At this point in the 2012-13 season, there are a handful of games that the Timberwolves have a legitimate shot to win, and a home game against New Orleans certainly falls into that category. The Wolves welcomed back Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic, who had missed eight and seven games in a row, respectively. Neither played particularly well as a whole, but both were key down the stretch in a game that was entertaining and close throughout, coming down to the last possession.
The first half was well played and hotly contested. In a strange twist, Robin Lopez outplayed Pekovic, who was clearly working off a great deal of rust from his long layover. The Wolves’ defensive rotations were anything but crisp for most of the first quarter, and the communication between Pekovic, Kirilenko, and Williams in the frontcourt appeared to be especially poor.
The Timberwolves were able to take a 39-34 lead about four minutes into the second quarter before New Orleans went on a 13-0 run. The Wolves did not score again until 4:55 remained in the half, and there was no offensive flow at all until Rubio re-entered the game and helped get the home team with the score of 50-52 at the break.
The Rubio-Greivis Vasquez match-up was intriguing throughout the game. Consider the 14 shots that the Hornets’ point guard managed to hoist up early, converting 5 of his attempts en route to 10 first half points. Rubio, by contrast, was much more efficient, shooting 4 of 6 from the field and scoring 9 points.
The third quarter was the start of the Derrick Williams Show. He continued his solid defense on Anthony Davis, even blocking a dunk attempt from the athletic big man. At the end of the third frame, the Wolves were out-shooting the Hornets 58%-48%, mostly covering their serious deficiencies in the paint and on the glass throughout Sunday evening’s tilt.
The Wolves pulled ahead and took a 76-73 lead going into the fourth quarter. The final frame was a back-and-forth affair, with neither team holding a lead of more than four points. The Derrick Williams Show was in full swing, with the frustrating second-year player hitting floaters in the lane, open three-pointers, and even a twisting, turn-around, baseline jumper with the shot-clock winding down.
With about a minute and a half remaining, Rubio threw the ball directly to Al-Farouq Aminu of the Hornets for a turnover and what looked to be an easy fastbreak dunk. However, Rubio caught up with Aminu and fouled him on the attempt, and the Hornets forward proceeded to miss both free throws, giving the ball back to the Wolves trailing 93-91 with 1:25 on the clock.
The Wolves ran their next possession through the scorching Williams. Starting on the left wing, Williams spun past his defender and commanded a double team in the paint, leaving Pekovic open underneath the basket for a drop-off pass and dunk. Pekovic was unable to handle the pass, however, and the Wolves turned the ball over. On the other end of the court, Rubio fouled Vasquez, who made both free throws to take a 95-91 lead.
After a Wolves’ timeout, they cleared the right side of the floor and Rubio got to the rim, converting a left-handed finger roll and getting pushed in the back by Lopez, a critical mistake. The Wolves’ point guard converted the three-point play, getting the Wolves to within one point with 48.7 seconds remaining. The Hornets cleared out and let Eric Gordon go one-on-one with Luke Ridnour – not a terrible option. Gordon, however, settled for a fade-away jumper from about 18 feet, which he missed.
The Wolves came the other way without taking a time out. Williams went straight to the basket, absorbing a lot of contact and just missing a layup with no foul called. Pekovic pulled down the rebound and was hammered by Ryan Anderson, and the hulking center stepped to the line and calmly knocked down two free throws to give the Wolves a 96-95 lead with 14.5 seconds left.
The Hornets sent Gordon at Ridnour again, and this time Gordon got around him and headed to the rim. Defensive sub Kirilenko rotated over just in time and swatted the ball away at the last second, corralled the rebound, and was fouled by the Hornets. He made one of two free throws, giving the Hornets one last shot to tie or win the game, down two points with 4.6 seconds left. Rubio pressured Vasquez heavily on the perimeter, and the ball was swung to Roger Mason Jr. in the corner, whose shot was blocked by Kirilenko as time expired.
Curiously, sharpshooter Ryan Anderson was involved in the Hornets’ final play only as a screener, and was never in a position to receive a pass beyond the arc. Despite being cold of late, Anderson is always a better choice from three-point range than the shaky Vasquez. On the other side of things, Kirilenko had not played well at all on Sunday and was not receiving minutes down the stretch, but coach Rick Adelman entered him into the game during a key defense possession, and Kirilenko came through.
A few notes….
– Rubio’s stat watch: 16 points (7 of 11 from the field, 1-1 3pt, 1-1 FTs), 6 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and 3 turnovers in 35 minutes. Williams again led the team in minutes, scoring 28 points on 9 of 16 from the field, 3 of 5 from deep, and 7 of 10 from the free throw line. He only had 7 rebounds as the Wolves struggled with Davis and Lopez in the paint. Pekovic finished with 13 points and 6 rebounds in 24 minutes in his return to the court.
– The Wolves were out-rebounded 41 to 27 by the Hornets, and the only way the Wolves were able to overcome that deficit was by shooting a sizzling 56.3% from the field.
– The Wolves play again on Monday evening in Memphis, with tip-off scheduled for 7:00 CST.