Still without starting center Nikola Pekovic and starting shooting guard Kevin Martin, the Timberwolves played their second game since the All-Star break in a matchup against the lowly Utah Jazz. Utah received some unwelcome news that starting center Derrick Favors would miss Saturday night’s contest with a hip injury, and in his place, 21-year-old Turkish center Enes Kanter would get the start. Despite his improved play as of late, there is no denying the struggles the Jazz have had when Kanter has been in the starting lineup this season. Being matched up with Kevin Love did not appear to help, either.
Utah started Enes Kanter at the center spot tonight; the Jazz come into tonight 1-23 when he starts. #Twolves
— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) February 23, 2014
With Pekovic sidelined for the eleventh straight game with bursitis in his right ankle and Ronny Turiaf out indefinitely with a knee injury, Minnesota went smaller with the 6-foot-8 Dante Cunningham starting alongside Love in Minnesota’s frontcourt. Faced against a clearly inferior opponent, the Wolves lack of size did not pose any serious mismatch problems given the disparity in talent between the two clubs.
Gorgui Dieng looked poised to get extended minutes with both centers in front of him out with different ailments. The 21st overall selection last summer, Dieng has had a very difficult time adjusting to the NBA style of play for a variety of reasons. Inconsistent minutes and consistent foul trouble have hindered his in-game growth this season, but he nonetheless is a very intriguing player for the Wolves going forward. Fans got to see a very interesting second-unit matchup between fellow 2013 first-round picks Dieng and Rudy Gobert, the 7-foot-1 center out of France who set the NBA combine record with a 7-foot-8.5 inch wingspan. Both players have had similar rookie seasons experiencing limited minutes and production, but both have shown flashes of potentially being game-changing players on the defensive end in the future.
After one quarter of play, Minnesota led 26-21. In the second quarter, Rick Adelman gave the second unit plenty of run and even trusted Dieng and fellow rookie Shabazz Muhammad to get time together. Like he has done in multiple games over the past month, Muhammad provided a spark on offense and had one of the highlights of the game midway through the second quarter after he connected on a one-handed alley-oop from a J.J. Barea lob pass. Many in the Wolves community have lobbied for Shabazz to receive more playing time bearing in mind the absence of Martin coupled with the substandard play of both Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger. However, the decision ultimately rests in the hands of Coach Adelman, who at this stage in his career is reluctant to place trust in inexperienced players, namely both of the team’s first-round selections from last summer.
With just over two minutes to play in the first half, the Wolves held a 46-43 advantage despite appearing rather lackadaisical, heavily contrasting from the energy they showed in their 104-91 victory over the first-place Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night. Utah’s immaturity as a team came out to end the half as Minnesota simply out-hustled and out-smarted the Jazz en route to a 13-6 Wolves run heading into the break.
Beginning the second half with their biggest lead of the game, the Wolves did not look back and quickly built on their momentum. Ricky Rubio continued to do a great job of containing rookie point guard Trey Burke while K-Love started to really sizzle. Three minutes into the third quarter, Minnesota extended their lead to 17 points which prompted a frustrated Ty Corbin to call timeout.
The Jazz had a difficult time putting a run together during the second half seeing that their hottest scorer of the night, Kanter, was getting exploited on the other end by an even hotter Love. For nearly every score by Utah’s young center, Love had an answer. Not only was Love cooking from beyond the arc (6-10 3pt), but he was just as effective as a facilitator in the half-court offense and also in transition with a few astonishing full-court outlet passes.
Love demonstrated the maturity he has gained since entering the league and made a very promising center in Kanter look dazed and confused on the defensive end. Love’s uniquely refined skill set is truly unalike to any other player’s in the league right now. Jim Peterson put it best when he said Love was “a man among boys” nearing the end of the third quarter, and he headed into the final quarter of play with 34 points and just one assist shy of his first career triple-double.
It did not take long for Love to reach the long overdue career milestone as he connected with a leaking Corey Brewer on a full-court outlet pass, a characteristic way for the superstar power forward to tally his tenth assist. With the game in cruise control, Love enjoyed the final nine minutes of the game from the comfort of the bench as the Wolves went on to win 121-104, improving to 27-28 on the season. Minnesota will play next on Sunday night in Portland.
Three Stars of the Game
- Kevin Love – I would like to extend a huge congratulations to Kevin Love on finally recording a triple-double after so many close calls. Possibly the most impressive statistic of the night was that he needed only 33 minutes to post the ridiculous line of 37 points (11-20 FG, 6-10 3pt, 9-10 FT), 12 rebounds and 10 assists. K-Love turned the ball over only once and was a +23 (Kanter was a -20 despite scoring 25 points) on the floor. The Bill Simmons of the world will argue that there are better power forwards in the league than Love, but nearly every statistical analysis reveals that Love is in a league of his own.
- Ricky Rubio – Although it was Love’s night in the limelight, Ricky quietly played a very efficient game on both ends of the floor and held Utah’s Burke to 7-19 shooting. In only 27 minutes of action, Rubio recorded 15 points (5-7 FG, 1-1 3pt, 4-5 FT), 7 assists and 6 rebounds. It appears that the extended rest that he received over the All-Star break is paying off well as he has enjoyed two solid performances to start the second half of the season.
- Gorgui Dieng – In my opinion, Dieng played his best game of the season on Saturday night and really came through when the team was depending on him. In 22 minutes, the product out of Louisville scored 8 points (4-5 FG), pulled down 8 rebounds and swatted 3 shots.