Minnesota and Atlanta entered Wednesday night’s game on three-game losing streaks during a frustrating time of the season to be on such a streak. Losing three games in a row is a bit of a bummer at any point, but even more so when a team is making their push for the playoffs as the season winds down. The Hawks came into town having gone 6-17(!) since the last time these teams met, having dropped from third in the Eastern Conference standings to eighth and desperately in need of a win to hold off the surging Knicks. Yet it was the Wolves who would come out with a performance one would expect a team fighting for the playoffs would produce in a 107-83 bashing of the Hawks.
The first quarter of the game was, quite frankly, not that great to watch. The two teams combined for 13 turnovers in the first 12 minutes and were on pace for a combined 30 points halfway through the quarter. The Wolves would finish the game with a season-high 17 steals, largely in part due to master thief Ricky Rubio, who swiped everything but the Pink Panther with his six steals. Rubio, who wouldn’t score his first point until halfway through the third, took a nasty elbow to the mouth in a collision with Mike Scott with 5:26 left in the quarter and would have to briefly leave the game to receive stitches on his upper lip. Rubio would return to the game to finish with four points, 10 assists, six steals and 15 stitches in 31 minutes.
Minnesota led Atlanta 20-19 after the first as the teams seemed to finally loosen up by the end of the quarter. The Wolves would extend their slim lead to 48-41 at halftime thanks to a buzzer-beating jumper from Corey Brewer, despite turning the ball over 12 times to the Hawks’ nine. Minnesota achieved this primarily by keeping the Hawks to shooting 31.1% from the field and winning the rebounding battle 29-21. In fact, Kevin Love and Gorgui Dieng alone hauled down 21 rebounds in the first half as Dieng would be well on his way to another impressive performance.
Love had six points and nine rebounds on an uncharacteristically low amount of shot attempts (2-for-5) after the second quarter. He would finish the game with his league-leading 56th double-double, putting up 14 points, 12 rebounds (all defensive) and four assists. The Wolves are now 5-15 in games Love scores less than 20 points. Brewer’s jumper capped off a good first half for the former-Gator as he led the team in scoring on 6-for-11 shooting for 12 points and three assists. Brewer contributed everywhere on the night and finished tied with Kevin Martin for a team-high 18 points, three assists, three rebounds and three steals.
The Wolves were playing without the mighty Nikola Pekovic for a sixth straight game, giving Dieng another opportunity to play big minutes and give Wolves’ fans something to be excited about. At this point, at least for me, Dieng has inched incredibly close to “my dude” status; the status of being brought up in conversation and having at least one of the people refer to said person as “my dude.” Or sometimes one can’t help but jump up and shout “MY DUDE!” at the TV when that particular player does something worthy of such a reaction.
Dieng’s 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting and 13 rebounds at the break had the words “my dude” at the tip of my tongue as the 24-year-old already had his fifth double-double in six starts. Dieng finished the game 6-for-8 from the field, adding 3-of-4 from the charity stripe, to put up 15 points, 15 rebounds (five offensive) and one block in 41 minutes. The 41 minutes were the most run Dieng’s gotten since he came into the NBA and he did an excellent job of staying out of foul trouble again with only three fouls. His most impressive stat of the night, however, could possibly be his +25 ratio when he was on the court. Dieng is now +34 in his six starts.
The Hawks were led at half by Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll’s nine points each, but Millsap really struggled from the field all night. He shot just 3-of-11 in the first half and would finish the game 4-for-13 to put up 12 points and 10 rebounds. Scott finished the game with a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds and would be the only starter for Atlanta that would see playing time in the fourth quarter. Part of this was due to the Wolves’ 14-point-and-increasing lead entering the final quarter and part of this was due to Atlanta having to play a back-to-back against Portland tonight. Jeff Teague entered the game scoring a little over 23 points over Atlanta’s last four, but would be held scoreless for the first time this season on 0-for-5 shooting in just 19 minutes of playing time. Atlanta’s bench ended up producing better numbers than the starters in this one, scoring 42 of the team’s 83 points and shooting six percentage points higher.
The Wolves missed all four of their 3-point attempts in the first half, but were able to knock three down in the third quarter as they would outscore the Hawks 27-20 heading into the fourth. Minnesota actually scored more than Atlanta in all four quarters, slowly building their lead as the game progressed like sand slipping through an hour glass. The final quarter saw the Wolves bench getting in on the action as well with the team hitting 6-of-12 from behind the arc to keep Atlanta from being able to make any sort of comeback.
This win was nice on a few levels for the Wolves. Minnesota ended an ugly streak of giving up 100 points or more in 11 straight games and recorded their franchise-record 11th win of 20 points or more in the process. The Wolves scored 32 points off of a ridiculous 25 forced turnovers and doubled the Hawks’ fast break point total 26-13. Minnesota turned it over 19 times themselves, but I won’t waste much time on such negativity. The Wolves were able to capitalize in a game against a team that’s really struggling with injuries this season. Atlanta (31-39) played, and lost, their fourth game in a row without sharpshooter Kyle Korver, dropping them to 1-7 on the season when Korver sits out. Korver put up a team-high 24 points for the Hawks the first time they met the Wolves and his lack of 3-point shooting on the court clearly hurt Atlanta, who made just 7-of-28 3-point attempts. Adding insult to injury, Pero Antic went down for the Hawks with a sprained right ankle when he landed on a coach’s foot after a 3-point attempt. The Hawks now lead the Knicks by two games for the final spot in the east and trail the Bobcats by three games for the seventh seed.
Minnesota (35-35) sits at the .500-mark for the 19th time this season and continues to add to their highest win-total since the ’03-’04 season (44-38). Trailing the Suns and Mavericks for the final playoff spot by seven games with only 12 games left to play, eight of which are against teams currently lined up for playoffs spots, Wolves’ fans must look to some of the smaller things to be happy about. Right now, one of those things is what we’ve seen from Dieng. In his six starts, my dude is averaging 33.8 minutes, 12.7 points, 14 rebounds (4.8 offensive), 1.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.2 steals, 3.2 fouls and only 0.8 turnovers. Although he hasn’t had a block in every start, he has had at least one steal in all of his starts as he continues to impress on the defensive end. What I liked even more than his performance were two quotes from his post-game interview. First: “I think I belong here.” He seems to be proving that more with each game now and I love that his confidence is building. Second, and perhaps more exciting: “It’s just the beginning.”