The Minnesota Timberwolves found themselves just a five hour drive away from Minneapolis on Wednesday night as they faced off against the Bucks in the Bradley Center of Milwaukee. With some help from Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic the Wolves were able to knock off the playoff-destined Bucks, winning by a score of 107-98.
Wednesday night featured an intriguing matchup between Nikola Pekovic and Bucks’ center Larry Sanders, who in his third NBA season has really begun to establish himself as one of the premier shot-blockers and interior defenders in the Association.
From the get-go, Pek established himself on the low block and was especially effective on the offensive glass. Minnesota’s 290-pound bulldozer did a heck of a job against a top-flight defender in Sanders, and he continues to produce in a big way as the focal point of the Timberwolves’ offense with Kevin Love sidelined.
Our Montenegrin man in the middle has really turned heads in the NBA community due to his strong play over the past month. Although he has been vulnerable to a myriad of injuries just in his third NBA season, when healthy Pekovic is one of the top centers in the Western Conference. By always fighting on the offensive glass, big Pek creates second chance opportunities that backup Greg Stiemsma has been unable to provide in his first season playing for Minnesota.
Milwaukee entered last night’s game with a respectable 36-37 record, good for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. 6 games up on the nitnth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers with 8 more games to play, the Bucks’ are a virtual lock to make the playoffs to likely face the heavily favored potential championship winners, LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The awkward combination of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis – two players with virtually the same exact skill set – in the Bucks’ backcourt has been a joy and a nightmare for Milwaukee fans to watch this season, as both players look like they are trying to each assume the same role in the offense as each other. Ellis has been mum on whether he will exercise his pricey price tag for next season or if he will use his early termination clause in order to become a free agent to sign a long-term deal this summer. I do not see the Bucks bringing him back unless he is willing to take a big pay cut or if Jennings himself heads elsewhere regardless of his status as a pending restricted free agent. Whatever the case ends up being, it is more than likely that either Ellis or Jennings will be headed for greener pastures this summer while the Bucks use some of their cap space on recently acquired sharpshooter JJ Redick.
The Timberwolves led 34-23 after the first quarter while the Bucks looked stagnant on defense for much of the last 5 minutes in the first period. The Wolves extended that lead to 40-26 thanks to a big Pekovic and-1 less than two minutes into the quarter. However, Brandon Jennings sprinted right back down the court and gave the Milwaukee bench a surge of energy following an and-1 of his own.
Two things that particularly stood out to me in the second quarter was the Pups’ impressive floor spacing and ball movement in the halfcourt offense against a tough defensive opponent. The Wolves opened up good looks for their shooters and took advantage of poor close outs from the Bucks’ perimeter defenders to hit 5 of their first 8 attempts from long range, with Tricky Ricky knocking down two of them.
Milwaukee answered back beginning around the 5 minute mark to eventually take a 48-46 lead with 2:40 to play in the first half. The Bucks’ new six-man Redick provided a nice spark with his shooting and overall veteran acumen in the backcourt. I am not alone in believing that the Milwaukee offense flows much more productively when pairing a true shooting guard like Redick with either of their play-making guards running the point.
Who said Ricky can’t shoot? Despite owning shooting percentages of 37% and 27% from the field and beyond the arc, respectively, Ricky knocked down each of his first 5 attempts – yes, you read that correctly – from long range in the first half as the Wolves headed into the locker room with a 55-52 lead at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Rubio’s improved scoring since the All-Star break has been extremely satisfying to witness as he struggled mightily in his first month back after recovering from ACL surgery. Rubio led all Wolves in the first half with 15 points on 5 three-pointers.
I could not help but wonder if Rubio’s hot shooting had anything to do with Jennings’ comment of “the dude is just all hype” when he was asked about playing against him in Europe during his solo year playing abroad. While Ricky is not one for verbal or physical confrontation, I believe his game spoke for itself as he forced the Bucks’ point guard to eat his past words on Wednesday night.
The Timberwolves doubled their halftime lead and led the Bucks 87-81 heading into the final period of play. Milwaukee’s frontcourt toughened up to begin the final period, fighting on the offensive glass while doing a good job of creating second chance opportunities. However, on the other end Minnesota’s man in the middle continually established great inside positioning on the low block and Pek found himself closing in on a monster stat line of 27 points and 8 rebounds all the while facing a strong defensive Milwaukee frontcourt.
A 12 foot Larry Sanders jumper made it 95-91 with just less than 6 minutes to play. The Bucks attempted to get the momentum back in their favor, but they were ultimately unable to stop Pekovic on the low block and they did a poor job as a team of getting hands in passing lanes. The Pups went on improve their record to 28-48, winning by a score of 107-98. Ersan Ilyasova’s led all scorers with 29 points.
Keys of the Game
- Three-point shooting - How many times have we seen it this season that when the Timberwolves convert on their open threes that they usually walk off the court with the victory. They have been especially ineffective from deep on the road sporting a 9-27 record away from the Target Center this season, so it was particularly enjoyable to see them not knock down 8 of 13 three-point attempts on their way to their tenth road victory this season. The Bucks needed 10
- Ball Movement - Minnesota recorded a ridiculous 33 assists as a team on 44 made field goals – think about that for a second – to just 19 from Milwaukee. Jennings led the Bucks with 8, but no other Buck was able to record more than 4.
Three Stars of the Game
- Nikola Pekovic - This one was a pretty tough choice between Pek and Rubio given that Ricky was only 2 steals away from recording a triple-double. However, the Spaniard also turned the ball over 8 times while Pekovic converted on 11 of his 14 field goals attempts while turning the ball over only once. If Pek keeps playing this well and stays healthy the rest of the season, he should receive contract offers this summer in the $50 million range for four years.
- Ricky Rubio - As I mentioned above, Ricky nearly notched another triple-double and he finished the night with 19 points (7-12 FG, 5-6 3Pt), 12 assists, 8 steals, 4 rebounds while turning the ball over 8 times in 34 minutes. Ricky greatly outplayed Jennings and helped the Wolves complete a season sweep of the Bucks.
- Ersan Ilyasova - The Turkish stretch-4 had a very nice night knocking down 12 of his 21 attempts on his way to a game-high 29 points. After a rough start to the season, Ilyasova is back in the prime form that netted him the big contract he received last summer.