Coming into Saturday night’s Rockets-Timberwolves tilt, Houston had lost six consecutive games to Minnesota’s five straight. Something had to give, and the relatively fresh legs of two new Wolves’ signees were enough to push the home team over the top. The game was far from aesthetically pleasing, but featured some feel-good vibes down the stretch, courtesy of AK-47, an improving Ricky Rubio, and new-comers Chris Johnson and Mickael Gelabale.
With Dante Cunningham out of commission due to sickness, the Wolves were down to seven players, in addition to Johnson and Gelabale. Keep in mind, two of those seven players are Lou Amundson and Greg Stiemsma, neither of which is very good. Johnson spent training camp and the pre-season with the team and was a final cut, but Gelabale had not practiced with the Wolves until the pre-game shoot-around on Saturday morning.
The Wolves started the game with the 6’ 1” Luke Ridnour attempting to guard James Harden, but good energy and solid defensive rotations by the home team helped keep him check. Rubio was also aggressive in the early going, looking less tentative than in previous games, even drawing a foul on a drive to the basket on the first possession of the game. The Wolves were able to take a 19-10 lead before giving up a 6-0 Houston run that helped Houston get to within 21-16 at the end of the first quarter.
On Chris Johnson’s first possession as a Timberwolf, he kept good spacing and threw down an impressive alley-oop that bailed out a flailing J.J. Barea. A lineup of of Rubio, Barea, Gelabale, Amundson, and Johnson played okay, but the offense relied too heavily on Barea to “create” offense, which consisted of pounding the ball into the floor for 18+ seconds and hoisting a deep three-point shot or a wild contested layup in the lane. The Rockets managed to pull ahead by the score of 31-30, but it would be their last lead of the evening.
The Wolves went on a 14-2 run, keyed by an impressive stretch from Derrick Williams that included a three pointer, a pair of free throws after an aggressive move to the basket, and a steal. The Wolves’ defense was outstanding, but the team’s rebounding continued to suffer with no Kevin Love or Nikola Pekovic in the middle. Greg Stiemsma, who started against the Rockets to counter the long Omer Asik, is not a particularly adept rebounder, and it showed while playing alongside the undersized Williams and Amundson. Stiemsma’s value is in small bursts off the bench to protect the rim alongside Love, but next to similarly offensively-challenged big men that are undersized, his value is minimal. With some hustle plays and bad turnovers by the Wolves, the Rockets were able to go on a 5-0 run to end the half and trailed by the score of 44-38 at the break.
Rockets’ coach Kevin McHale elected to bench Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin to start the second half, and while the Rockets responded with more hustle, they simply could not make shots. Rubio drew three fouls on backup point guard Patrick Beverly in a matter of moments, and Ridnour continued to do an impressive job staying in front of Harden. Nearly all of Harden’s shots were contested, and if he managed to get into the lane, Minnesota’s defense collapsed and Houston’s shooters were unable to convert their relatively open opportunities.
The Wolves mixed in some zone defense once it was clear that Houston was struggling from the outside (save for Carlos Delfino, who played well and shot 4 of 9 from long distance for the game). Asik played awfully, and Stiemsma actually did a good job putting a body on him, drawing multiple offensive fouls and rendering him a non-factor. Asik hardly saw the floor in the second half and picked up his fifth personal foul quickly. He finished with just 16 minutes played and just 2 points, 5 rebounds, zero blocks, and 3 turnovers.
When the Wolves sat Rubio midway through the third quarter, it became apparent that the Wolves miss his ball-handling and composure when he is on the bench. While a backcourt of Barea and Ridnour is certainly capable on some level, they are prone to jacking up off-balance shots early in the shot clock and turning the ball over in the most head-scratching manners. The Rockets managed to outscore the Wolves in the third quarter, drawing the deficit to just four points at 63-59.
The Wolves started the fourth quarter with a lineup of Barea, Gelabale, Kirilenko, Amundson, and Johnson. With a group of five players on the floor that always play hard, the Wolves stemmed what had been an 8-2 Houston run and opened the lead back to double digits. Johnson came into the game, corralled an offensive rebound and put it back up for two points. Shortly thereafter, he saved a ball from going out of bounds underneath Houston’s basket and turned and sprinted up the court. He ran directly to the rim and Ridnour lofted him a tough pass, but the supremely athletic Johnson caught the pass with one hand slammed it through the hoop behind his head.
Later in the fourth quarter, Johnson contested consecutive shots by Houston, blocking one and eventually grabbing yet another rebound. In just 18 minutes, Chris Johnson put up a line of 15 points (4-4 FGs, 7-8 FTs), 6 rebounds, and a block. As advertised, Gelabale played impressive defense on Harden, forcing him into an embarrassing turnover in which he tried to initiate contact with Gelabale but simply fell out of bounds. The Wolves shadowed Gelabale with reinforcements in case Harden got past him, but he largely checked the Rockets’ star one-on-one in the fourth quarter.
Acting coach Terry Porter rode a lineup of Rubio, Ridnour, Gelabale, Kirilenko, and Johnson for the majority of the fourth quarter. With the Rockets in the penalty down the stretch, Rubio deftly sliced the defense apart, finding open shooters, splitting defenders in the lane, and hitting Johnson rolling to the hoop, often forcing Houston to foul and send the Wolves to the line. After a couple of offensive rebounds and tip-ins by Kirilenko and a pair of defensive stands with just over two minutes remaining, the game was over, with the Wolves eventually coasting to a 92-79 victory.
- This is exactly how the Wolves need to win with so many injured players and so few players that are capable of scoring: ugly. The Wolves played very good defense, and while they were admittedly helped greatly by extremely poor shooting by the Rockets (32.1%), the Wolves tenacity and effort in contesting shots certainly deserves some recognition. The zone that Wolves occasionally transitioned into caused the Rockets to hoist up 31 three-pointers while converting only 8 (25.8%).
- The Wolves again leaned heavily on free throw shooting, getting to the line for an astonishing 36 free throw attempts. They were finally able to connect at a reasonable clip, making 29 for an 80.6% rate on the evening.
- In case you weren’t sure, Ricky Rubio (even 70% of him) is better than Jeremy Lin.
- Kirilenko played a game-high 42 minutes, putting up 21 points on 8 of 11 shooting with 11 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists.
- New Timberwolves Johnson and Gelabale combined for the first 23 points of the fourth quarter for Minnesota, a telling statistic that sheds light on the following: a) The Wolves have a painfully thin roster at the moment, b) the Wolves appear to have done a decent job of finding replacements that can defend and play hard, which, realistically speaking, is as good as they could do with the flotsam on the free agent market in mid-January, and c) Ricky Rubio did a fantastic job finding the open player and keeping everyone involved.
Rubio passed to Gelabale on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, leading to an open jumper and two trips to the free throw line. In addition, there are certainly less athletic big men that could be rolling to the hoop and receiving Rubioops than Chris Johnson. Think Good Anthony Randolph from last season….we could be in for some highlights over the next 10+ days, depending on how long Johnson sticks around.
- I always prepare for how awful Houston’s announcing team is when forced to watch them on League Pass, but it is still a jarring experience. Bill Worrell is an atrocious play-by-play announcer, coming across as whiny and unwilling to admit that the Rockets could ever do anything wrong. In addition to the Rockets-are-perfect-and-the-refs-are-garbage bit, Worrell simply says things matter-of-factly that are simply untrue. It is one thing to make a mistake, like confusing Lou Amundson for Andrei Kirilenko (yes, this is something that happened), but the following things were all haphazardly relayed to Worrell’s unsuspecting audience:
- Chase Budinger is out for the year. (His timeline was recently bumped up to late February from mid-March. It has never been a season-ending injury.)
- Gelabale has played on many NBA teams in the past couple of seasons. (He has only played for the Seattle SuperSonics, with his last NBA season coming in 2008. Gelabale has been largely been playing in Europe since then, and the Timberwolves are his second NBA team.)
- This was Chris Johnson’s first ever NBA game. (He has played in 41 NBA games for three different teams over the past two NBA seasons.)
Former Rocket Matt Bullard is sub-par as a color commentator and too often falls into the ridiculous homer-trap set by his partner, but is generally fair when discussing foul calls/non-calls and understands the game, obviously. I’m not sure that the same can be said about Mr. Worrell.
- The Wolves will travel to Atlanta to face the Hawks in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day matinee at 1 p.m. CST on Monday.