Well, that was…weird. I can’t remember the last time the Timberwolves came back to win a game in which they trailed by a deficit anywhere near the 22 point chasm they found themselves in last night in Brooklyn. The most amazing thing about the comeback was that they not only took the lead in the fourth quarter, but held on to win the game. It seems as though too often in 2011-12, the Wolves would play poorly, find themselves in a huge hole, make a furious comeback, but not be able to hang on to the lead. That certainly was not the case at Barclays Center, the sparkling new Palace o’ JAY-Z and the newly-branded Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
Nikola Pekovic was fantastic in the first half, racking up 17 points on an extremely efficient 7 of 9 shooting from the field, despite picking up his third personal foul with just two minutes remaining in the second quarter. He did a solid job defensively on Brook Lopez, allowing him to shoot long mid-range jumpers and providing just enough resistance when he went to the hoop to throw him off balance. Conversely, the combination of Lopez and Kris Humphries were unable to slow down Pekovic on offense, especially in the first half. The Nets wisely attempted to double-team Pekovic once he caught the ball in the post, but were mostly slow and clumsy in their attempts to force the ball out of his hands, and Pekovic made them pay.
Offensively, Brandon Roy was leaps and bounds better than he was on Sunday in the debacle in Toronto. Roy’s final line of 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 7 assists with no turnovers is very much in line with what might be expected out of him once Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio return to the team. In a perfect world, Roy could be penciled in for 10-12 points per game without Love’s scoring punch in the lineup, but ball security and solid offense is something that Coach Rick Adelman will take each and every night.
Defensively, Roy struggled, although lack of quickness did not seem to be the main issue. as Keith Bogans (KEITH BOGANS!) had three wide open three point attempts in the opening minutes, and another one to start the second half. Roy was able to get his hand in the passing lane a couple of times as the game went on, but the Nets were able to get Bogans open via off-ball screens seemingly whenever they wanted, and Roy found himself late on a couple of rotations when the Nets went on their big run in the first part of the third quarter.
The Timberwolves (save for the fantastic Andrei Kirilenko) were hapless on defense for much of the game, allowing Joe Johnson and Keith Bogans to spot up outside the arc for wide open three point shots, which they proceeded to hit with the expected accuracy of your typical wide open NBA three point shooters, combining to shoot 6 for 9 from long range for the game. Pekovic and Stiemsma did a solid enough job on Brook Lopez in the post, as he finished shooting 7 of 18 from the field with 9 rebounds for the game.
In building what was eventually a 22-point third quarter lead, Deron Williams predictably had his way with Luke Ridnour, who did not have a prayer of stopping the 3-time All-Star. He simply could not stay in front of Williams, and when he was able to do so or when he managed to fight through screens, Williams coldly knocked down one three pointer after another directly over the top of the shorter Ridnour’s hands.
In the fourth quarter, however, Adelman chose to go with a J.J. Barea-Alexey Shved backcourt, and by the end of the game, the Russian rookie was charged with guarding Deron Williams in crunch time of just his third NBA game. Shved’s length and athleticism kept Williams from easily shooting over him like he did to poor Luke Ridnour, and Shved was quick enough and long enough to contest Williams around the same high screens that Ridnour and Barea were having so much trouble with. Interestingly, the Nets were unable to capitalize on the diminutive Barea guarding the 6’-7” Joe Johnson in the second half, as the Deron Williams pick-and-roll and feeding Lopez in the post seemed to be the first two options.
The only thing the Wolves did differently on offense was make open shots and crash the boards. Dante Cunningham is small for a power forward and a below average offensive player, but his energy on the boards and very good defense helped bring the Wolves back from a massive deficit.
The failure of the Nets to take advantage of their massive size advantage in the backcourt and their insistence on forcing the ball in to Lopez despite his inability to get around Pekovic led to the Nets scoring just 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Nets turned into exactly what detractors have expected to see a lot of with the new-look Nets: a combination of the Iso-Joe sets that comprised the Atlanta Hawks offense for the last seven seasons and the Deron Williams black-hole offense that the Nets ran the last year and half in New Jersey. When the crisp ball movement that dominated the first half of the game disappeared late in the third quarter, the Nets offense predictably stalled. Kirilenko and Dante Cunningham outworked Humphries and Lopez on the boards in the fourth quarter while the Wolves’ offense discovered it’s missing efficiency (and making open shots…I’m looking at you, Chase Budinger), and the game was as good as over.
– Andrei Kirilenko was unbelievable. He single-handedly kept the Wolves within some semblance of a striking distance for much of the game, and keyed the Wolves’ gradual third quarter comeback. His final line of 16 points (7-11 shooting), 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 blocked shots is vintage, All-Star, fantastic Andrei Kirilenko. The Wolves would have lost by 30+ points without him keying tonight’s comeback, and the Love-less and Rubio-less Timberwolves would be lost moving forward without him.
– Alexey Shved played the entire fourth quarter, and played very, very well. He looked significantly more confident, and actually drove to the basket and kicked the ball out to open shooters multiple times, while not hesitating to pull the trigger on long three-point attempts. Both times that Shved launched at the top of the key with his momentum moving towards the basket, he drilled the shot. Off the dribble, Shved was 0-3 on three point attempts. The fact that he was able to slow down a hot Deron Williams and essentially run the Wolves’ offense with JJ Barea playing off the ball is certainly an encouraging sign for Adelman and his coaching staff.
– Derrick Williams only played 18 minutes, and his line of 8 points (3-12 shooting) and just 2 rebounds will not inspire much confidence in Wolves fans perusing the box score. On the plus side, Williams was aggressive in taking the ball to the basket, and really could have gone to the free throw line more than once, as the referees were letting both sides play without calling a ton of fouls down low. The biggest problem for Williams remains his insistence in trying to avoid contact when driving to the basket. He does not drive in a straight line, and while he is athletic enough to make the occasional circus shot, it also leads to a decreased likelihood in a foul being called, as well as a more difficult position to be in to rebound a potential miss, as he is often off-balance from twisting and contorting his body to avoid contact. Williams played solidly on defense, even staying in front of Joe Johnson on a drive to the basket late in the first quarter.
– Interestingly enough, the lineup of Shved-Barea-Budinger-Cunningham-Pekovic is the lineup that was beat badly in the second quarter, which started the slide to a 15-point halftime deficit, but it was also the same lineup that brought the Wolves all the way back in the fourth quarter. Kirilenko and Roy were on the court for much of the surge at the end of the third quarter, but the second unit (plus Pekovic) is the group of players that pushed the Wolves over the top and held on for the win.
– The Timberwolves will back at Target Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday night to play the Orlando Magic at 7:00 p.m.