The Emergence of Gorgui Dieng

The cynic in me would normally start with how we got here, but that isn’t going to happen on this occasion.  What you need to know is that Gorgui Dieng has seemingly arrived for the Minnesota Timberwolves.  Dieng was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March.  That just begins to tell the story of how much progress the 7 footer has made over the course of his first NBA season.

The Emergence of Gorgui Dieng (Photo credit: Jordan Johnson/Getty Images)

The Emergence of Gorgui Dieng
(Photo credit: Jordan Johnson/Getty Images)

Since starting for an injured Nikola Pekovic (which for the record, is how we got here) on March 16th, Dieng has averaged 11.7 points and rebounds a game (10 games), while shooting 65% from the field and 73% from the FT line!  This includes a 22 point, 21 rebound performance against the Rockets – who were without Dwight Howard’s services that evening, but while facing a formidable opponent in Omer Asik.  What has impressed me the most about Dieng’s offensive game is that he isn’t just a garbage point scorer; he has legitimate, NBA caliber moves in and around the post, as well as a short jump shot.  For example:

His offense isn’t what caught the scouts’ attention going into the NBA Draft, where Dieng “fell” to the 21st pick in the draft for the Jazz and traded immediately to the Wolves.  If the draft were to be held today, rest assured Gorgui would be a lottery pick based simply off of his production over the past month.  Gorgui is/was better recognized for his defensive prowess and that strength and determination is now being seen on a nightly basis for the Wolves.  While he isn’t picking up a ton of blocks in the box score (1.0 per game in the same 10 game span), if you are still watching the Wolves this season, you see his active body flying around rim on the defensive end of the court.

Simply put, that is exactly what the Wolves have been missing for years and exactly what I have been yearning for all season.  The Wolves have a legitimate third big that brings something unique to the table – an above the rim presence on both ends of the floor.  We haven’t seen this in ‘Sota since … you can use context clues to figure that one out or realize that this hasn’t existed since prior to the team trying to combine Al Jefferson and Kevin Love together.

What do you expect out of Gorgui for the rest of the season?  Should we expect to see a three-headed monster for the Wolves in 2014/15?

Without Martin, Pekovic, Timberwolves Fall to Houston Rockets

Monday night’s homestead was a game of runs. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, they came up on the wrong side in the fourth quarter, and they watched Houston pull away with the 107-89 win.  Wolves starters Nikola Pekovic (ankle) and Kevin Martin (finger) viewed the loss from the sidelines–Minnesota felt their absence in a very big way. Head coach Rick Adelman also missed the game due to personal reasons, and assistant coach Terry Porter stood in at the helm.  Kevin Love played through an upper thigh contusion and tried to carry the team with 31 points and 10 rebounds. Chase Budinger followed with 15 points and seven rebounds.

The first few minutes looked a bit rough as the Rockets went on a 19-8 run. However, the Wolves found their groove and fought back, going on a 6-0 run of their own that was highlighted with a nice JJ Barea layup. The two teams battled back and forth for most of the game, but a “W” just wasn’t in the cards against the 35-17 Rockets.

Houston is a challenging opponent on any night, plain and simple. For Minnesota, facing the team with a less-than-complete roster made the task even more difficult. The Rockets have now won six games in row, led primarily by James Harden and Dwight Howard–the duo is averaging 23.6 and 18.8 PPG, respectively. The Wolves stayed with them for the remainder of the game, though, holding on for the first three quarters. Minnesota struggled a bit to defend in the first half, allowing the Rockets to put 67 points on the board. Porter addressed the issue during halftime and the Timberwolves held Houston to 40 points in the second half. But although their defense improved, Minny just couldn’t get shots to drop.

“I thought our guys had great effort tonight,” said Porter post game. “… Unfortunately for us, we just couldn’t make shots.”

budinger_houston

 

The Wolves lessened the deficit to just four points to end the third, trailing 82-78.  Unfortunately for Minnesota, everything fell apart in the final period. No starters were on the floor to start the fourth quarter, and Houston went on an 11-0 run  as Wolves players missed shots left and right.  Alexey Shved had 11 points off the bench and made a significant impact earlier in the game, but the guard made several poor passes in the fourth and committed three turnovers. Howard proved a nagging force against Minnesota, blocking three shots and grabbing 11 defensive rebounds.  Ronny Turiaf started in Pek’s absence, and he just wasn’t an even matchup against Howard. Turiaf tallied 10 rebounds on the night, but he scored only two points in 30 minutes of play. Gorgui Dieng played 11 minutes to give Turiaf a break, and he failed to make a single bucket.

Porter called a timeout and adjusted the lineup at the 8:55 mark, but Minnesota couldn’t regain its footing. Timberwolves fans watched Houston pull away with the win. In the end, the Wolves scored just 11 points in Q4, dropping their shooting percentage of the night to 35.6 (24 percent from the three-point line).

Monday night’s loss brought the Timberwolves record to 24-28, and the team falls to No. 11 in the Western Conference standings. They will have to pull things together in a hurry if they hope to making the playoffs. Minnesota will remain at home to play Denver Wednesday night before enjoying a week off for the All-Star break.  Following the break, the Wolves’ next game will be Feb. 19 against the No. 1 Indiana Pacers.

“We’ve just got to keep pushing,” Turiaf said. “Regardless of if we feel it or not, we got to keep pushing. And that’s what basketball is about. You have tough stretches like that, you give in or you just keep your head above water… WE know at the end of the day, things need to turn around eventually.”

Rubio_Houston

Timberwolves Play of the Game: 

With 6:19 remaining in the second quarter, Alexey Shved drove down the lane and came up with a monster dunk over Terrence Jones.

You can view the play here.

 

 

2013/2014 Western Conference Preview

Western Conference Logo

Well, we can now call this an annual tradition, so welcome back to another Timberpups.com’s preview of the NBA’s Western Conference.  I’m going to stick with a similar flow for the preview, ranking the conference from worst to first and taking a stab at how I see the playoffs unfolding.  As I was ranking the teams this year, I quickly realized that there isn’t a team in the conference that doesn’t have its flaws.  I also have no idea how things are going to pan out at the top of the conference given injuries, old age, and a few other wrinkles we’ll tackle when we get there.  Enough foreplay, here we go …

15. Phoenix Suns: I’m not even sure where to start.  If I were a Suns fan going to home games, my regular attire would start with a brown bag.  The owner is reprehensible, the front office is something a little less derogatory, and the roster is a mess.  Eric Bledsoe is going to be a fantasy basketball stud.  Marcin Gortat should put up nice numbers as well, given the Suns’ rookie is Alex Len and already listed as “Day-to-Day”.

14. Sacramento Kings: Any time you have a coach-killing, I don’t give a crap, locker room cancer up for a new contract, you have to max them out, right?  Particularly after a lost season when your old ownership group dragged the entire city through the mud.  This will be a fun team to watch with Greivis Vasquez and Ben McLemore in the backcourt, but I hate their frontcourt and I’m not moving this team up any further with Cousins the proud new owner of a max contract.

13. Portland Trailblazers: This is likely where I lose a lot of readers, but I foresee a lost year for the Blazers, who will be held hostage by LaMarcus Aldridge – reportedly not happy with the team and looking to move on.  The Blazers are another team that will look great playing small ball with Lillard, Matthews, Batum, and McCollum, but I think they suffer from the distractions.  One final question: is Thomas Robinson going to figure out life in the NBA this season?

12. Utah Jazz: The Timberwolves’ trade partner from draft night!  Trey Burke and Alec Burks make for an intriguing backcourt (and an announcers nightmare).  This team still has 2 or 3 too many wings on the roster and a complete lack of balance.  They have no depth at PF/C, so expect a lot of run for Favors and Kanter, and then expect them to hit a wall after the all-star break.

11. Los Angeles Lakers: Who knows when Kobe will come back, but what I do know is that he isn’t human.  So when he does return, he’ll be at least 80% of Kobe and that’s better than 90% of the players in the NBA.  At the same time, I think this team can tread water thanks to Nash, Gasol, and to a much lesser extent, Kaman.  If they would have signed one decent wing this offseason, I think they would fight for the last playoff spot.  Sorry, Nick Young and Wesley Johnson fans.

10. Denver Nuggets: This year’s winner of my “I literally have no idea what to expect from this team” award.  I think Brian Shaw is going to be a good coach, unless he tries to replicate Kurt Rambis’ performance in Minnesota.  I like Lawson and Faried, while Gallinari/Chandler are certainly serviceable (note that Gallinari is injured).  But then I look and see their SG rotation (Evan Fournier, Randy Foye, and Quincy Miller) and their starting Center (JaVale McGee) and think there is no way this team flirts with 40 wins.  Again, I have no idea where this goes.  (#Analysis)

9. Dallas Mavericks: This was my surprise team in last season’s preview.  That didn’t go too well, but the team was still competitive.  They are another year older (Dirk, Marion, and Wince Carter) and have a huge question mark in the paint – Sam Dalembert.  The addition of Monta Ellis adds a lot of intrigue, if only to see how long it takes for Rick Carlisle to become the first coach to ever attack a player on the floor with a chair from the first row.  The West is too strong/competitive for the Mavs to make the playoffs in my opinion.

PLAYOFF TEAMS                                                                                                                               

8. New Orleans Pelicans: New team name, new mascot, and a few new faces.  This is one of the few teams that are on my “must watch” list to see how these guys work together.  The Pelicans stole the draft by getting Jrue Holiday, but then went out and got Tyreke Evans.  If Eric Gordon or Austin Rivers can stay healthy (I know, I know), this team is going to be highly entertaining.  I haven’t even mentioned Anthony Davis yet, who had a strong rookie season and will only get better.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves: So, I have to be honest.  The Western Conference is ridiculously loaded and I wound up seeding the playoff teams with two thoughts: 1. some semblance of how I legitimately thought things would wind up and 2. one eye on the playoffs and creating exciting first round match-ups.  We’ll get there, trust me.  The Wolves are already down one man (Budinger) after last season’s debacle and really can’t afford to lose anyone else, particularly on the wing.

Last season was supposed to be the year the team returned to the playoffs and broke the curse, thereby allowing this season to be “the next step”.  So we are behind a year on that roadmap, but I do believe this team is a lock for the playoffs if it can stay healthy.  How far it can go heavily depends on Love returning to his “Best PF in the NBA” tag and Rubio making a significant leap in rankings among PG’s.  If those two things happen, and they are big “if’s”, this team can do a lot of damage, as all of the complementary pieces are there – shooting, depth, veterans, young guns, and more.

One last thought: Derrick Williams or Shabazz Muhammad must wedge themselves into Adelman’s rotation to fill minutes at multiple positions.  If this happens, the team will be ready to roar come playoff time.

6. Golden State Warriors: This team is scary good on paper and there lies the problem.  Do I really want to rely on Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut to stay healthy and not miss significant time over the course of a season?  Is Harrison Barnes going to breakout?  Is Andre Iguodala a nice stats, falters when it matters type of player?  Everything about this team says it could be a top four team in the conference, but I couldn’t bring myself to move it any higher than this spot.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: We know what Memphis did last season in the playoffs and quite honestly, that is the only reason I have them above GS.  I really like what the Grizzlies did in getting Ed Davis.  However, I thought Tayshaun Prince could have been shopped this offseason in order to find an upgrade on the wing.  Gasol and Randolph are going to bring it every night and Mike Conley has found himself as a PG in the NBA.  This is just a really good “team” on both ends of the floor and I’m not going to discount that.

4. Los Angeles Clippers: Here is what I wrote last season for the Clippers:

I hate watching the Clippers, which bothers me because I used to love watching Chris Paul.  However, the LA hype that they get now just bothers me.  Paul and Griffin whine to the refs at every whistle.  Anyone that thinks Griffin is a better pro than Love doesn’t understand basketball.  The owner of this team is disgusting.  Have I mentioned I don’t like the Clippers? 

Nothing has changed.  In fact, I had them at #4 last season as well.  Chris Paul is running the entire franchise, but to his credit, players are coming to LA to play for the Clippers, the latest example being JJ Redick.  They have a solid starting five and three solid backups in Collison, Crawford, and Barnes.  Beyond that eight man rotation though, it is a little frightening if you are a Clippers fan (Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins, and Antawn Jamison?  Yikes!).

3. Oklahoma City Thunder: Well, the James Harden trade certainly didn’t work out.  As I mentioned after the trade, I hate seeing teams sell when they have a very legitimate shot at a ring and that’s what Sam Presti did and now they have to figure out how to right the ship.  It always helps when you have Kevin Durant.  The injury to Russell Westbrook will cost the team at least a couple of wins in the early part of the season and that is going to cost them a top two seed in my opinion.  Are we sure Serge Ibaka is only 24 years old?  He was drafted by the Sonics and that team hasn’t been around in what feels like a decade.

2. Houston Rockets: You may notice what I’m doing here if you are a Wolves fan, but I slide the Rockets into the 2 seed of the conference.  You may have heard that Dwight Howard signed with the Rockets this offseason.  James Harden took ‘the leap’ last year and became one of the top players in the league.  PG play is a concern, but the Rockets have good depth at the forward positions (while not spectacular) and a top three player at their respective positions in Howard and Harden.  This equates to a lot of regular season wins and the 2 seed in my book.

1. San Antonio Spurs: Why?!  Will this team please go away!  I say this half in jest because the Spurs play great basketball and showed the nation that they could hang with the Heat.  The NBA Finals were as good as professional basketball can look.  Naturally, the Spurs found diamonds in the rough in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and every other franchise just continues to shake their collective heads.  I can’t make a case for anyone else in the 1 seed, given the injury to Westbrook in OKC.

Here’s how I see the playoffs shaking out:

2014 Western Conference Playoff Predictions

As mentioned earlier, I tried to make the first round as entertaining as possible with the seeds.  Spurs roll over a ‘happy to be here’ Pelicans team, the Clippers again in the 1st round (YES!), the Thunder take care of a pesky Warriors team, and the Wolves upset the Rockets!

Come on, look at all those storylines: Adelman vs. McHale, Dwight choking in the playoffs, the Wolves getting stronger as the season progresses and culminating in the upset!  This would be fantastic.  Honestly, name a worse first round opponent for the Rockets, not named the Spurs and Thunder.  Pekovic and Love can frustrate the heck out of Howard, and the team can throw a number of players out there to man up on Harden … or at least provide their respective six fouls.  Make this series happen!

Beyond the first round, you see a pretty straightforward run by the Spurs and Thunder, setting up the rematch to represent the conference in the Finals.

Where am I off my rocker in the conference rankings?  Who do you see representing the conference in the Finals?  Let us know in the comments below.

Also, be on the lookout for an Eastern Conference Preview within the next week or two.

Analyzing How The Timberwolves Stack Up In The Western Conference

Is a core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic strong enough to carry Minnesota to the playoffs? (Brace Hemmelgarn, Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Is a core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic strong enough to carry Minnesota to the playoffs? (Brace Hemmelgarn, Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

So far this offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves have made a splash in both the draft and free agency. The Wolves started things off by drafting first-round picks Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, both of whom could provide solid minutes off the bench this next season while being potential  future starters. Shabazz has a high ceiling due to his play-making abilities on offense and Dieng has the body to become an elite defender in the NBA.

In free agency, the Timberwolves were able to sign UFA Kevin Martin to a four year, $28 million deal to fill the void as the new starter at shooting guard. The former sixth man from OKC brings perimeter shooting that the Wolves desperately need as he shot a tremendous 43% from behind the arc last season. In addition, the Wolves were able to bring back RFA Chase Budinger who also brings strong perimeter shooting and an extensive knowledge of Rick Adelman’s corner offense. In addition, former Timberwolves lottery pick Corey Brewer is also back to help replace some of Andrei Kirilenko‘s defensive versatility after playing an integral part to Denver’s terrific season in 2012-13. It is safe to say that Flip Saunders has assembled a very talented offensive roster that could very well make a playoff push come next spring.

Remaining on the agenda is the status of RFA Nikola Pekovic, who has still not found common ground with Timberwolves brass on a long-term deal that could keep the Montenegrin in Minnesota for another four seasons. Despite the current lack of a deal, it remains unlikely that Pekovic decides to leave millions on the table and instead signing his one year tender that would pay him around $6 million this season while allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. It remains very unlikely that Pek signs his one year tender as he would be taking a significant risk walking away from a $50+ million contract, especially considering his injury history. It will be very important for Flip to find common ground with Pek’s camp in order to find a mutually beneficial resolution to the extended negotiations, given how important of a piece he will be for Minnesota this season and in the future.

Is it be possible that this may be an inopportune time for the Wolves to significantly improve? As ridiculous as that may sound, let us take a peek at next season. With the hard cap created in the latest CBA, there are significant ramifications that result from the luxury tax largely as it applies to small market franchises. As it stands right now, the Timberwolves will have very little flexibility going forward for adding any more high-impact players. If their free agent additions fail to produce or if injuries continue to plague the team as they have in previous seasons, the Pups may miss out on both a playoff spot and a high spot in the draft. That would not bode well for the future of the team as the 2014 NBA Draft is considered by many experts to be the best draft in the past decade. The draft boasts high-end talent that includes Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Chris Walker, Aaron Gordan, Gary Harris, and the Harrison twins. There is a chance that multiple teams may draft their next superstar with a high selection, but having a pick in the 10-14 range would mean missing out on both a postseason run and a top end talent. With all of the talent and depth the Wolves have accumulated, it is very likely that Minnesota will miss out on players that could fundamentally change the franchise. As Minnesota is in clear win-now mode, it is somewhat unfortunate that the first time in a decade that the team does not appear in the NBA lottery may very well end up being the most important lottery to be apart of.

It is interesting to note that the last time the Timberwolves made a significant run in the playoffs in 2003, it ended up being arguably the greatest draft class in NBA history. Just look at some of these names: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and David West were some of the players selected before Minnesota who held the 26th overall pick. They ultimately selected Ndudi Ebi, who proved to be a completely useless asset for the franchise. While it is not guaranteed that 2014 will bring as many studs as 2003 did, it is initially alarming to think about history repeating itself.

The Western Conference currently boasts a highly competitive group of teams that will make it increasingly difficult to make it to the postseason. At the top there are the unquestionable contenders, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. The Thunder have arguably two of the top five best players in the NBA with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.  The Spurs are coming off of an NBA Finals defeat in which they played the Miami Heat incredibly close despite ultimately coming up short. However, they will be returning all of their core players and should be a force yet again next season. The Grizzlies have only added pieces around their core and remain one of the most defensively oriented teams in the NBA, a strength that makes them one of the most unique teams in the league. Coming off of their memorable playoff run, Golden State was able to add a new starting small forward in All-Star Andre Igoudala to complement their sharp-shooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Clippers took care of their offseason priorities by re-signing Chris Paul while also addressing their needs at shooting guard by signing sharpshooter JJ Redick away from Milwaukee. Los Angeles also gained depth at small forward after trading for swingman Jared Dudley. Houston made arguably the biggest addition of the summer after signing Dwight Howard and have now positioned themselves as a championship contender with the addition of the best center in the NBA. Pairing Dwight with Chandler Parsons and James Harden will be interesting to observe to say the least.

Fighting for the final spots in the West with the Wolves will likely be between the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets. The Portland’s young lineup is set to make a playoff run this season as they are bringing back their entire starting five. Dallas and New Orleans have both completely revamped their rosters and should be the biggest wildcards of the Western Conference, while Denver has undergone a complete turnover of their management and coaching staff while losing a number of key players. Obviously, as shown by the Los Angeles Lakers last season it is nearly impossible to predict the playoff standings. It is no guarantee that even with their improved roster and a full season of good health from both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, there is enough competition and talent in the West to keep Minnesota from snapping their streak of missing the postseason.

In the end, I am happy that the Wolves are going to be a competitive ball club next season. It’s about DAMN time! But there is always a price to being competitive that could negatively impact our future, just as it did in 2003.

Timberwolves 2013-14 Schedule Released!

Timberwolves 2013-14 Schedule Decisions, Decisions ...

Timberwolves 2013-14 Schedule
Decisions, Decisions …

After a few weeks’ worth of delays, the NBA finally unveiled the 2013-14 schedule/calendar.  You can find the full Timberwolves’ schedule here on Timberwolves.com.  On Monday, the team released their preseason schedule as well.

The preseason officially begins on 10/7 with a game at the Target Center against CSKA Moscow.  Who will Alexey Shved, Vladimir Putin, and Eric Snowden be rooting for?  Tune in to find out.  The Wolves will actually travel a good amount during the preseason, playing in Toronto, Montreal, South Dakota, Philadelphia, and Detroit.  They will only have one other preseason game at the Target Center (10/12 against Toronto). [Read more…]

Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Los Angeles Lakers 120

08^740919 05WOLF032813.jpgGame Summary:

Before spoiling the big ending between the Timberwolves and Lakers on Wednesday night, let me set up the context to what would ultimately be one of the most controversial endings to this NBA season. With 5 and a half to play in the final period of play, the Wolves trailed LA 106-94 playing in the Target Center. The Pups were hanging by a thread as Dante Cunningham was playing hero due to his red-hot mid-ranger game and Ricky Rubio doing everything to find him for 15-18 footers. With just around 3 minutes left to play, the Timberwolves switched things up and took part in the infamous hack-a-Dwight strategy. Fouling Dwight on every LA offensive possession, the strategy worked brilliantly as the big man hit only 2 of his 8 free throws over the course of the next minute while Minnesota cut their deficit to only 7 points with right around 2 minutes to play. Dwight, who is shooting 49% from the charity stripe on the season, has been unable to significantly improve his free throw shooting since joining the NBA as a 19-year-old, nearly 8 years ago.

Here’s where things got insane. With 3.4 seconds left and Kobe shooting the second of his two foul shots, Minnesota was out of timeouts and was in need of some serious luck in order to extend the game into overtime. As Kobe released the free throw, the ball bounced graciously off of the front of the rim as Rubio found himself able to easily the ball falling right in front of his face. Racing down the court with no timeouts, Ricky dashed the length of the court in order to get up a last second three-pointer in hopes of tying the game and taking it into overtime in front of the screaming Target Center audience. Just as Ricky approached the three-point line in the midst of a race to beat the clock, Kobe’s arm extended from behind Ricky’s head and came down upon the Spaniards’ left arm just as he was releasing the ball. On the right side, Dwight Howard made significant contact with Ricky’s other side before the shot was released, and Minnesota fans paused for a split second before seeing their hopes for three free throws and a shot at overtime go straight down the drain. No foul was called, despite one official having a clear view of the contact right next to Ricky and Kobe quickly headed through to the lockerroom as the game was official, 120-117 in favor of Los Angeles.

I could go on and on about how the referees blew the game and that Minnesota got jipped, but what good would that do? The fact is that the Wolves waited until the very end of the game to stage a run and ultimately came up a hair short to a player and organization that is clearly favored by the National Basketball Association. It would be ignorant to say that the NBA does not want Los Angeles to grab the eighth seed in the playoffs, because if the Lakers are able to grab the final spot there will be a lot more money in this year’s postseason than there would be if, say, Utah jumped ahead of LA.

Regardless of the finish, I was happy to see Minnesota finish this game with some pride while also saving their best play for last. This 24 game losing streak to LA, however, needs to end soon.

Keys of the Game:

  • Shot-blocking – The Lakers out-blocked the Timberwolves 9 to 3 as D-12 did an excellent job of setting the tempo in the interior for Los Angeles. With Greg Stiemsma an inefficient bench option and Pekovic lacking vertical leap, the Timberwolves are essentially without a shot-blocker in their current rotation with Chris Johnson warming the bench for the foreseeable future.
  • Three-point shooting – After draining 14 threes the night before in Detroit, the Timberwolves were only able to knock down 5 of their 17 attempts while the Lakers nailed 10 of their 22 looks from beyond the arc. Kobe, Nash, Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison all hit at least 2 threes for Los Angeles

Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Kobe Bryant – What’s new? Kobe dominated the Timberwolves for the umpteenth time of his career in route to extending the Lakers current win streak over Minnesota to 24 games. While he definitely got away with a foul on Rubio which could have sent the game into overtime, it was Kobe who did just enough to keep LA from imploding after the hack-a-Dwight debacle cut the Wolves deficit late in the fourth quarter. Kobe finished the night with a line of 31 points (12-21 FG), 7 assists and 3 rebounds in 38 minutes.
  2. Dwight Howard – Yes, Dwight shot a horrendous 7-17 from the free throw line and was being laughed at by many Wolves fans in attendance, but he also completely dominated the paint in the fourth quarter and finished with 25 points (9-13 FG), 16 points, 5 steals and 5 blocks in 34 minutes.
  3. Dante Cunningham – Cunningham was Minnesota’s spark in the fourth quarter and his mid-range game was red-hot. Cunningham faced very soft close outs from LA defenders and responded by draining jumper after jumper in the faces of defenders. DC Hustle scored 18 points (9-15 FG) to pair with 4 rebounds in 19 minutes off of the bench.

Minnesota Timberwolves 94, Los Angeles Lakers 116

Photo Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

Photo Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

Game Summary:

In the second of their three-game road trip, the Timberwolves squared off against the steadily-improving Los Angeles Lakers on a court that they had previously lost the past twelve games on. Without starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko, matters were made worse as the Wolves lost yet another important member of their squad due to injury. Behind a terrific night from reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Kobe Bryant, the Lakers blew out the Wolves 116-94 as they continue to claw their way back from a terrible start to the season.

To be fair, Minnesota kept it close… for one quarter. One of the key matchups of the game was that of Dwight Howard vs. Nikola Pekovic, two of the biggest and strongest players in the league. Early on, Pek did a good job of establishing inside position while Ricky Rubio did a brilliant job of finding him for easy looks on multiple occasions. However, the after playing only 9 minutes, Pekovic was forced to head to the locker room late in the first quarter with what turned out to be an abdominal strain. His prognosis came out in the second period as we learned that Pek would miss the remainder of the game and would be out indefinitely. The big fella finished with 8 points (4-6 FG) and 3 rebounds.

With injuries completely obliterating Minnesota’s depth, the Wolves looked to young Derrick Williams to do his best against, ugh, Kobe Bryant. While D-Will did not do a terrible job guarding Kobe, he had very little help from his teammates as the Timberwolves were very slow rotating and closing gaps on defense.

The Lakers came out of the gate with some hot shooting which foreshadowed what was to happen for the rest of the contest. To Minnesota’s credit, they were severely under-manned and the Lakers had several blatant mismatches to exploit. Minnesota hung around in the first period as they did a good job of spacing the floor while Ricky dazzled the LA fans with some incredible passing.

The Timberwolves trailed Los Angeles 28-22 heading into the second quarter. With no Pekovic in the lane, the Lakers were able to effectively stretch the floor on offense leading to many open three-point opportunities, which they knocked down at a high rate. Offensively, the Timberwolves had a very difficult time creating offense with Rubio getting a breather. Alexey Shved had a difficult time against the physical LA perimeter defense, and he did not do the Wolves a favor by continually settling for long two-point  shots. Defensively, the Wolves were awful on their rotations as noone pushed out to contest shots on the perimeter. Getting the start for AK-47, Dante Cunningham was ice-cold and could not hit his 18-footer that he loves so much.

At the half, Los Angeles led the Pups 57-47. My observations of the first two periods are as follows:

  • Luke Ridnour had the hot hand for Minnesota, knocking down two corner threes and hitting just about everything he took.
  • Dwight’s duties were made incredibly easy without Pekovic in the lane, and the self-proclaimed “Chocolate Shoulders” did a phenomenal job of protecting the rim against the team that finishes at the rim worse than any other NBA team.
  • The Wolves could be seen with three point guards on the court at times, and if that doesn’t make you wince, you need help.
  • Can’t say enough about Rubio, he was the only thing keeping this game from exploding into nightmare in the first half.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody watching, the Lakers controlled the game in the second half with the game getting ugly in the final quarter. Despite three strong overall performances by Ridnour, JJ Barea, and Rubio, the size differential between the two teams completely inhibited the Pups’ ability to compete on both ends of the floor. I could continue to elaborate on the second half, but I will save you the misery.

Notable Performances:

  • Jodie Meeks made 4 of his 9 three-point attempts after missing his first 3 tries from deep, and reminded LA fans why they went out and got him last offseason.
  • Steve Blake had a highly productive 25 minutes finishing the night with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists off the bench.
  •  Luke Ridnour did just about everything he could have done for Minnesota and his great performance will most likely be overlooked by the end result of the game. Ridnour scored 19 points (7-10 FG, 2-4 3PT) and added 3 steals in an efficient offensive performance.
  • Derrick Williams played 39 minutes and was a game-worst -26 on the floor. I do not want to rag on him too much because he was asked to play out of position guarding Kobe. Williams contributed 15 points (6-14 FG), 8 rebounds and 3 turnovers in a long night for the second-year player.

Keys of the Game:

  • Three-point shooting – I cannot emphasize enough the importance that perimeter shooting played in this one. The Lakers used the simple formula of feeding the ball into the post drawing Minnesota defenders into the interior, while Howard and other Lakers bigs found their open teammates waiting contently on the outside for wide-open three-pointers. LA converted a ridiculous 16 of their 32 attempts from deep as Minnesota shot a reasonable 7-21 themselves.
  • Rebounding – LA 49, MN 35. No Pek + no AK + no Love = no rebounding. It’s a pretty simple formula.

Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Kobe Bryant – Oh boy, was the Black Mamba hot tonight. Kobe finished with 33 points (13-22 FG, 4-8 3PT), 5 assists and 5 rebounds in 32 minutes tonight. He showed off his range with a couple of very deep three-pointers and posterized Pekovic before the big man ultimately left with injury.
  2. Dwight Howard – Loved what I saw from the Dwightmare, who completely set the tone for LA defensively. The soon-to-be unrestricted free agent is beginning to come into his own as a Laker and in 33 minutes finished with 11 points (5-6 FG), 13 rebounds and 4 blocks.
  3. Ricky Rubio – Rubio came very close to recording his first career triple-double but fell 2 rebounds short, as he finished the night with 13 points (5-11 FG), 13 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 turnovers in 33 minutes. I am sure many Laker fans left the Staples Center satisfied of what they saw from the young Spaniard.