Feb 13, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson (25) guarded by Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) in the fourth quarter at Target Center. The Jazz defeated the Wolves 97-93. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Utah Jazz Hold On, Overcome Rubio's Near Triple-Double - Jazz 97, Wolves 93

Despite the Wolves’ and Jazz’ best efforts to miss every single shot in the first quarter, eventually something had to give between the two teams. The Jazz’ offense revolves around the post combination of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and the wing play of injured wing Gordon Hayward. The Wolves, as a general rule, have been going how Nikola Pekovic goes down low, which all too often has meant the inability to get him the ball. Neither Jefferson nor Millsap are particularly adept defenders, but Jefferson is long and Millsap is aggressive on the boards – typically a recipe that leads to disaster for Pekovic, and in turn, the Wolves.

The thin backcourts of the Jazz and Wolves were on full display on Wednesday night at the Target Center during a hideous first quarter. There was good energy and aggressiveness by both teams, but the shots were not falling on either end. The Wolves played solid enough defense, but only being ahead by the score of 17-10 at the end of the frame had to be considered a disappointment given Utah’s extreme offensive struggles. Minnesota was given a gift when the Jazz shot just 5 of 20 from the field, but the home team was unable to capitalize.

The stellar interior defense played by Pekovic and Derrick Williams in the first quarter carried over into the early part of the second period. When Greg Stiemsma entered the game, however, the Wolves began to struggle down low and on the boards. After Minnesota had a 20-10 lead with ten minutes remaining in the first half, the Jazz went on a 14-0 run, taking a 24-20 advantage with about six and a half minutes on the clock.

The score was 42-40 in favor of the Jazz at halftime, and the third quarter continued with the same poor offensive play from both squads. When the Wolves trailed by a score of 64-63 with a minute left in the third quarter, it was as close as the home team would get for the remainder of the game.

The Wolves once again struggled to get Pekovic involved down low. Admittedly, Nikola struggled a little bit to convert on his attempts (7 of 16 from the field), but again – when he is the only real offensive option, he needs to get the ball more often. The lack of ball movement at times is concerning, and a huge reason why the Wolves have been unable to salvage games against some of other struggling teams that have defeated them.

One characteristic of the Wolves that has remained steady throughout this injury-riddled season has been the refusal to be resigned to defeat, even in games that appear to be over. In stark contrast to last year’s edition, the current group of players takes on the persona of their never-say-die point guards, led by Rubio and J.J. Barea. Wednesday night against the Jazz, the Wolves trailed 90-77 with 2:50 remaining in the game, and managed to go on a 14-3 run and pull within 93-91 with 14.3 seconds left on the clock. Down the stretch, however, former-Wolf Randy Foye converted on all four of his free throw attempts and the Wolves eventually fell by the final score of 97-93.

Of course, professionals should play hard. It is, in fact, their occupation and it (should be) a given that they will do their best. But like clockwork, Wolves fans that have seen this team quit near the end of the past few seasons are undoubtedly seeing a different attitude in 2013. Rubio embodies everything that fans should want in a star player, and tonight, Rubio’s hustle, tenacity, and – outside of his shooting percentage – stat line backed up his constant words of encouragement to his teammates and fans alike.

Some thoughts….

– Rubio’s stat line: 18 points (3 of 13 from the field and 12 of 13 from the free throw line), 10 assists, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, 1 block, and just 2 turnovers in 40 minutes of court time. Two of Rubio’s baskets were jumpers taken in rhythm (one was an and-one that he converted from 20+ feet away from the basket), and a good number of his misses were flat-footed set shots. More of the same, but with an uptick in confidence. His tenacity down the stretch to lead the 14-3 run was nothing short of sheer willpower and determination

– The Wolves’ bench was horrific in this game, shooting 4 for 31 from the field. The starting frontcourt for the Wolves easily outplayed the Jazz’, as Tinsley and Foye shot a combined 3 for 13 for 13 points and 4 assists, while Ridnour and Rubio piled up 36 points, 12 assists, 12 rebounds, and 4 steals with just 3 turnovers. The frontcourt of Millsap and Jefferson was too much for the Wolves’ thin corps of big men, and that was enough to seal the game.

– The Wolves continue to run some very good sets to start quarters and immediately after timeouts. I don’t remember last year’s edition of the Adelman Wolves being this proficient on completing plays called from the sideline. The first set of the game was a well-executed pass from Pekovic in the low-post to a cutting Rubio, who missed. Followed by a missed tip-in by Pekovic. But still….it was well-executed. The bevy of plays that Adelman loves to run for Luke Ridnour out of timeouts was especially useful against the usually-lost-on-defense Randy Foye and Alec Burks, leading to several open mid-range jumpers and 18 points on 7 of 15 shooting for Ridnour.

– Alexey Shved was absolutely atrocious against the Jazz, and didn’t even see the court in the second half due to his horrible first half minutes. Shved missed all four shots that he took (badly, I might add) and had one ugly turnover to go along with it. By contrast, Derrick Williams put up a very impressive 24 points (7 of 17 field goals, 2 of 5 three pointers, 8 of 11 free throws) that included three made free throws to pull the Wolves within two points with 14.3 seconds to play. He finally earned and received playing time, finishing the game with 37 minutes played.

– Anyone else tired of hearing about the poor Lakers and the poor Celtics? I mean, Leandro Barbosa is a nice player and it’s terrible that he tore his ACL. Same with Jared Sullinger and his back injury. But come on….which all injured team wins this game: Rondo, Barbosa, Sullinger versus Rubio, Budinger, Kirilenko, Love? Fine, Rubio is healthy now, but he missed nearly half the season and has been limited in another 20 games. I’d still take Bud/AK/Love over Rondo/Barbosa/Sullinger in a 3-on-3 game. Just sayin’.

– Our own Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved will be playing in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night in Houston. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. CST on ESPN. They are the only Wolves involved in the festivities, so we will have reaction and comments on the exhibition right here at DWW on Friday evening.

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Tags: Al Jefferson Minnesota Timberwolves Paul Millsap Ricky Rubio Utah Jazz

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