The Timberwolves should have won this game. They did not, and the absence of Love, the absence of offense down the stretch, and the absence of competent officiating combined to be a debilitating trifecta for the visitors. The first three and a half quarters were exciting and well-played, but the end of the game was marred by a flurry of whistles, and then the sudden absence of foul calls after Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson was called for a technical with a few minutes remaining. The Wolves struggled to adapt to the rugby game that broke out, and got a taste of harsh reality on the road at Madison Square Garden.
The Wolves did a very good job of working the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man early on in Sunday’s game. Through their first few offensive possessions, they refused to force the ball inside to Pekovic when the angle was not there, but did a very good job of working the ball around the arc and back inside whenever Pek was able to get a solid seal on the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler. The Knicks wisely chose to still double-team Pekovic in the post (a nod to just how dominating he has been down low) with the Wolves struggling from three point range so far this season, and Pekovic being inconsistent in passing out of the post.
Pekovic, however, was up to the task of finding the open man and played a very solid opening quarter, helping the Wolves to a 29-22 lead going into the second frame. Due to Love’s absence, Pekovice played the first 14+ minutes of the game and did not head to the bench until the 9:33 mark of the second quarter. Alexey Shved continued to play strong minutes after starting at the small forward spot on Sunday afternoon, shooting 3 of 4 from three point range in the first half, despite continuing to receive an astonishing lack of respect from the officials.
In addition to being his usual effective self on offense, Pekovic was mobile on defense and as active on the boards as he has been all season. With Love out, Pekovic’s rebounding was absolutely necessary to the Wolves’ success against the Knicks, and he did not disappoint. Ricky Rubio played solid minutes in the first half, combining with Shved to open things up on the offensive end of the floor with their dribble penetration and draw-and-kick prowess.
The Wolves’ turnover issues were really the only thing that kept them from opening up a lead larger than the 55-46 lead that they managed to take into halftime. Moving into the third quarter, this continued to be the main culprit for the Wolves, as the Knicks whittled down what was an 11-point Timberwolves lead all the way down to 73-71 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Wolves started the fourth quarter similarly to how they played the third: too many turnovers. Rubio’s defense was a highlight, frustrating J.R. Smith into a technical foul midway through the quarter after drawing an offensive foul. When Andre Kirilenko finally re-entered the game after sitting for an extended period due to foul trouble, he forced Carmelo Anthony into a couple of bad shots in addition to a pair of turnovers along the baseline.
Unfortunately, the Wolves’ offense became ice cold around the time that Rubio left the game with approximately seven minutes remaining. Ridnour, Barea, and Shved struggled to get the ball inside to Pekovic in a position to score, and eventually the offense reverted to relying on the guards to jack up long jumpers or find Dante Cunningham for mid-range jump shots. To his credit, Cunningham played very well and was able to knock down 6 of his 10 shots from the floor, but the team needed to keep pressure on Tyson Chandler and the Knicks’ interior defense, and they were simply unable to do so.
Even while playing such a poor fourth quarter, the Wolves managed to hold a four point lead with just over two minutes left. J.J. Barea was held by Raymond Felton as he shot a jumper from the free throw line, but could not draw a call from the officials. On the fast break the other way, Anthony hit a three pointer, drawing the Knicks within one. Pekovic was fouled by Chandler the next time down the floor without a call, and Anthony converted a three-point play after being fouled by Kirilenko, giving the Knicks a two point lead.
The Wolves had a chance to tie with barely under a minute to play, but a jump shot from Barea missed badly. Pekovic came down with the rebound and had both Anthony and Chandler hanging off of his massive arms as he tried to put the shot back. There was no call, and Kirilenko missed yet another put-back. The Wolves had one last chance to tie at the buzzer after Shved stole the ball from Smith and canned a three pointer to bring the deficit back to one possession, but the referee-induced damage was done.
After the game, Rick Adelman made it a point to chase down the three officials and give them a sarcastic round of applause, making it clear that the outcome of the game was unmistakably altered by their blatant incompetence. From the moment that Mike Woodson received a technical foul with about four minutes to play, the Timberwolves did not receive a single foul call.
I will absolutely not “blame the loss” on the officiating, but I would be lying if I didn’t make it clear that it had an unmistakable and real affect on the outcome. The Wolves’ offense ground to a halt in the final seven minutes or so of the game, and they did not run any semblance of a play with seven seconds remaining and down by just three points. There is plenty of blame to go around, but all things considered, the Wolves should have won this game. And while the officiating was poor all game long, it was especially unsightly down the stretch.
- Clearly, Kevin Love would have made a huge difference on Sunday afternoon. That being said, Nikola Pekovic did his very best Love impression on the glass, rebounding better than he has in recent memory. His line: 21 points on 7-16 FGS and 7-8 FTs (all FTs in the first half), 17 rebounds, and 2 assists. Keep in mind, Pekovic was going up against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler. He also frustrated Chandler on the other end of the floor, making the numerous lobs that the Knicks attempt to throw him much more difficult to execute.
- Rubio Watch: Ricky played somewhere between the levels of his scintillating debut at home against Dallas last weekend and his poor showings against Orlando and Oklahoma City. Numbers-wise, Rubio only managed a line of 5 points on 2 of 6 shooting (1-2 FTs) with 2 assists. He did not turn the ball over much early, but ended the game with a very poor 5 TOs in just 18 minutes. Still, his defense was good and his instincts on offense were sharper than the previous two games. There were a couple of turnovers that could simply be explained away by noting that Rubio has not played with all of these players before. For instance, Dante Cunningham is not Anthony Tolliver, and his instinct is not to flare out beyond the arc on the wings. This understanding will come in due time, as Rubio is still playing limited minutes in what is essentially still his training camp.
- Carmelo Anthony is obviously very good, but on Sunday afternoon he reminded me much more of the isolation, hero-bell ‘Melo that caused Denver to improve when he was traded to New York. While he was effective down the stretch against the Wolves, he was relying almost entirely on the referees to bail him out, and he actually missed a number of open jump shots throughout the game. You’ll hear that he was the “MVP that the Knicks needed”, but he shot 10 of 25 from the field (very bad) and 3 of 10 from three point range (not great). He did get bailed out quite a bit, and ended up shooting 10-11 from the charity stripe, helping him get to his game-high 33 points. However, mark my words: Anthony cannot play like this all season long and in the playoffs if the Knicks are going to seriously challenge the Heat for the Eastern Conference crown. Just. Too. Inefficient. It will catch up to them.
- The Wolves host James Harden and the Houston Rockets on Wednesday evening at 7:00 p.m. in Minneapolis. The word on the Twitter-machine is that Love will probably play, but the team has not confirmed this rumor.