The Timberwolves returned home on Monday night to take on the Utah Jazz for the second time in four days. Coming off a career-high 40 points against the Pups on Friday night, Al Jefferson looked to will his team to another victory with the Jazz continuing to fight for the eighth seed in the Western Conference with less than a week to play in the regular season.
In their second to last game of the 2012-13 season, the Wolves went with the starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Derrick Williams, and Greg Stiemsma. Nikola Pekovic sat out his third consecutive game with a left calf contusion.
The Jazz got off a hot start, outscoring the Wolves 14-2 in the first four minutes prompting Rick Adelman to call a timeout. The Pups had initial difficulty swinging the ball in the half court offense with no Pekovic in the paint to keep Utah’s perimeter defenders honest.
After torching Stiemsma on his way to a career high-tying 40 points in the Jazz’s Friday night victory over Minnesota, Big Al got his wish as Pek was forced to sit out Monday’s contest as well. Known primarily for his defense, Stiemsma has not been able to prove his defensive competence in his first season as a Pup.
Minnesota responded to an early 16-2 deficit with an 8-point run of their own. The Pups had a difficult time creating offense without both of their primary scores in the paint and they trailed 26-18 heading into the second quarter.
Scoring a season-high 23 points against the Jazz on Friday, Minnesota needed similar production from JJ Barea with the Wolves’ offense stagnant. Utah’s game plan was clearly geared toward shutting down the Wolves’ primary bench scorer, and Barea had difficulty getting the type of separation and penetration that he did in the previous matchup between the two squads.
The Wolves trimmed Utah’s lead to 36-34 with five minutes remaining in the second quarter due some frontcourt foul trouble by the Jazz. Barea looked to be in a rhythm offensively in the first half, just as he was red-hot in the first two quarters in the last meeting against Utah. The spark plug point guard was the sole Timberwolf getting it done from beyond the arc, adding two long balls late in the second quarter.
On the other side, Jefferson provided 12 first half points for Utah and he looked very comfortable backing down Stiemer on the low block. The formula for the Jazz was simple: feed the bigs in the interior and keep shooters on the perimeter in the event of double-teams. Utah closed out the half with a pair of Gordon Hayward free throws capping a late 6-0 run putting them up 49-41 heading into halftime.
Playing a very poor first half was Rubio, whose jump shots were horrifically flat giving him virtually no chance of making them. Utah defenders picked this up early and forced him to shoot, with the Spaniard obliging. However, after several ugly attempts clanking off the rim at nearly every angle, Ricky ultimately fell into complete pass-mode as he clearly lacked the confidence to continue shooting.
In order for Ricky to take the next step in his game, he must drastically improve his shooting this summer and make it his primary offseason focus. It is clear that he currently lacks necessary strength in his lower body in order to be able to get proper arc on his shots. This is news to nobody given that he returned from ACL surgery only a few months ago, and lucky for Ricky is that there is just one game to play this season. However, it has arrived time to start planning for the summer and an offseason regimen directed at building back lower body strength will prove to be extremely beneficial for nearly all aspects of his game. With some of the best trainers in the world at his side, I have no doubts that Rubio will make great strides on his jumper and that we will see noticeable improvement by week 1 of next season.
Similar to how the two teams competed in their last contest, the Jazz and Wolves played one another very evenly in the third quarter. However, a late run by Utah in the final two minutes put Utah ahead 71-60 with one period to play.
Barea went cold in the second half after an impressive second quarter, and the Wolves could not gain any momentum facing a double-digit deficit. Utah extended their lead to 2 points with only a few minutes remaining, and the Jazz ultimately won by a score of 96-80
Keys of the Game:
- Three-point shooting - I am a broken record. We all know how terrible the Wolves are at shooting from deep, but Minnesota provided an especially wretched performance on Monday night shooting 2-17 from three. The Jazz had a tough game themselves hitting only 3 of 10 attempts.
- Interior presence - The Jazz were able to space the floor very well with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap attracting attention on the low block. This created space for Utah’s perimeter players and gave players like Randy Foye and Mo Williams an extra step or two on their mid-range jump shots. Minnesota, on the other hand, had zero inside presence which allowed Utah’s guards to lock down on the perimeter.
Three Stars of the Game:
- Al Jefferson - Surprise, surprise. Jeffeson played 32 minutes and recorded 22 points (8-15 FG) and 8 rebounds against his former team, helping Utah to win their ninth game in the past eleven games. Big Al will need to come up big in the team’s final game against Memphis on Wednesday in hopes of securing the final playoff spot in the West.
- Mo Williams - Despite aggravating a right thumb injury at the end of the first half, Utah’s starting point guard fought through irritation to play 32 minutes while finishing with 15 points (7-15 FG), 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 4 turnovers.
- Derrick Williams - Derrick was one of three Wolves who scored in double-digits and led Minnesota with 18 points (7-13 FG), 6 rebounds and no turnovers in a game-high 40 minutes. The 21-year-old leaper showed improvement in his slashing game on Monday night and displayed a few new moves that he used off of the dribble. He appears to be learning how to score dribble-driving from the perimeter, and his ball-handling looks to be steadily improving. Williams still needs to keep the ball lower and tighter to his body, as he tends to get too wide on his crossovers instead of making more precise movements. A popular cliche among basketball coaches is that the shortest route between two objects is a straight line. This being said, Derrick needs to take more direct routes on his drives as it would give his opponents less time to block his shots from the weak side and it will force his defenders to make quicker decisions when guarding him in one-on-one situations.