When the Wolves came back from a 22-point deficit to beat the Nets in Brooklyn on the second night of a back-to-back during the first week of the season, there was no Ricky Rubio and no Kevin Love. There was, however, a Nikola Pekovic, an Alexey Shved, and a Chase Budinger. Of the five aforementioned players, only a not-yet-at-full-strength Rubio played on Wednesday night in Minneapolis, but the absence of Pekovic was the biggest blow. Without his presence on the boards and wide body on defense, Brook Lopez was free to do as he pleased on the offensive end. More importantly, there was not an offensive threat to wear him down and get him into foul trouble on the other end of the floor. A combination of Lopez vs. Greg Stiemsma early, Deron Williams vs. Luke Ridnour throughout, and C.J. Watson (yes, C.J. Watson) vs. J.J. Barea late sealed the Wolves’ fate as none of those matchups swung the Wolves’ direction.
Wednesday night’s tilt started out about as badly as I can remember a game starting for the Timberwolves, as they did not score a basket until the 8:30 mark of the first quarter and the Brooklyn Nets jumped out to a 14-2 lead before five minutes had passed on the game clock. The Nets physical back-court is large when playing against any team, much less a team starting two point guards in Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour. The combination of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Gerald Wallace was too much to slow down early, as the size and tenacity of the Nets buried the Wolves in an early hole.
The Wolves outscored the Nets by the score of 15-10 over the latter part of the first frame, and were able to pull within 24-17 by the start of the second quarter. The Timberwolves’ bench provided some much needed energy for the home team, and impressive play from 10-day contract signee Chris Johnson sparked the squad. An offensive rebound and put-back brought the Wolves to within 26-25 with about 8:30 remaining in the second quarter, but the Wolves struggled to close out the quarter and the physical play of Deron Williams again was too much for Rubio and Ridnour as the Nets led at halftime by the score of 53-42.
The Wolves started the second half with the energy that was sorely lacking in the first quarter, but the entire second half. Derrick Williams started the third quarter “floating” in the exact manner that coach Rick Adelman accused him of doing throughout last season, missing awkward fade-away jump shots early in the shot clock and driving tentatively to the basket. He played better as the quarter went on, scoring nine points in the frame and helping the Wolves get back into the game, including a beautiful reverse layup on an old-fashioned three point play with the assist coming between Williams’ legs, courtesy of Rubio.
The Wolves got the score to 68-62 to start the fourth quarter, and great defense by Johnson and Dante Cunningham keyed a mini-run by the Wolves and got them within 68-66. Cunningham hit a couple of jumpers to keep pace with the Nets before C.J. Watson drew four fouls in a row against J.J. Barea and five in a 2:44 minutes span. Watson scored on Barea at will, including a huge three pointer that pushed the Nets’ lead back to six points at 80-74 after the Wolves had cut it to one possession with a 6-0 run.
The Nets continued to receive the benefit of the doubt from the officials as the fourth quarter wore on, and the Wolves were unable to respond as Brooklyn pulled away. Rubio did not re-enter the game at all after exiting with a minute remaining in the third quarter. Acting head coach Terry Porter had Rubio up off the bench with about four minutes remaining in the game, but the Nets continued to pull away and he never saw the court. The Wolves simply could not stop the massive Nets’ back-court from simply shooting over their smaller guards, and the hot hands of Johnson, Williams, and Watson buried the Wolves with a barrage of deep jumpers, eventually resulting in a final score of 91-83.
– This game was simply a case of being out-manned and, frankly, not as good as their opponents. If Nikola Pekovic (thigh contusion) and Alexey Shved (sprained ankle) had been available, the outcome ceratinly could have looked different. In Brooklyn, Pekovic gave Brook Lopez an extremely tough time, whereas Lopez had no trouble disposing of Greg Stiemsma, the Wolves’ replacement starting center. While Stiemsma was again in the starting lineup, he finished with a team-low 17 minutes played. And for good reason; he was hopeless in guarding Lopez and typically useless on the offensive end of the floor. One wonders if Johnson might get a chance to start on the road against Washington or Charlotte this weekend.
– As for Johnson: another very impressive game. The final line of 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 assists looks good, but it was the manner in which he played his 24 minutes that was so impressive. He shot 6-10 from the field, although one of the missed shots was a deep two-point jump shot that he heaved up at the buzzer. His makes included four dunks, an offensive put-back, and an impressive turnaround jumper over Lopez on the baseline down the stretch. Paired with Cunningham, he also gave Lopez and Humphries a rough go of it down low, altering shots in addition to his three blocks. He did not share the court with Rubio very much, but one can only imagine how fun it will be to watch the two of them play extended minutes together. A starting lineup of Rubio, Ridnour, Kirilenko, Williams, and Johnson would be intriguing….
– I mentioned the officials…the Wolves shot just six free throws against the Nets, one away from a franchise record low. The Nets shot 16 free throws, and while they were generally more aggressive, things got a bit ridiculous late in the game.
– Rubio was more aggressive going to the basket against the Nets, which was doubly impressive considering the size of the guards he was playing against. He was a little more careless with the ball, turning it over four times in 24 minutes, and appeared to jam his thumb or injure his left hand in some manner late in the third quarter. He did score 5 points with 6 assists and 3 steals in the game, and continues to look more comfortable on the court.
– The Wolves will be in our nation’s capital on Friday night, facing the Washington Wizards at 6:00 CST.