The Kings came to Target Center at the end of a seven game road trip and playing on the second night of a back-to-back. The Timberwolves needed a win to keep their small playoff window open, but would have to do so without the services of Nikola Pekovic. On the other hand, Sacramento would be without DeMarcus Cousins, mostly nullifying Pekovic’s absence. And when Mike Malone slotted Aaron Gray at the center position, Rick Adelman countered with Gorgui Dieng. Not exactly the premier matchup the Target Center faithful were hoping for, but it would work for a night.
Looking to put this one away early, the Timberwolves came out blazing. Kevin Martin dished to Kevin Love from three and Ricky Rubio did the same nearly a minute later to reclaim the lead early in the first. Minnesota continued to build their momentum with a 12-3 run with 6:41 to go in the frame. Then the Kings would rally behind the superb bench play of former Timberwolf Derrick Williams. Williams quickly hung 10 points on the Timberwolves, even with Corey Brewer and eventually Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute on him. It was fitting since Williams said before the game that while he has nothing but good things to say about the Timberwolves, he still got especially excited to play in Minnesota. Fortunately, the Timberwolves were able to take a modest -32-29 lead into the second quarter.
Though the Timberwolves led by as much as 10 early in the first, they were now locked in a game of battleship because their defense had become as bad as the movie of the same name. In fact, the only real playmaker on defense was Dieng– who finished the first half alone with three blocks. In spite of Rudy Gay (3 for 8 in the first half), the Kings shot the ball incredibly well and kept the turnover battle even to keep them in the game.
Malone also said that he was concerned about the matchup between rookie Ben McLemore and Kevin Martin since Martin annihilated the rookie in their previous meeting. Martin had 16 points in the half, while finishing with 31, but got McLemore to foul out of the game while going to the line 14 times on the night. Additionally, Martin made all 14 attempts that not only made the fouls worse, but negated much of an overall poor shooting performance by Martin.
Williams really was the spark for the Kings since Isaiah Thomas had been kept mostly in check with five points, but his six assists still made his impact felt. The energy the Timberwolves initially had faded by this point and found themselves down 54-53 at the half. I don’t know if the team knew that it was supposed to blowout the Kings because I was there and all the games I’ve been to have been blowouts, but they were in a very close game. I mean, it’s not like they were missing one of their best players or anything.
Despite blowing a double-digit lead and letting the visitors build on that momentum, the Timberwolves had done an admirable job of not letting things get out of hand. They quickly regained the lead with a Rubio dunk and Love’s three pushed their lead to six. Yet, the Kings would manage to tie things up late in the half thanks to Isaiah Thomas who had 13 of his 18 points in the quarter. Also, defense…the Timberwolves were not about to try winning this game with defense.
Some important things of note happened in this quarter. First, Dieng earned his first career double-double while staying out of foul trouble. Secondly, Martin made his 1,000th three. Finally, Thomas dished out his 1,000th career assist. Why did I make a note about Isaiah Thomas? Because Isaiah Thomas is the fucking best. In short, cool stuff happened tonight. For proof, Thomas was the only who was impervious to Dieng’s shot blocking.
The two teams traded the lead for the first half of the fourth quarter in what wound being an exciting finish. They say basketball is a game of runs, but this is how the fourth played out: Timberwolves lead by four, then Kings lead by three, Timberwolves lead by five, and then Kings by one.
And after Williams made the free throw to give them the late lead, the Timberwolves charged back. Love hit what would be the go-ahead three pointer and Martin nailed a pair of free throws to put them up five. Then, Isaiah the Great hit a three to cut the lead to 102-98 with with six seconds left before hitting another triple to bring them within one. You could hear the collective gasps of the now-engaged crowd as Thomas hit the second three, but Martin would put the game away for good with two more free throws.
Love finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Martin burned the rookie for 31 himself. Williams gave the Kings 26 points and 11 rebounds off of the bench in just under 28 minutes. Thomas finished with 27 points, seven assists and six rebounds and him keeping the ball out of Gay’s hands late enabled the Kings to give the Timberwolves a late scare.
However, the player of the game was undoubtedly Gorgui Dieng. Hell, the story of the game was Gorgui Dieng. His 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks saved the game for a Timberwolves team that was short both Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf. Had he also not avoided foul trouble the team would have been scrambling at the center position for help. Yeah, he finished with four fouls, which is high-ish, but he played 37 minutes.
After all, this is the same player who averages 7.4 fouls per 36 minutes.
Adelman praised Dieng’s performance afterwards saying, “He has habits when the guards are coming at him or people are coming at him of getting his hands down and that’s where he gets his fouls. He just needs to use his length and keep backing it up, don’t just go after the guys. Back it up and you don’t have to block, you just have to alter the shots. The more he got into the game, the better it was. The other thing was that he worked really hard and he played 37 minutes and handled it. That gives him a lot of credit for the extra work he has been doing.”
We saw the positive change during the game, for instance, when Jason Thompson would go to back Dieng down and Dieng kept his hands up and forced Thompson to take an absurdly difficult shot over his wingspan. The worst thing a rookie can do is try to do too much and that sounds like what is at the core of Dieng’s foul trouble. An altered shot may not show up in the box score as a block, but it does show up as a missed field goal, and that’s as good as a block. Remember, even without Cousins, if he is unable to do this the Timberwolves likely don’t walk away from tonight with the win given the play of his teammates on defense.
As a whole, the more Dieng has been able to stay on the floor this season, the better. On-court the Timberwolves are a -12.9, but a dreadful -17.9 with him not on the court. Coupled with a 97 Defensive Rating and we say that Dieng is not just a defensive playmaker, but that he’s also been an impactful defender as a whole.
Furthermore, his 11 rebounds were just shy of his rebounds per 36 minutes average of 12.6, including an impressive 3.9 offensive rebounds per 36. This means, of course, that he is giving his own team second chance points and taking them away from opponents. In fact, Dieng grabbed three offensive boards and the rest of the Timberwolves grabbed four.
Yeah, his offense isn’t there and maybe it never really gets there, but so what? He still finds other ways to affect the game and not everyone needs to be a scorer. Besides, when healthy, this team does not need him to be a scorer. In fact, he may be the last guy or second-to-last guy they need to rely on to score. Adelman decided last minute to throw him in the starting lineup once he found out the Kings were starting Gray and the rookie made the most of it and gave his team the boost they needed. That’s what good teams get out of their rotation guys on a consistent basis, and has been something that has been lacking all year long.
There was a funny moment on the sideline when Dieng took the final free throws of the game. Dieng, a poor free throw shooter that is shooting 44 percent on the season, missed the first of two attempts. Adelman burned a timeout with one second left in the game that seemed to lack any and all reason. Of course that wasn’t the case. Adelman said afterwards that he called it to tell Dieng to just hit the rim. However, Dieng tells it differently. Dieng said while laughing that Adelman called the timeout to miss the free throw, but how to miss it if he is going to miss it. Adelman also added that they would have been happy if he had made one, but wanted to make sure that if he missed it he at least hit the rim in order to avoid penalty.
“I was just like ready. I was ready to play. I knew they needed me tonight and the other guys on this basketball team. When you got a chance you just have to step up,” said Dieng about his surprise start.
Cousins or no Cousins, Dieng knows that he has a job to do. He added, “I think I’ve faced a lot of guys in this league already. I played against Bynum and Dwight Howard and all those guys. I choose to be a basketball player, and I don’t mind facing him”
This is probably way too many words already, but the way Dieng played as a rookie as the only real center left on their roster was impressive. He saw extended time and did not shy away from the challenge. For this, Dieng is truly the player of the game.