January 3, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jose Barea (11) drives to the basket during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Game Recap: Timberwolves 101, Nuggets 97

Going into this brief two-game road swing, Wednesday night’s game at Utah seemed like the more winnable game of the two contests. Denver is better than Utah with an equal (if not better) home court advantage, not to mention being on the second night of a back-to-back. Instead, the Wolves responded with an impressive road victory against a division opponent, and once again proved that they are capable of bouncing back on the heels of an embarrassing performance the night before with a gutsy showing the following evening.

The Wolves started the game exactly how one might expect them to if one had witnessed their past three outings: missing easy shots from underneath the basket. In the opening minutes, Nikola Pekovic missed a dunk and Andrei Kirilenko missed a layup, the latter of which wasted a beautiful full-court outlet pass from Kevin Love. The visitors showed much more hustle and tenacity than they did the previous night in Salt Lake City, but chose (precariously) to push a more athletic team, at altitude, and on the road in the Mile High City.

Unfortunately, the Wolves half-court offense continued to look stagnant when being run by Luke Ridnour. Too often, the ball would not get into Love or Pekovic in the post with enough time on the shot clock, and the possession would end with a long Ridnour or Shved jump shot. Of course, the fact that Ridnour had been ice cold over the past few games makes this development even worse, as shot after shot continued to clank off the rim from the Wolves’ backcourt.

After the Wolves’ fast start, the Nuggets used a 12-0 run before a Love technical foul that stretched the run to 13-0 apparently ignited his squad. The Wolves finished the quarter on an 8-1 run, closing the deficit to 25-23. Minnesota relied heavily on getting into the bonus early on in the quarter in addition to a high number of second chance points. Of course, this is due to the Nuggets’ propensity to expend all of their energy on trying to block shots, which takes them out of any semblance of rebounding position, leaving the boards for the Wolves to clean up.

The second quarter was very kind to the Wolves, as the second unit infused some much-needed energy into the game for the visitors. The quarter started with extremely sloppy offense from both teams, but the Wolves’ continued rebounding advantage pushed them into the lead. With four minutes remaining in the quarter, Minnesota held a 12-3 advantage on the boards in the period, and finished the half strong, stretching their free throw advantage to 14 of 20 from the line. The Wolves’ were able to escape the first half with a surprising 47-43 lead, owed as much to Denver’s poor play as any solid play from the visitors.

Denver started the third quarter on an 8-2 run, and the Wolves turned what was a four point halftime lead into a ten point deficit at one point in the frame. Around the same time that the Wolves saw the game start to look too much like the horrors of Wednesday night in Utah, Love grabbed his right hand, called a timeout, and headed to the locker room. The worst was feared, and the Wolves still somehow found a way to trim the Nuggets lead to 70-69 headed to the fourth quarter in light of the concern surrounding the health of their franchise player.

The Wolves carried their strong play into the fourth quarter and ended up making a 15-4 run spanning the two periods. Love re-appeared on the bench, and the surprising word arrived of a sprained finger on his right hand, and not the presumed re-injury of the broken bones he suffered back in October. Love’s return was officially announced as “questionable” by the team, and Love proceeded to spend some time lobbying coach Rick Adelman to put him back in the game. As the fourth quarter wore on, Love turned into a full-fledged cheerleader on the sideline, and did not appear to be pouting that his teammates were in the process of overcoming a double-digit second half deficit on the road against a division foe, and all without him on the floor.

It wasn’t without difficulty, however, as the Nuggets recovered to take a six point lead with eight minutes to play. Ridnour finally started to make shots again, and J.J. Barea played like the J.J. Barea from the victory over Oklahoma City two weeks ago, hitting deep threes with the shot clock running down and beating bigs to the basket while keeping them on his hip and flipping the ball off the backboard for circus layup after circus layup. The Wolves played very good defense down the stretch and clinched the game with a Kirilenko defensive rebound and made rebound with 11 seconds left, giving the Wolves a five-point lead, en route to a final score of 101-97.

My Takes:

– Guard play, guard play, guard play. That is the one and only difference between the win in Denver on Thursday night and the debacle in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Yes, the team hustled and played hard (for the most part) from start to finish. But playing hard does not automatically equal made shots from Ridnour, Barea, and Shved. And made shots equal points. And points equal victories. Compare: A combined 8-29 (2-9 three pointers) vs. Utah, and 19-37 (5-11 three pointers) vs. Denver.

– The importance of this win really can’t be understated. It is absolutely reminiscent of the comeback win in Brooklyn on the second night of a back-to-back after playing the other worst game of the year in Toronto. While the deficit in the Denver game never got above 10 points in the second half, Denver is a division opponent, playing at altitude, and to this point, the best home team in the NBA. In addition, the Wolves have a very winnable game at home against Portland on Saturday night, and it will give the Wolves what should be a mini two-game winning streak headed into a tough home game against Atlanta before going on the road to Oklahoma City next Wednesday.

– The ridiculous “discussion” of if the Wolves are better without Love needs to stop. Yes, he pouts sometimes. Yes, he complains to officials too much. Yes, he has not been playing anywhere near his other-worldly level of last season. Guess what? He pouted and complained every bit as much last season as he is so far this year. Turns out, complaining to officials and lack of hustle are a lot more noticeable when the guy isn’t scoring 25 points and pulling down 16 boards on a regular basis. Trust me.

Hopefully his sprained finger heals quickly and he’s back in commission shortly. Count me as someone who believes that the stars will align at some point down the road, when Love’s hand is healed and he inevitably finds his shooting touch, Ricky Rubio’s body gets used to the NBA grind again, and Chase Budinger joins the team and gets his legs underneath him. If the team can stay above .500 through January (an 8-7 or even a 9-6 record look feasible), February and March promise more home games and (hopefully) improved health. If the team indeed hits it’s stride in March, lookout come playoff time.

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