The Timberwolves have gone 2-11 over their past 13 games. Only one of those losses was by fewer than 8 points. The reason for the disaster has been pretty plain to see. A roster that was designed around Kevin Love saw its star ripped from it, then dealt with an unfortunate slew of key injuries. What's left is Minnesota's rebuilding project, and it's going to take a while to put the players in the right places.
Wednesday night was a serious step in the right direction. After weeks of almost relentless futility, the Timberwolves were able to soundly beat the Portland Trail Blazers. A quick look at John Meyer's recap over at Canis Hoopus tells us that the key strategic move was to double Aldridge and force shots outside. The T-Wolves also got surprisingly solid production out of Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Adrien. Only one of those names has a ton of hype attached to it.
Was the win a fluke? Looking from the opposite perspective, Blazers' Edge was quick to point the blame in their own direction. In his post-game analysis, Timmay! credits the T-Wolves with playing physical and choosing to double Aldridge, but blames the Blazers for not finding other offensive options and generally blase play.
In any case, the lesson from the game should be clear. If the Wolves are going to win, they're going to force a tough, defensively-focused game. Minnesota will do that by switching on screens and constantly keeping a man between the ball and the basket. They're also going to either have to dominate the boards or have a perfect night from the floor. Minnesota will also likely double any player the Thunder try to establish inside the arc. Recent history suggests it may be Westbrook, who has been more aggressive.
Looking at the Wolves' players individually, there are definitely some stories to be told. Thaddeus Young is probably the highest profile of them all, having dropped 29 against OKC back on November 24th, 2012. Footage of the game shows Young being extremely active on the break and in the post. He was definitely adept at exploiting mismatches and finding space. The Thunder will have to be careful to keep a man on him at all times. Young did turn in a couple of clunkers against OKC last year, but that was while playing with the Sixers. The Wolves aren't much better now, but at least they're a real team.
Corey Brewer has had a unusually great performance against the Thunder as well. His came on January 20th, 2013, when he was a member of the Denver Nuggets. It was a really strange game for Brewer, as he scored 16 in the fourth quarter and finished with a terrific overall statline. But his plus/minus ratio for the game was still -7. Furthermore, from the way Andrew Feinstein was making it sound in the Stiffs recap for the game, Brewer was simply making difficult shots. Not much to glean here I'm afraid, but it does show what Brewer is capable of if the air is right in the night. His performances last year were pretty much on par with his averages.
The rest of the Timberwolves will be almost entirely new to the Thunder, but they all bring exciting skillsets. Andrew Wiggins is the biggest name, and with good reason. He's not good enough to carry an offense yet, but he's projected to get there in a couple of years. For now, you can see the flashes of what's to come, in the form of baseline post ups, catch and shoots, and a few cuts to the basket. I could see KD bringing his game down a notch, but Wiggins is all-around enough to can at least a few jumpers.
Out on the perimeter, the Wolves will rely heavily on rookie Zach LaVine. Believe it or not, LaVine started the year off getting DNP-CDs, as he rode the pine behind Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams. Injuries to those two have thrust LaVine into a starting role, and the results have been wild. There have been definite triumphs, like LaVine's 28 point performance in a one point win to the Lakers and his 16 point, 6 rebound, 4 assist performance in a two point loss to the Rockets. Highlights of those games showcase LaVine's excellent ability to read the pick and roll, particularly when it comes to finding a quick shot. LaVine also possesses incredible athleticism for his position, and will definitely get at least one basket from hustle alone. Still, LaVine struggles with turnover problems and has had dismal shooting nights, so he's still got growing to do.
Think I'm done talking about the Timberwolves? Nope, there's still more potential here. Shabazz Muhammad has managed to turn in some exciting offense this season, scoring 17 or more in six games so far. Muhammad is a really strange player, though. He gets his points in only three ways. The first is via fast break dunks. The second is via half-court dunks. The third is through a ridiculously sweet hook shot that will soar with almost any defender with ease. Steven Adams needs to take notes. All three are threats, though Muhammad is by no means a sure thing.
The only two likely rotation players I've missed are Bennett and Dieng. Anthony Bennett is a real struggle to watch out there right now, as he's really failed to put in the type of performance that any of the guys mentioned above have had. Still, Bennett'll hit open jumpers if you let him. Dieng is a defense-first center with great shot-blocking ability. He definitely lacks in size though, and there's no reason Adams or Perk should be scoreless.
Anyway, from the Thunder's end, things are looking rather bright. They've got the luxury of choosing between Perry Jones III and Nick Collison as the 10th man in the rotation, and the bench is keeping pace with the starters. Kevin Durant is a bit passive but still effective, and Westbrook hasn't missed a beat. Given all of that, it's hard to see the Thunder losing this one. The Wolves are missing too many key winning elements (perimeter shooting, go-to scoring options, a backup PG). Anything's possible on the second night of a back to back, though.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 113, Minnesota Timberwolves 99.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!
|2014-15 NBA Season Game 23|
|December 12th, 2014|
|The Target Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota|
|7:00 PM Central Standard Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network North|
|Injury Report: Mo Williams (Doubtful), Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Ronny Turiaf (Out)|
|Previous Matchups: Nov 1 (L 81-100), Dec 1 (W 113-103), Jan 4 (W 115-111), Feb 5 (W 106-97)|
|Zach LaVine||PG||Russell Westbrook|
|Corey Brewer||SG||Andre Roberson|
|Andrew Wiggins||SF||Kevin Durant|
|Thaddeus Young||PF||Serge Ibaka|
|Gorgui Dieng||C||Steven Adams|