“It’s just the beginning.” – Dieng, Wolves Cruise Past Hawks, 107-83

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.”

Playoffs?! – Upcoming Schedule Will Test Wolves’ Determination

Playoffs?!

I can’t remember when exactly I began affectionately referring to the Timberwolves as the “Pups”, but I do know that this started for me when the Wolves no longer were one of the youngest teams in the league.

A friend of mine took issue with that once, seizing the opportunity to let it be known that not only are they not young enough to be called “pups” anymore, but their opponents won’t be especially intimidated by the name. I jokingly replied that perhaps they are more deserving of being called “pups” than “wolves” with their inability to make a return to the playoffs. “They make the playoffs, they played like wolves,” was the thought. While this conversation took place last season, I completely believe it applies to the team’s current situation as the 2013-2014 regular season winds down. Quite frankly, lately I don’t feel like we’ve been watching a team that believes in their own ability to make the playoffs and hasn’t been putting up the kind of effort that could have them more in the mix than they currently are. In other words, they’re not playing like hungry wolves in a time that it’s crucial. The Wolves have gone every-other over their last six games and have been outscored in the first half in four straight. I guess I’m just wondering where’s the fire? Have too many players bought into the idea that anything at this point is too-little-too-late? All three of those losses came against Eastern Conference teams that are currently scratching and clawing to stay alive (New York), battling for playoff position (Toronto) or fighting to stay in the playoffs (Charlotte). I’m not saying any of those games are easy by any means, especially considering the Knicks have won six straight by double-digits, but those are the games a team desperate to make the playoffs needs to have. Currently sitting in 10th place in the conference with 17 games to play, Minnesota is four games behind Phoenix for ninth, 5.5 games behind Memphis for eighth and 6.5 games behind Dallas for seventh. As fans, we torture ourselves with the thought of: “There’s still hope.” Sleep is lost, tears are shed and fits are thrown as we live and die with every possession with that thought in mind. Luckily (if there is a “luckily”), with three of the next four games being played against the seventh, eighth and ninth-placed teams, the Wolves aren’t completely out of it. This classic film dialogue sums up Minnesota’s playoff odds kind of perfectly:

Wolves: What are my chances? NBA: *pause* Not good. Wolves: You mean not good, like, one-in-a-hundred? NBA: I’d say…more like one-out-of-a-million. Wolves: *long pause* So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!

You’re damn right, Wolves fans! At Dallas, at Houston, versus Phoenix, at Memphis. That’s the opportunity that begins tonight. The four games will be played over six days, with the games at Houston and Memphis being pivotal back-to-backs. As reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nikola Pekovic, dealing with ankle soreness, will travel with the team for the games at Dallas and Houston, but is doubtful to take the court. There is no update for Ronny Turiaf’s return as of today either. Following an impressive first start on Sunday against the Kings, we can expect to see Gorgui Dieng continue to fill in for Pek – at least for now. While it was nice to see the big man denying all those shots and doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble against the Kings, I’m hoping Dieng will be able to improve on getting the ball in the Wolves’ hands following a block instead of looking to swat it as hard as he can. All three of Dieng’s first half blocks against the Kings ended up staying with Sacramento and resulted in buckets. This might not necessarily be something we will see change much as the year winds down, but it is something to keep an eye on. Speaking of eyes, are you still rolling yours at the thought of the Wolves having an outside chance of sneaking into the playoffs? Hopefully taking a closer look at the upcoming stretch of games will get you to stop being such a negative Norman.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19 – AT DALLAS (MIN leads series 2-1)

  • Dallas owns an impressive 22-10 record at home, but did lose to Minnesota when hosting them way back in November. Ah, November, when playoff hopes were as high as ever.
  • Nine of Dallas’ remaining 14 games will be played at home.
  • Dallas enters the game having won five of their last six, including wins against Portland, Indiana and Oklahoma City.
  • This game will be the second of eight consecutive home games for the Mavs. Not only are they hot coming into tonight’s game, but they won’t be playing an away game until April 3 thanks to this ridiculous stretch.
  • In their three meetings this season, Dallas has outscored Minnesota in the first half by an average of 4.3 points.
  • Minnesota has outscored Dallas in the second half by an average of 6.6 points.
  • Stop that man: While Monta Ellis has had more success against the Wolves this season, Dirk Nowitzki has been heating up lately and could be in for a big game. With averages of 22.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 3-pointers over the last three games, Nowitzki is gaining momentum at the right time for the Mavs.
  • What to look for: Upon looking back at the box scores, it was almost impossible not to notice the free throw and foul disparity. In their three meetings, Minnesota is 67-for-83 from the free throw line compared to Dallas’ 31-for-40. That’s right, more than twice as many attempts. In the second game alone Dallas was charged with 26 fouls to Minnesota’s nine.

THURSDAY, MARCH 20 – AT HOUSTON (HOU leads series 2-0)

  • The Rockets possess an even more impressive home record at 27-7 and haven’t lost in Houston since Memphis beat them by one on January 24.
  • Houston will play seven of their 15 remaining games at home.
  • Houston is currently third in the NBA in scoring (106.4 ppg) while Minnesota maintains the fourth-best ranking in that category (106.1 ppg).
  • This marks the third of four contests these two will play against each other this year. The final game of the season series will be played at Minnesota on April 11.
  • The Rockets have gotten off to great starts against the Wolves in the first half, averaging 11 points more than Minnesota.
  • Stop that man: Fox Houston reports that Howard is iffy to play tomorrow night with a left ankle sprain, which could open a window of opportunity for the Wolves. James Harden was absent from the first game between these two, although his presence didn’t seem to be missed. Harden has had some huge games recently, including a couple of 40+ scoring outbursts in the last 11 games, and could be in line for some extra shot attempts if Howard sits.
  • What to look for: Besides the status of Howard, it will be interesting to see how many 3-pointers the Rockets attempt. Houston went an impressive 17-for-31 against the Wolves in their first meeting and hit 11-of-27 in the second game. All five starters have scored in double-figures for the Rockets in both games and Houston was also able to overcome a 23-10 turnover deficit against Minnesota in their first meeting. C’mon, man!

SUNDAY, MARCH 23 – VS. PHOENIX (Series tied 1-1)

  • The Suns post a respectable 16-16 record on the road, including a win in Minnesota. The game at Minnesota kicks off a three game road trip for Phoenix.
  • Nine of Phoenix’s 15 games left will be played on the road.
  • Phoenix has outscored Minnesota by an average of four points in the first half.
  • The Wolves have outscored the Suns by an average of eight points in the second half.
  • Stop that man: While Goran Dragic hasn’t been putting up huge assist numbers recently, he still is averaging 19 points and four assists over his last five games. Back in their first meeting, Dragic went for 26 points, nine assists and 6 rebounds in 41 minutes and is capable of such a performance on any given night. Dragic was held in check for the second meeting, scoring 16 points before fouling out, which could have played a big role in Minnesota’s win.
  • What to look for: The second game between these two featured a Pek-less Wolves team rallying in the fourth quarter to pull out a nine point win. Phoenix out-rebounded the Wolves by 12 that night and amassed nine blocks in the game. It remains to be seen if Pek will be able to play by then, but I’m curious to see how those numbers will sway with Dieng getting more playing time. Phoenix’s 3-point shooting will be key in this game. The Suns shot 11-for-29 from behind the arc in their win over the Wolves; 3-for-15 in their loss. A combined 34 turnovers (PHO – 19; MIN – 15) between these two teams made for a sloppy game last time around, so we should all make a sacrifice to the basketball gods to ensure that doesn’t happen again. No one wants to see that.

MONDAY, MARCH 24 – AT MEMPHIS (Series tied 1-1)

  • Memphis is 20-14 at home this season and will be coming off back-to-back games against Miami and Indiana in their two games prior.
  • The Grizzlies and Wolves will still meet one more time in Minnesota on April 2.
  • Memphis is 7-3 in their last 10 at the time of this writing, the best record in the last 10 games of any of these teams being written about.
  • While Memphis is 25th in scoring (95.8 ppg), they are third in points allowed (94.6 ppg).
  • Seven of Memphis’ final 16 games will be played at home.
  • Stop that man: Zach Randolph has been excellent in his two games against the Wolves this year, averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The first game was played without Marc Gasol, but his return didn’t seem to slow Randolph down that much in the second meeting as Randolph still put up a double-double.
  • What to look for: What was interesting to me was that Gasol returned in the second game to face the Wolves without Pek, yet Minnesota still ended up +8 in rebounding. Dieng played 13 minutes that game, being held scoreless and accumulating a -14 spread while on the court. These two teams play close games regardless of injuries, however, the second game of a back-to-back may make things difficult for the Wolves in this one.

The best-case scenario for these games would obviously be 4-0, but that seems to be a bit too hopeful to me. A more realistic best-case scenario sees the Wolves pulling out wins against Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis. The Wolves are 4-11 on the second half of their back-to-backs, but a win against Memphis is essential to keeping their playoff hopes alive. With the majority of Phoenix and Memphis’ games on the road, and Dallas playing so many games at home, the Wolves are likely looking to the Suns and Grizzlies to start losing in order to climb back into the mix. Four games behind the Suns with a game against them can eliminate that to three games behind. Two wins in the remaining games against Memphis would drop their deficit to 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies. The odds are very slim, yes, but it really isn’t impossible to see them inching closer to the final playoff spot if, and this is a big and important “if”, these pups can channel their inner-wolves.