For one night, the Wolves were spared the questions.
Is Ricky Rubio a bust? Is Kevin Love leaving town? Why is the bench so bad? Why is JJ Barea still shooting? Why pick Shabazz? Why trade Trey Burke? For one night, all of the questions were pushed underfoot by a dominant defensive performance as Minnesota held Utah to just 72 points, 23 in the first half, in a 98-72 win at the Target Center.
The turning point, ironically, was a 3-pointer by Rubio. The Wolves were flirting with a double-digit lead when Rubio found himself wide open on the left side of the arc in the second quarter. He eyed the basket and — in typical Rubio fashion — heaved the ball over his head, aimed his arms at the basket and tossed the ball through the hoop.
If that description felt long and overly laborious, it’s because Rubio’s jumper often feels the same way. But when that 3-pointer met nothing but net, the Target Center crowd seemed to cheer as much out of relief as support. Rubio’s shoulders seemed to relax, and his teammates all came over to whack his head and congratulate him. For a brief moment, the Timberwolves looked like an actual team.
Rubio finished with a typically Ricky line: 6 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, but it was his hassling defense (a trait which gets overlooked when critics are ripping apart his shooting) that stood out most. Kevin Love had a fairly quiet evening (and yes, I recognize the absurdity in calling an 18 point, 13 rebound performance “fairly quiet”). But it was Nikola Pekovic, arguably the building block of this team but we’ll get to that later this week, who had the biggest evening. He was downright disrespectful to Utah’s big frontline, putting up 27 points and pulling down 14 rebounds in the win. His hook shot is a combination of power and finesse — a few powerful bumps to knock opponents onto their heels, a swift turn and a stealthy flip shot held away from his body to keep it from being blocked.
Meanwhile, that rookie point guard the Wolves drafted and dealt? He has had better games in the NBA. Burke finished 2-for-10 from the field and was fairly ineffective as a floor general, tallying two assists and three turnovers. Burke will no doubt be a fine NBA point guard, but before we lament Minnesota’s inevitable demise due to the Trey Burke curse, we should probably be aware that the Timberwolves’ own point guard essentially stopped him cold.
The Wolves have another shot at Utah before the schedule stiffens up again. Back-to-backs against the same team are extremely hard to sweep, and the Jazz have a surprisingly good fanbase at home.
But that’s in the future. On Saturday, the Wolves played well and bought themselves a tiny bit of time and breathing room.
For one night.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.