one of the two for young assets.
- Ricky Rubio - Good news in Wolves land: Ricky is getting his confidence back. La Pistola continues to play his best ball at the end of games, and last night he missed out on his first career triple-double by 1 rebound. Our favorite floppy-haired point guard finished the ball game with 18 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 block in a season-high 40 minutes on the floor. For those who watched the game, Ricky could have easily tallied 15+ assists if his teammates could have finished more layups and drained more open shots, but the important thing is that he is regaining his swagger and he continues to put his teammates, namely Ridnour, in more and more opportunities for easy success.