The Timberwolves, coming off of a disappointing home loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, needed an easy win against a poor Phoenix Suns team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. It was a win, indeed, but it was not easy. With Ricky Rubio listed as a late scratch with back spasms, the sellout crowd at Target Center witnessed a back-and-forth offensive affair make a mockery of the idea of defense until the final frame. At this stage in the game, there appeared something that resembled defense, but took on the look of something more closely related to rugby. At any rate, the Wolves eventually squeaked out a game that they should have won handily, and will spend the next three days licking their wounds from what nearly turned into another embarrassing loss.
The first quarter began with the Wolves doing a solid job of establishing Nikola Pekovic down low while getting under Suns’ center Marcin Gortat’s skin early. Pekovic scored in a variety of ways, from rolling directly to the rim for beautiful dimes from Alexey Shved, receiving inside passes from Andrei Kirilenko and Kevin Love, or simply out-muscling the Suns frontcourt for offensive rebounds and put-backs.
Love played significantly better early on than he had against Houston on Wednesday, but unfortunately for him and the Target Center faithful, Luis Scola was more than holding his own against the Wolves’ All-Star. Scola was good early on, but stayed consistent all game long at a level that Phoenix has not seen from him to this point, finishing the contest with a season-high 33 points.
The Wolves’ defense was especially poor early on as they struggled to complete their rotations all the way into the paint, leading to a number of layups and kick-outs for wide open jump shots. Because of the Wolves’ own fantastic shooting, the Wolves managed to take a 32-29 lead into the second quarter.
The Wolves started the second quarter by opening up a small lead on the visiting Suns, with Derrick Williams hitting his first two three point attempts and scoring 10 points on 3 of 4 shooting in the second quarter. Somehow, while entering the game fourth-worst in the league in turnovers per 100 possessions, Phoenix did not commit a turnover until midway through the second quarter. By that point, they had already scored 11 points off of 6 Wolves turnovers, and the margin remained at 8-2 in favor of Phoenix at halftime.
Due to Rubio’s absence on Saturday night, Rick Adelman chose to alter his rotation in a way that left an enormous lineup of Barea, Williams, Dante Cunningham, Love, and Pekovic on the court for about four minutes in the second quarter. The unit did just fine on the offensive end, but understandably struggled to stay in front of Suns’ penetration on the other end of the floor.
By halftime, the Wolves’ had managed to expand their lead to 64-58, largely due to their work on the offensive glass that led to 14 second chance points at the break. Of course, their issues with turnovers were the largest culprit in keeping them from opening up an even bigger lead, as the Wolves were shooting over 70% (!) from the field at one point late in the second quarter.
The third quarter started with another heavy dose of Pekovic and an array of Shved-assists that carved apart the Phoenix defense. The Wolves were able to stretch their lead to nine points midway through the third quarter, but the unfortunate theme of 2012 continued for the Wolves, as the Suns promptly went on a 7-0 run and cut the deficit to 89-87 heading into the fourth quarter.
Former Timberwolves Michael Beasley and Sebastian Telfair tried their best to hand the game to their former employer early in the fourth quarter, combining to shoot an unsightly 1 of 14 for the game, and even invoking Wolves’ long-suffering color analyst Jim Peterson to exclaim “I’m having Michael Beasley flashbacks right now!” Immediately after Peterson echoed the thoughts of all Wolves fans, Telfair proceeded to blow an easy layup at the rim, followed shortly thereafter by coach Alvin Gentry yanking both Beasley and Telfair out of the contest.
Despite the ex-Wolves’ best efforts, the current edition of the squad also did their best to kick the game to their opponents. The Wolves dodged a couple of wide-open three point attempts by the normally accurate Jared Dudley that bounced off the rim, and missed an alarming number of free throws, shooting just 16 of 26 for the game, including 0 for 2 and 2 for 4 fourth quarter efforts by Barea and Cunningham, respectively.
When the Wolves finally managed to go back to continually feeding Pekovic in the paint (all the while refusing to throw the ball to Love in the post with 6’-6” P.J. Tucker guarding him), they were able to stay close to the Suns. Phoenix did take a three point lead with just under four minutes to play, but the Wolves played very well from that point on, playing stifling defense and taking advantage of the officials refusing to call hardly any contact underneath the basket on either end of the floor.
With the score standing at 110-107, Cunningham stole the Suns’ inbound pass and was fouled. After missing the first shot, the sellout crowd of 19,356 was able to coax the second attempt to bounce in and give the Wolves a two possession lead, effectively sealing the game.
– Love played much, much better than his extremely poor effort on Wednesday night against Houston. He was active on defense early on, and Scola managed many of his second half points while being guarded by Pekovic (who struggles to get out and contest mid-range jump shots) while Gortat was on the bench for Phoenix. Love seemed less hesitant to shoot open jump shots, and after making two of his first three long-range attempts in the first quarter, his pump fakes seemed to be more effective. His final line was 23 points (8-20 FGs, 2-6 3s, 5-7 FTs), 18 rebounds, 1 assist, and just 2 turnovers.
– Shved played one of his better games of the season, shining as a distributer on a night in which Luke Ridnour continued to struggle with his shot and J.J. Barea was less effective or efficient than he had been in recent games. Shved only attempted six shots, which is in sharp contrast to most Wolves’ games so far this season. One wonders if the coaching staff may have made it a point to tell Alexey that he does not have to shoot every time he has the ball, despite the fact that the Wolves often need his scoring. Shved finished with 12 points on 3 of 6 shooting (1-4 3 pointers) and 5 of 6 from the line, to go along with 10 assists, 4 rebounds, and just three turnovers. He would have had more assists, but Kirilenko and Pekovic had some easy shots bounce out underneath the basket.
– The lines of Pekovic and Kirilenko were equally impressive on Saturday night. Kirilenko only attempted two jump shots the entire game, finishing an impressive 10 of 13 on field goal attempts, mostly in the paint. His final line of 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists, interestingly enough, did not include any steals or blocks. Pekovic finished the game with 28 points on 13 of 20 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds.
– The Wolves have another three full days off before playing one of the more difficult road back-to-backs that there is in the NBA: at the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night and at the Nuggets in Denver on Thursday night. Winning one of these two divisional road games would be considered a victory for Adelman’s crew.