Sunday night was a pretty important point in the Timberwolves’ season. In the midst of a stretch against Western Conference playoff foes, the Timberwolves had one win in Dallas and a loss in Houston. Facing the Suns, who were also on the cusp of the playoffs, the Timberwolves needed a win to gain some ground in the standings. Falling seven games behind Phoenix for the ninth seed would likely put the Timberwolves’ playoff dreams to bed for good.
Normally, I would go quarter-by-quarter and rehash the game that way, but I don’t feel like that’s necessary for tonight.
The Timberwolves did come out strong forcing seven first quarter turnovers and posting 41 points in that time. However, an indifference to defense and a hot-shooting opponent makes for a risky strategy. Phoenix still shot 60 percent and would never dip below 58 percent on the night despite their high volume of turnovers. Eric Bledsoe’s two early fouls also contributed to the Suns’ slow start and things would get worse for them before they got better. The Timberwolves’ lead ballooned up to as much as 22 by halftime as they continued to pummel their opposition. In fact, their 73 first half points were a season high in a half.
Minnesota’s lead was just 11 at the half, but felt like more considering how the Suns played early on. Yet, once the Timberwolves stopped scoring and forcing turnovers, the Suns came charging back. They cut their deficit to six before Kevin Love’s three pushed it back to nine. But before Love’s three, the Timberwolves went nearly three minutes without a field goal (11:03-7:27). What do you know, not scoring or getting stops is bad. The rest of the third was much more like the team that we saw in the first half that was forcing turnovers and capitalizing off of them.
Somehow, the Timberwolves had been able to push their lead back to 10 to start the fourth quarter. Yet, a 14-3 run for Phoenix to start the quarter would give them the lead with 6:51 to go. The Timberwolves once had this game handily, but now were fighting just to stay in the game. It would be an exciting finish, but one that would ultimately end in defeat and put themselves seven games behind the Suns.
Love finished with 36 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists and Ricky Rubio added 19 points and nine assists. Even Kevin Martin chipped in 25 points, but added just one assist and zero rebounds. Shabazz Muhammad played well off of the bench with nine points and five rebounds in 16 minutes on a night when Rick Adelman rolled with an eight-man rotation. DNP-CD’s were had for Chase Budinger (Still trying to find his legs), Robbie Hummel and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Gorgui Dieng played 24 minutes and continued to look good, which is a bonus, but the team definitely still needs Pekovic back.
Adelman gave what was probably his shortest postgame press conference of the season. The only things he really had to say was that it was a tough loss and that the main difference between the third and fourth quarter was that they scored points. That sounds obvious, but it was true. The execution wasn’t there and the team as a whole deviated from their early strategy that was paying dividends. Love was right after the game, this was absolutely a game they should have won. While Love’s offense was a major reason they were in it, his defense was a major reason the Suns shot 57.5 percent and 44.4 percent from the floor and three, respectively. Really, their defense was a team effort, and other than making a few plays defensively, there really wasn’t much there.
Here’s a tweet I received from Kris Habbas over at SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun blog:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-partner=”tweetdeck”><p><a href=”https://twitter.com/DerekJamesNBA”>@DerekJamesNBA</a> well Minny proved why they are not in playoffs moreso than the Suns. Good for Suns.</p>— BrightSideoftheSun (@BrightSideSun) <a href=”https://twitter.com/BrightSideSun/statuses/447870284289155072″>March 23, 2014</a></blockquote>
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It’s true. Tonight exemplified everything that prevented the Timberwolves from reaching a higher level of achievement this season: the defense, reliance on drawing fouls and the bench. All game long they were completely indifferent on the defensive end and Adelman did not have enough bench options available. Clearly, Budinger does not yet have his legs back and may not any time soon; Hummel wasn’t needed; and LRMAM and Shved haven’t proven to be consistent enough. So tonight the bench was Barea, Cunningham and Muhammad, while the Suns used all but two of their active players.
Playoff teams have defense and playoff teams have benches, two things these Timberwolves are missing. I don’t want to get down on this season, because they took another step forward and the fact that they are going to win 40 games still makes it a success. Yet, the roster always had a faulty construct that we thought may could have worked, but ultimately didn’t. The roster was too top-heavy and the defense has been off all year. In hindsight, it’s easier to say that these things wouldn’t work. It’s also hard to fault the team for trying to patch their poor shooting from last season by sacrificing some defense, but it still didn’t pay off. Additionally, the bench is the bench for now, but there is reason to think it can improve. Gorgui Dieng has been playing well and his performance may be sustainable. Muhammad also appears to be playing better, too. If these two can continue to improve and the Timberwolves can grab a rookie to contribute off of the bench next season, then they will be in better position next year.
This was meant to be a recap and not a eulogy, but it started to feel final on Sunday night. The team as it is has been fun and it’s been enjoyable to actually win games for a change. The Timberwolves are about a move or two away from being where they want to be, which is not a bad position to be. Tomorrow they will play the Grizzlies in Memphis in a game that had a lot more meaning a week ago before they began this Western Conference fringe trip. It will be interesting to see how they respond after tonight’s loss.
Note: Weird moment in the game when the Suns PJ Tucker appeared to say “Fuck you guys” to the bench after making a three and then Gerald Green yelled “Now what?! Now what?!” to the bench after making one. Even DeMar DeRozan did something similar to the bench after making one in their game a couple of weeks ago. I have no idea why this is, but Corey Brewer has been laughing every time.