Once again, the late-season dilemma for the Wolves and their fans revolves around draft position. It’s a little different this year, but Sunday afternoon’s game was especially relevant.
As part of the trade that pawned Wesley Johnson off on the Suns prior to the 2013-14 season, former Wolves’ boss David Kahn parlayed Minnesota’s first round pick in the 2014 draft to Phoenix, but only if it falls at pick #14 or lower. There remains a scenario in which the Wolves miss the playoffs but lose their pick, and that is this year’s version of the doomsday scenario.
For this to happen at this point, however, Minnesota would have to pass Phoenix in the standings. And winning Sunday’s matinee would have pushed the Wolves that much closer to the dangerous threshold of no playoffs, no draft pick.
But not to worry, Wolves fans. Despite jumping out to a 22-point second quarter lead, the Wolves managed to lose barn-burner. It was a fast-paced, break-neck affair, and Minnesota enjoyed a huge first half by their two stars in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Love had tallied 19 points and a handful of assists and rebounds by the half, and Rubio played up to the expectations that he has set for himself of late.
In the second half, however, Corey Brewer and Rubio’s gambles didn’t pay off, as so often happens as games move along, and Rick Adelman’s rotations could once again be questioned, and for good reason. Yes, Love rested again for the opening minutes of the final quarter, as J.J. Barea roamed free to play poor defense and turn the ball over with reckless abandon.
To Adelman’s credit, Rubio and Barea were allowed to play together for a stretch in each half. Unfortunately, Barea was left to guard Goran Dragic one-on-one too often, and Phoenix’s best player walked all over the Wolves’ defenseless back-up guard.
Another questionable rotation decision was the lack of second half minutes for Gorgui Dieng. The emerging rookie center again held a team-high plus-minus of +10, and posted 6 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in just 25 minutes. One of his last moments on the court for the game was a beautiful drop-off bounce pass with his back to the basket that lead to a finger roll for a streaking Kevin Love.
But Adelman stubbornly went back to Dante Cunningham for the remainder of the contest. Yes, the Suns were going small, but it wasn’t working with Dieng and Love both on the court. And yet the Wolves went with their tried-and-failed lineup down the stretch.
Rubio played a team-high 44 minutes, and did a good job, especially early. He was again showing aggressiveness and his long-lost flashiness on offense, flinging passes and fake-passes right and left. Ultimately, he finished with 19 points (7-12 FG, 2-4 3PT, 3-5 FT), 9 assists, 3 steals, and two turnovers.
Love was amazing early, good for much of the second half, and sub-par down the stretch. He missed multiple semi-open shot and forced other contested ones late in the game, and was even stripped of the ball in the paint with a chance to tie or take the lead in the waning moments.
For the game, he went for a dominating line of 36 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2 steals, again missing a triple-double against Phoenix by a single assist. Despite his struggles late, it was another MVP-like performance from the All-Star power forward.
The rest of the team disappointed once again. Shabazz Muhammad found himself back in the rotation and played reasonably well. Kevin Martin scored 25 points, but was not very impressive from the field, especially down the stretch. And short of Dieng, who was kept on the bench late in the game and only played 25 minutes, there wasn’t a good performance to be found.
Of note: Chase Budinger did not see the floor for the first time since returning from injury this year. Muhammad received his minutes as Adelman kept his rotation short in what was a fast-paced, up-and-down contest.
Next up for the Wolves is a tough game tomorrow night in Memphis. The game tips at 7:00 CT, and we’ll have thoughts here at Dunking With Wolves after the tilt.