The Sacramento Kings were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and on the final game of a long road trip. But they gave the Wolves all they could handle on Sunday evening.
News came down during the afternoon that neither Nikola Pekovic (sore ankle) or DeMarcus Cousins (knee tendinitis) would be on the floor for their respective squads, making the starting center match-up very different. Gorgui Dieng received his first career start for Minnesota, and lined up opposite Aaron Gray.
The Wolves jumped out to a fast start early in the first quarter, but the bench did their thing and allowed the Kings to actually take a lead before Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Co. got back on the floor midway through the quarter. Sacramento maintained their lead into halftime, taking a 54-53 lead into the break.
Early in the game, Rubio was easily winning the head-to-head match-up with the diminutive Isaiah Thomas, and Derrick Williams was really the only Kings player that was hurting the Wolves on a consistent basis. Williams dropped 10 points in the final three minutes of the opening frame, and carried his scoring momentum into the second quarter, to the point that Rick Adelman put Luc Richard Mbah a Moute into the game to try and slow down his enigmatic former player.
The Wolves were essentially able to get what what they wanted whenever they wanted to on offense, and were buoyed by another strong performance by Kevin Martin. Rubio was dealing assists with regularity early in the game, and was effectively active on defense as well, assisting in trying to cover the Swiss cheese-like defense of Martin and Corey Brewer.
Love was solid if not spectacular yet again, shooting 9 of 15 from the field and 3 for 6 from long range, ultimately putting up 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 steals. He did turn the ball over an uncharacteristic 4 times, but was generally good, and even played some solid defense.
Moving into the second half, Dieng continued his fantastic evening, and played every minute after halftime until midway through the fourth quarter when he sat for much of crunch time in favor of Dante Cunningham. For much of the game, Dieng had a clear impact on defense and in tipping and corralling loose balls, and generally not hurting the Wolves’ offense, either. He converted plenty of drop-off passes from Rubio, and finished the game with 12 points, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 2 steals. He shot 5 of 7 from the floor and only turned ball over once.
Pairing Love with a shot-blocker for heavy minutes (Dieng played what was easily a career-high 37 minutes) was intriguing, and helped shut down the slashing Rudy Gay and Co. Down the stretch, Rubio’s perimeter defense and Love’s offense helped seal the game.
The Kings actually held 95-94 lead with 1:25 remaining on the clock after a pair of Derrick Williams free throws. Kevin Martin was blocked at the rim by Gay, but Brewer grabbed the rebound and kicked it out to Love, who pump-faked the defender, dribbled to his left, and knocked down the left wing three-pointer to give Minnesota a 97-95 lead that they would not relinquish.
For a nice change, the Wolves played solidly down the stretch. The rotation was again a bit curious: no Shabazz Muhammad, crunch-time Robbie Hummel minutes, and playing a struggling Cunningham in favor of Dieng for most of the latter portion of the final frame. Ultimately, the Wolves emerged victorious, and the back court pairing of Rubio and J.J. Barea down the stretch worked decently well.
As a general rule, Barea isn’t much worse of a defender than Martin, and on nights where one of them is hot and the other isn’t, a Barea-Rubio back court can work if needed. Of course, Martin was having a good game, so it was wise of Adelman to limit Barea’s minutes to just eighteen.
On the night, Rubio joined Dieng, Martin, and Love as the top performers for Minnesota. He posted 12 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals while being charged with just a single turnover. It was ultimately surprising that the home team couldn’t win by more than two points, but the Wolves will take what they can get at this point.
Elsewhere, both Phoenix and Dallas won, with the Mavs pulling out an impressively easy victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. The Wolves stood pat once again, as another valuable day ticked off of the playoff clock. Next up is a huge game in Dallas on Wednesday at 7:30 CT. Check back here for some thoughts leading into the contest.