Coming into Wednesday evening’s tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers in downtown Minneapolis, the Timberwolves were just 1-5 on the second game of back-to-back situations so far this season. The only win was a home game against Boston after losing in Denver the night before, and they dominated the Celtics down the stretch to pull away and win rather handily.
This appeared to be an easy(ish) back-end to convert into the left-hand column. The Sixers, while being markedly better than anyone could have expected, were missing their Rookie of the Year candidate point guard, Michael Carter-Williams. They’d still won just 7 games on the season, and their last three victories were of the lucky sort, all coming in overtime.
So you’d be forgiven if you thought this would be a walk in the park for the home team. Ugly, possibly a low-scoring affair by Wolves standards; sure. To be expected. But down 19 points multiple times in the first half? Absolutely not. Down 13 points at halftime? Wouldn’t have thunk it. But it happened.
The first quarter really could not have gone worse for the Wolves. After starting sloppy and sluggish on the second night of a back-to-back but still hanging within 6 points midway through the frame, the Sixers went on a ridiculous 20-3 run as the Wolves played about as terribly as humanly possible on defense, refusing to contest any of Philadelphia’s open jumpers or think to stick a hand, arm, or leg in the passing lanes.
On offense, the Wolves just missed a bunch of open shots, layups and three-pointers alike. Kevin Martin shot 0 for 6 from the field and 1-2 from the line. Love was 2 for 6, including 0 for 2 from long range. And Corey Brewer was 0 for 4, with all but one of his shots coming from right at the rim.
Only Ricky Rubio showed any life, and played quite well with 9 points on 3 of 5 shooting, 1 assist, and 2 steals. He was active in the passing lanes on defense and aggressive on offense, just like last night in Detroit.
The second quarter didn’t start much better, with the bench + Pekovic lineup predictably struggling to get any offense going. Thankfully, the Sixers offense finally stalled as well, although no thanks to the Wolves still-lackadaisical defense. In fact, the Wolves navigated a (hideous) 8-0 run over the opening 4 1/2 minutes of the second quarter. That’s right: both teams were that bad. There were 8 total points scored before the 7:30 mark.
But the Wolves gave it right back as their starters started to reenter the game. Martin continued his ice cold shooting, and the defense was every bit as bad as it was early. The Sixers pushed the lead all the way back to 19 points with just a few minutes remaining in the half, but a flurry of free throw attempts by Kevin Love pulled the Wolves within 61-48 at the break. And it felt like a victory.
Minnesota carried their push through to the third quarter, ultimately going on a 20-2 run that spanned halftime and pulling to within four points. The Sixers, for their part, stemmed the tide impressively, and left the Wolves to vacillate between deficits of 6 and 8 points for much of the rest of the third quarter, until one final push in the final two minutes.
A three-pointer from the left wing just before 145 mark by Rubio tied the game up, before Spencer Hawes pushed the Sixers ahead again with a three of his own. The Wolves’ offense stalled on their final couple possessions in the period, and trailed 81-78 heading into the final frame after outscoring the visitors by a 30-20 score in the third quarter.
A 10-0 run by the hybrid bench-starter unit of Barea, Martin, Hummel, Cunningham, and Pekovic got the Wolves into the lead for good, although it doesn’t mean that things didn’t get dicey down the stretch. The Sixers hung around until the final minute, and the Wolves used their starters, minus Martin and plus Hummel, to pull away.
Hummel had an entirely unexpected 10 points in the fourth quarter, and Love and Pekovic pounded the glass while Rubio continued his fantastic play, and the Wolves ultimately won by a 106-99 score. The ball movement on the offensive end was much improved, but the overall intensity on the defensive side of the ball was really what set the Wolves’ play down the stretch apart from their putrid first half showing.
– Ricky Rubio backed up his stellar performance in Detroit on Tuesday night with another fantastic performance against Tony Wroten and former training camp teammate and 2013 Wolves’ second round pick Lorenzo Brown. He put up 21 points on 5 of 12 shooting from the field (2 of 3 from deep and 9 of 10 from the line), along with 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, and just 3 turnovers.
He had a couple huge steals late in the game and played another all-around fantastic contest. Here’s hoping it’s a sign of things to come for a still-improving point guard.
– Kevin Love did his thing again, despite a slow start. He was huge in the second and third quarters, bringing the Wolves all the way back into the game and ultimately finishing with 26 points (9 of 21 FGs, 1 of 6 3PT, 7 of 8 FT), 15 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers.
– Martin had what was probably his worst game of the season, scoring just 5 points and shooting 1 of 9 from the floor, with his only made basket being an uncontested layup. He reportedly had a knee injury flare up last night in Detroit, so here’s hoping there isn’t a whole lot there. He ended up only playing 28 minutes tonight, so in theory he could be a little fresher for Friday night’s game.
– Overall, an encouraging game. If you fall behind by 19 points against something like 18-20 teams in the NBA, you aren’t coming back to win by 7. At home, against the Sixers? You’ve got a shot. Even on the back-end of a back-to-back. While the huge deficit was disappointing, the comeback was impressive, and certainly showed some character. Especially from the bench, and as we all know, the bench needed a game like tonight.
– The Wolves travel to San Antonio to face the reigning Western Conference champs on Friday night. The game tips at 7:30 p.m. CDT.