The 15-15 Wolves were sorely in need of a home win over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night before heading out on a tough road trip. The game peaked with some fantastic play from Ricky Rubio and the rest of the home team on both sides of halftime, but ended in a struggle that saw Dante Cunningham again emerge as the hero on both ends of the floor down the stretch.
After Nikola Pekovic spun baseline and scored over Al Horford to start the game, the first quarter continued with a number of missed shots by both squads. The Wolves did appear to be significantly more active than their other recent games, from Andrei Kirilenko finding a cutting Dante Cunningham for an easy basket to Alexey Shved hustling and looking engaged on both ends of the floor.
When Ricky Rubio entered the game with a few minutes remaining in the first frame, he immediately made his impact felt by sparking an 8-0 Minnesota run and leading to two Derrick Williams made three-point shots, putting the home team ahead by a score of 30-20 heading into the second quarter. A strange side note: neither team committed a turnover in the first quarter, leading to some entirely watchable basketball.
In the second quarter, Timberwolves played one of the better 8-10 minutes stretches of their season, sparked by an intriguing (and diminutive) lineup of Rubio, J.J. Barea, Shved, Williams, and Greg Stiemsma. The defense was stellar, the rebounding was very good, and the shooting was unlike anything Wolves’ fans have seen thus far this season.
The backcourt in particular played fantastic defense, including a sequence in which Barea double-teamed a Hawks player in the post on the left wing, hustled back to the right corner to contest a three-point shot, and shot into the lane to grab the rebound and start the fast break the other way. Rubio had a couple of steals that lead to easy baskets on the other end, and Williams ended the first half with 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting, including 3 of 4 from long range. The Wolves also had a wonderful chance to rest both Pekovic and Kirilenko due to the play of the second unit. Minnesota headed into halftime with just three turnovers and an impressive 58-42 lead.
As expected, the Hawks opened the third quarter with a sense of urgency, and after the Wolves saw the lead slip down to ten points and they pushed it back up to twelve, the Hawks then were able to whittle the deficit all the way down to just six points at 66-60 near the midway point of the third quarter. The Wolves used a mini 6-0 run to stretch the lead back to twelve before Josh Smith got a ridiculous bounce on his second made three-point shot of the quarter, pushing the Hawks’ three-point accuracy in the third quarter to 4/4 and keeping the Hawks in the game for the moment.
Immediately after Smith’s stroke of luck, the Wolves used a 13-3 run sparked by Pekovic and Shved to stretch their lead back to 16 with about four minutes remaining in the quarter. The teams traded buckets amid sloppy play to finish out the period, and the Wolves were able to take an 85-71 lead into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter quickly turned dicey for the home squad, as the Wolves saw their substantial lead dwindle in swift fashion. Minnesota started the frame by committing three personal fouls in the opening 33 seconds and eventually allowing the Hawks to cut the lead all the way down to just six points with seven minutes remaining. The Wolves looked exhausted on defense and on the boards, and the offense eventually fell into the same stagnant trap as it has many times before in recent games.
With Rubio in the game at the start of the quarter, the Wolves ended up being too unselfish, with multiple players passing up open shots and lanes to the basket. Once Rubio left the game and Ridnour and Shved took turns running the offense with the starters on the floor, the ball movement all but ceased to exist as Luke and Alexey took turns hoisting up mid-range jump shots and embarking on kamikaze drives to the basket. Eventually, the Wolves lost sharpshooter Kyle Korver on a pair of Atlanta possessions for wide-open three pointers. One was on a broken play, and the second was on a designed screen by Zaza Pachulia on the wing, with Korver flaring out behind the arc for a wide open shot. The pick by Pachulia was remarkably effective, rendering Ridnour’s attempt at contesting the shot futile, and Pekovic failed to recognize the play soon enough and barely managed to get out of the paint to challenge Korver.
Korver’s shot cut Wolves’ lead to 100-97 with about a minute and a half remaining. Ridnour and Al Horford traded baskets, followed by a Lou Williams layup and a Pekovic basket on a Smith goaltend. Horford went right at Pekovic and scored, cutting the lead back to 104-103. After Shved dribbled blindly around the perimeter for the first 15+ seconds of the shot clock, he found a wide-open Dante Cunningham flaring off of a screen onto the left wing. Pachulia had stayed with Shved, and Cunningham calmly knocked down a 20-foot jump shot to expand the Wolves lead to 106-103 with just 15.9 seconds remaining.
After an Atlanta timeout, Cunningham performed his impressive routine of intercepting an in-bounds pass in a one possession game with very little time remaining. Horford failed to seal Cunningham on his back in the post as Smith lazily in-bounded the ball in Horford’s general direction. Cunningham darted out from behind Horford, secured the ball, and Ridnour knocked down two free throws to ice the game, giving the Wolves an impressive, albeit closer-than-it-should-have-been victory. As wonderful as the team looked in the second quarter and towards the end of the third quarter (not coincidentally, coinciding largely with Rubio’s court time, as he was a game-high +10), the fourth quarter was yet another glimpse at the futility that has plagued the Wolves’ offense at times this season.
- Pekovic was the biggest reason for the Wolves’ large halftime lead, logging 12 points and 10 rebounds before the break. Just like most frontcourts before them, Horford, Smith, and Pachulia struggled to contain him. Pekovic also kept the Wolves afloat late in the second half when the offense was struggling to produce, and finished the game with a 25 points on 9 of 15 shooting (7 of 8 from the free throw line), 18 rebounds, while chipping in a block and an assist.
- Williams also had a fantastic first half, going into the break with 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting, including 3 of 4 from three-point range. He entered the game with 7 minutes remaining in the first quarter after Cunningham picked up his second foul. Once Rubio entered the game, Williams’ play ratcheted up yet another notch. The chemistry between the two is undeniable, and Rubio seems to have complete confidence in Williams. Williams finished the game with a line of 17 points on 7 of 13 shooting (3-5 from distance) with just one rebound and one assist.
- The first three quarters of this game were exceedingly impressive for the home team, given the opponent and emotional letdown after finding out that Kevin Love will be out for the foreseeable future and subsequently being blown out at home by Portland on Saturday night. The return of Pekovic and Rubio was the key to the game, and here’s hoping that Rubio’s back and the rest of his body are able to hold up and not overcompensate for his knee moving forward, especially if the Wolves need to secure a playoff spot without the services of Love.
- Rubio played his best game of the season since his debut against the Mavericks approximately a month ago, finishing with 4 points on zero field goal attempts (4-6 from the line) with 8 assists, 4 steals, and just 2 turnovers in 19 minutes. The Wolves’ will take that line from Rubio every single time at this juncture in his recovery process. After the game, Rubio told the media that he would play in his first back-to-back game tomorrow night in Oklahoma City.
- Darren Wolfson as ESPN Twin Cities 1500 AM continues to do fantastic work in covering the Wolves, and he has some interesting nuggets in a short column posted just prior to Tuesday night’s win over the Hawks. Wolfson cites a source that says that the odds of the Wolves making a trade before the deadline are better than not. Also, if Love ends up needing surgery on his fractured metacarpal, he could miss up to three months and potentially the rest of the regular season.
- The Timberwolves will head to Oklahoma City for a contest against the Thunder on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. that will be attended by yours truly.