The second night of a back-to-back is never easy, but playing the Bobcats is about as easy as it gets. Of course, two of the Bobcats eleven wins have now come against your Minnesota Timberwolves, and by a total of three points. A scenario that Wolves fans have seen play out far too many times played out yet again in downtown Charlotte: Timberwolves jump out to a large lead, the lead slips to around ten points at halftime, they allow the opponent back into the game in the second-half and eventually lose. This particular tilt had more intrigue than usual in the fourth quarter, but it ultimately led to the very same sad, Timberwolvesy place it seemingly always does.
Andrei Kirilenko stole yet another opening tap for a layup, but was raked across the face and had to go to the locker room for six stitches above his right eye just fourteen seconds into the contest and did not return to the end of the quarter. Mickael Gelabale entered the game and the Wolves did not miss a beat, jumping out to an impressive 14-4 lead. Luke Ridnour started the game extremely well, throwing two beautiful alley-oops to Greg Stiemsma while finishing the quarter with 11 points on 4 of 4 shooting.
The Wolves’ offense was as active as it has been in recent memory, with solid ball movement and energy. The defense slipped towards the end of the quarter, allowing a 9-2 run by the Bobcats while J.J. Barea’s ball-stopping stalled Minnesota’s offensive attack. Barea did hit an impressive pull-up 32-footer at the buzzer to propel the Wolves to a first quarter season high in points to take a 34-22 lead into the second quarter.
The second quarter began to feel a little bit like the horrible loss the Wolves’ suffered a couple of weeks ago in New Orleans, when they were up big in the first half on the Hornets and lost in embarrassing fashion. The Bobcats pulled to within single digits before a peculiar small lineup consisting of Rubio, Ridnour, Barea, Kirlienko, and Cunningham stemmed the tide and helped the Wolves hang onto a 58-47 lead at halftime.
The third quarter was even sloppier than the first period was, with both teams struggling to generate any semblance of offensive production. The movement that the Wolves so impressively exhibited in the first quarter was gone, and they began to rely on long jump shots and kamikaze drives to the hoop. The Wolves still managed to hold a 67-54 lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Charlotte’s sudden tenacity on the offensive boards led to a 9-0 run that pulled the Bobcats to within four points. The teams traded baskets for the last couple of minutes, with the Wolves holding a disappointing 77-73 lead heading into the fourth period.
The Bobcats started the fourth quarter with a 6-2 run to tie the game, coming all the way back from what was once an 18-point deficit. The run that started midway through the third quarter reached 27-12 when Charlotte took the lead on a Kemba Walker jumper, and eventually hit 37-16. Things quickly slipped from bad-to-worse for the visitors, as the Bobcats opened up a 91-83 lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the game.
After a Timberwolves’ timeout, Ridnour immediately converted a deep three-pointer before hitting a mid-range jumper after a Rubio steal and assist, cutting the Bobcats’ lead down to three points in a matter of seconds. The Bobcats began to struggle mightily on offense, but reached the penalty with six minutes left in the quarter and began to do damage at the charity stripe.
The Wolves and Bobcats traded blows down the stretch, with acting head coach Terry Porter electing to roll with the same miniscule lineup that had some success in the second quarter: Rubio, Ridnour, Barea, Kirielnko, and Cunningham. Unfortunately, Kirilenko had an uncharacteristically rough fourth quarter, committing a couple of silly personal fouls that sent the Bobcats to the free throw line, along with taking an ill-advised three-pointer early in the shot clock. With the Wolves in the penalty so early in the frame, silly fouls were costly.
Barea hit a couple of big three-point shots, the latter of which tied the game with under two minutes to play. After a defensive stop by the Wolves and a Minnesota timeout, Rubio came around a screen and converted a reverse layup while Gerald Henderson elected to shade towards an open Ridnour instead of stopping Rubio’s shot attempt. With the Bobcats down by two points with about thirty seconds remaining, the ball was on the floor and knocked loose from their possession three separate times, eventually rolling into the backcourt. Charlotte recovered the ball as the Wolves avoided fouling, and Henderson pump-faked Kirilenko into the air and hit a deep, off-balanced three pointer with under five seconds remaining.
After a Wolves’ timeout, Barea drove hard to his left, fading sideways from about fifteen feet from the basket on the left wing, belly-flopping across the floor while lofting an air-ball virtually straight up in the air. No foul was called on the play, likely due to Barea’s reputation as one of the leagues’ best (worst?) floppers. Replays appear to show Walker putting both hands on Barea’s hip/waist area (a foul), but Barea’s over-acting and embellishing of the contact probably caused the officials to look the other way and swallow their whistles, ending the game.
The stroke of unluckiness that blindsided the Wolves in the waning seconds is absolutely typical and expected of Minnesota’s hometown squad, and while there was plenty of blame to be passed around in the wake of the Wolves choking on an 18-point lead, this just felt….expected. The team’s record now sits at 17-24, and losing back-to-back games to the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference does not at all suggest that the Wolves will be making their long-awaited return to the playoffs.
– For as much as the Bobcats’ announcers (correctly) continued to harp on the fact that Walker, Henderson, and even Sessions should be able to exploit the Wolves’ smallish back-court, Luke Ridnour had an impressive evening. He was a key reason for the Wolves’ early lead, and helped them come back from the eight-point fourth quarter deficit as well. His final line of 22 points (9-14 FGs, 3-5 3pt FGs, 1-1 FTs), 7 assists, 7 rebounds, one steal and one block is exactly what the Wolves would expect of any prototypical starting shooting guard, despite Ridnour’s modest stature.
– Ridnour was really the only Wolves’ player that had an above-average game. Barea’s line of 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists with just 2 turnovers was impressive, but his game was, quite literally, a microcosm of his overall abilities. He was hot and cold, up and down, and jacked up 18 shots in his 32 minutes. And while +/- is absolutely not a statistic that is airtight or should be solely relied on, this is certainly telling: Barea was a team-low -18 (!), while Rubio was a team-high +23. That’s right, a 41-point differential.
– The Wolves play their next six games at Target Center, and if they don’t manage to win four or five of them, well….it’s over. Here’s hoping they can go on a run and hold down the fort until the cavalry (or at least Adelman, Pekovic, Shved, and Budinger) arrive. The rest of the Western Conference is cooperating, for the most part, but the Wolves will eventually have to win some game. A 2-9 record under Porter is not cutting it.
– The Wolves will kick-off their six-game homestand against the Los Angeles Clippers at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, January 30.