Where: EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah
When: 8:00 PM
See It: Fox Sports North
Hear It: WCCO AM 830
Written by Tom Westerholm. Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.
After games against Houston, New York, OKC and Miami, Minnesota would be excused for thinking the last five games have been difficult, but we can also excuse Utah for not shedding a tear. The Jazz are 1-4 in their last five games because Utah’s last five games have been BRUTAL. Two games against the Clippers, one game against Miami and one against Golden State have pushed the Jazz back to 15-17 overall and 3-7 in their last ten.
But the fact remains that the Jazz are 1-4 in their last five games and for Minnesota, once again competing with Utah for a low playoff seed in the Western Conference, every MIA/LAC/GSW loss for another contender is a good loss.
Tonight, two teams who really could use a win will tangle in EnergySolutions Arena in a homecoming of sorts for Andrei Kirilenko. The Jazz, as you may recall, feature a brutal murderer’s row of big men including Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and a familiar face in Al Jefferson. The three big men have a combined PER of 58.1 (19.7, 18.0 and 20.7 respectively) and collectively grab 49% of all available rebounds.
Here’s something strange: Minnesota is 29th in the NBA in total defensive rebounds. But the Wolves defensive rebounding PERCENTAGE is number one in the entire league at 76.1%. What does this tell us? There are any of a number of possibilities. First: Opponents hit a high percentage of shots, leading to fewer defensive rebounds. But that’s not the case. Minnesota’s opponents are shooting .444 overall, 14th in the NBA. That’s not ideal, but it’s also not extremely bad. Second: The Wolves play slowly and don’t end up with a lot of opponent possessions. This also isn’t the case: Minesota is 9th in pace in the NBA.
Either way, the Jazz are a very good rebounding team. They are 7th overall, but more importantly 4th in offensive rebounding. The frontcourt battle will probably play a big role in tonight’s game.
On the negative side, there could be a TON of missed jumpers tonight. Per @Clintonite33, an ESPN TrueHoop writer on Twitter and a very smart fan of the Jazz, Utah is the worst team in the NBA defending spot-up attempts. But as we are all aware, Minnesota is the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA. So rather than being caught between a rock and a hard place, it will probably be more like being stuck between a pillow and a foam pit. But you get the idea.
After a nice win against the Suns, the Timberwolves could use a bit of momentum. Ricky Rubio’s absence (out for the next two games with back spasms) won’t help, but if the Timberwolves can take advantage of Utah’s mediocre spot-up defense, they may not need him to get an important win over a division rival.
I know what you want to talk about with the Suns. And I’m going to give it to you, but you’re just going to have to wait for it. It’s not like I can talk a ton about a team that is 11-19, and one game ahead of the Kings in their division, anyway. Tonight is really a matchup of two teams looking to get back on the right track, since the Suns are on a four game losing streak and the Wolves have lost two in a row in unspectacular fashion, looking for redemption at home.
You should probably know about Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat, who provide for some fun pick ‘n’ rolls, and are probably the Suns’ two best players. Well, that’s if Dragic plays, who missed Friday’s game against Indiana with a bruised hip and wrist. Pekovic is also questionable, which would leave much of the paint for Gortat.
We’ll also be keeping an eye on Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Andrei Kirilenko to get going tonight after a few off games.
Now, the main event– the return of the former Timberwolves Wes Johnson, Mike Beasley, and Sebastian Telfair. Since signing with Phoenix, Beasley has lost his starting job posting a statline of 10-3-2, and struggling with his efficiency. While he’s struggled, he’s shown maturity in handling the benching, and looks like he’s trying.
Then there’s Wes, who’s averaging just 5.9 minutes per game on an obvious lottery team, and appears to be struggling with all things basketball in the desert as he was here in the north.
Finally, there’s Sebastian Telfair. Or Bassy. Or Telly. Same thing, anyway. After the way he drug himself around on one foot for that horrible fifteen win ’11 Timberwolves team with Plantar’s Fasciitis because he was in a contract year, and was still their best point guard, I’m glad to see him in another job. He’s no longer stuck on the depth chart behind the Jonny Flynns of the NBA, and is getting some decent burn, 19 mpg. Yeah, his shot isn’t there from the floor, but he’s been an average three point shooter thus far.
Anyway, be nice. No booing, and have a good time, y’all.
Projected Starting Fives:
Sebastian Telfair/Goran Dragic — PG — Luke Ridnour
Tonight features a key matchup between Kevin Love and James Harden. No, not as far as their skill sets, but their beards! Whether you side with Harden’s hobo deluxe or Love’s spirit of the the lumberjack, there’s a little bit of something for everyone tonight. Beards are a thing that should be revered, and not feared. Facial hair is such a pivotal part of tonight’s game that Love had this to say about the beard matchup with Harden:
”Mine’s still in the works. I’ll keep it going, shape it up a bit. Keep it healthy.”
Personally, I’m a fan of facial hair. Mostly because it makes me look fifteen if I go clean shaven. My first foray into facial hair came at the suggestion of an Ex (If you know me, 80% of my stories begin with, “I had an Ex…”) to grow it out. So, I started with a simple jawline beard, because if I let it grow on my neck it becomes a patchy disaster, highlighted by the dead spot underneath my chin where I have zero hair follicles. Then in October, I decided to change my look into a goatee with sideburns after ten months of having the same look.
So, much like Love’s girlfriend last season, who also encouraged him to grow it, I started grow out mine at the suggestion of a female friend as well. However, I’ve learned that the female camp is a little split on the beard or no beard issue, but I’ve held on to mine since it’s annoying as a twenty four old to be asked what high school you go to. I’m not a stubborn or uncompromising person by any means, but I know I’m better off with than without it. Besides, once you do shave it off after a while you look in the mirror, horrified, asking yourself, “WHAT HAVE I DONE TO MY BEAUTIFUL FACE?!”
And that leads us to tonight where, despite what my opening paragraphs would have you believe, there will be basketball played. You’re in luck, too, because I’ve watched a decent amount of Rockets basketball on League Pass this season, and since this is a basketball blog, I’ll share with you some things that I’ve learned.
Jim Croce May Not Have Messed Around With Jim, But You Shouldn’t Mess with Omer Asik.
Yes, much like Croce’s song, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, you sure as heck don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you damn sure don’t mess with Asik. Don’t be deceived by Asik’s 102 Defensive Rating since he spends so much time playing next to guys like James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and other underwhelming defensive players. So far this season, Asik already has 1.1 Defensive Win Shares, despite his teammates.
In addition to his defense, he is fourth in the NBA in Total Rebounding Percentage and among the leaders in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. All of this makes the matchup with Nikola Pekovic very important, since he’s had some big games leading in Love’s absence. It sure won’t be easy.
Asik isn’t an elite offensive player by any stretch of the imagination, he’s still an average finisher at the rim for a big man and won’t every win a beauty contest for his shooting. But he can still convert enough to justify him being on the floor. Which is good for the Rockets since they like to run him in the pick ‘n’ roll with Lin and Harden, and defenses early in the season didn’t bat an eye with Asik as the roll man since he was not much of a threat to finish on offense whatsoever. Now, defenses just can’t trap the guard off of the screen every single time.
Harden and Lin Get Them Points, But They Give A Lot Back.
Top 5 Rockets Lineups with Lin-Harden and Points Per Possession Scored: 1.02; 1.03; 1.08 1.14; 1.08
Now check out the PPP allowed with those same five linueups: 1.07; 0.97; 0.98; 0.98; 1.05
You may think the three middle lineups aren’t that bad, and they aren’t terrible, but 1) They don’t play together nearly as often as the first (The first lineup has 320 minutes together and the second has just 90.); 2) The next two lineups have a PPP allowed of 1.05 and 1.06. Yeah, the Rockets have defensive issues, but they’ve managed to offset that by scoring more– a result of time playing together.
Rockets Month-by-Month Points Per Game vs Points Allowed Per Game:
October: 105.0-96.0 (1 game)
November: 101.9 — 101.9 (14 games)
December: 110.8 — 105.2 (12 games)
Yeesh, right? Part of this is prominently featuring young players like Lin, Harden, Chandler Parsons, and Marcus Morris. Harden for instance can be easily disoriented by a defense that sets good screens, freeing up his man for easy looks (Hey, Alexey Shved…). The Rockets also consider Toney Douglas an NBA player, so that’s another issue entirely.
Offensively, when this team is firing, they can be very good, and the Wolves will need to continue their good defensive play against the Rockets tonight.
Wait– Who Is In the Game for Houston?
The Houston bench has turned into a decent one. They have Greg Smith who is shooting 64.5% over the course of 22 games, and Marcus Morris who is very effective in the flow of the offense. Together, they give Houston some depth, and are able to stretch the floor as well. Can’t forget about guys like Carlos Delfino and Daequan Cook, who aren’t having great seasons, but have been the typical kind of player to bomb the Timberwolves from deep in seasons past.
There will be beards. There will be basketball. There may be beer (Not for me since I’ll be at work, though). And there may be– well, never mind.
Here’s something that kind of crept up on me: the Timberwolves are 7-3 over their last ten games. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that way, yet it is, and it’s awesome. Probably feels different because of the Florida road trip last week. Still, the Wolves have won seventy percent of their last ten games, which is great. Yes, some opponents have been better than others, but you still have to go out there and beat inferior teams.
However, these Knicks are a team to be reckoned with, currently in second place in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Love will be out tonight after getting his eye raked by Russell Westbrook on Thursday (If you saw it, it was a hard hit, and apparently his eye looked terrible after the game.), but the Knicks are missing Amare Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace, and Marcus Camby in the frontcourt, so they’ll be thinner than usual, too.
This of course means probably means Andrei Kirilenko seeing lots of Carmelo Anthony. Historically, this matchup has favored Melo, but Kirilenko provides the Timberwolves their best shot at slowing Melo down.
As a whole, this Knicks team will really test the Timberwolves’ perimeter defense, as they rank first and first in both three pointers attempted and made. Seriously. Melo, Ray Felton, Jason Kidd, and Steve Novak take between 4-5.7 attempts per game EACH. Yet, they don’t defend the three the greatest — they rank in the bottom of the league in opponent eFG%, due in part to the fact opponents make such a high percentage against them — but the Wolves don’t shoot the three well on most occasions, either.
Despite the Knicks not being a particularly strong rebounding team, the Timberwolves will have to try to force them to make mistakes that they don’t typically make since they will be without Love. It’s safe to say that if the Knicks are protecting the ball like they have all year, and no one steps up on the glass, it could be a long night if the Knicks try to turn this thing into a three point shoot out.
After tonight the Timberwolves will have played three of the league’s top four offensive teams consecutively, but the schedule softens up considerably going into next week.
When it comes down to it, a game preview is supposed to familiarize you with your team’s opponent and tells you the important thing for the game. For tonight’s Timberwolves and Thunder matchup, here’s what you need to know: the Thunder are really, really good. What? Is that not good enough for you? Ok, I’ll expand a little, but I’m telling you I already summarized the entire piece by the end of the second sentence.
It’s not that the Timberwolves aren’t good, despite dropping two straight to the Magic and Heat. If a schedule maker (with a sick and twisted sense of humor) is going to have you play the Western Conference champion one game after playing the reigning Eastern Conference champion, you should at least get one game at home, and that’s the case here.
The Thunder are good at a lot of things. Almost all of the things, actually.
- They have the number one offense in the NBA, and are the second best shooting team in the league, too. Of course this means that the Wolves draw the two best shooting teams in back-to-back games, too, because life is terribly unfair. If you’ve watched their offense from prior seasons to this one you can see the difference on the court.
If that weren’t enough, led by Russell Westbrook they’re 13th in assists, and 1st in field goal to free throw attempt ratio as a team. Oh good, they move the ball to get good looks, then actually make those shots, and get to the free throw line. I don’t have to tell you’re they’re the best free throw shooting team in the league, do I?
- They’re suddenly a top ten defensive team, because, again, life is terribly unfair. Once an average defensive team, the Thunder are suddenly the tenth ranked defensive squad in the NBA, but they don’t force a ton of turnovers, which is about all they’re not great at. Highlighting their defensive playmaking abilities, they’re number one in blocked shots, because life…not…fair.
The Thunder don’t give opponents that many attempts, either, ranking 17th and 19th in FGA and 3PAT. And when you’re a team like the Timberwolves that tend to struggle with shooting, you need all of the opportunities they can get.
- Ok, the Thunder may be an average rebounding team, and 26th in offensive rebounding, but offensive rebounding doesn’t matter as much when you shoot the ball as well as they do. Maybe if they got a little more practice at offensive rebounding they’d be better at it. Screw it. They’re a failure because they’re not already elite in this area. Fine, that’s not true; I’m just upset because this really isn’t fair.
- Then there’s Kevin Durant, who has been even more phenomenal than ever. Here’s a list of players who have ever achieved a 50/40/90 shooting season while averaging at least 27-8-4. I always thought Larry Bird looked lonely on that list…
On top of all of that, they’re also riding a 12-game winning streak into Target Center. However, there is such a thing as too much momentum and maybe the fact they’re on the road on a second game of a back-to-back is all the more fair life is going to get for us tonight. Optimistically, the Timberwolves are billing this as a rematch of the thrilling double OT loss last season in which Kevin Durant and Kevin Love exchanged back breakers, but this isn’t the same since both teams are much improved.
See, folks. The premise of previews is pretty basic. I told you, this team is good.
Alright, so things didn’t go as planned last night in Orlando. Things started out promising, but slowly came undone, and the Wolves watched their four game winning streak disappear at the hands of…Glen Davis? Er, at the hands of Glen Davis. Whoops, wrong punctuation. However, the Wolves look to get back on track against the Miami Heat! Dang it, there goes my punctuation again.
Where we stand now, the defending champs are second in the East and have won three of their last four, with their lone defeat being a two point loss to the Warriors. And as I mentioned above, the Timberwolves four out of five, yada, yada, yada…
The LeBron Heat have been trouble for the Wolves, up until the formation of the Love-Rubio tandem. In their lone meeting at the Target Center last season, the Timberwolves lost a nail-biter in regulation, 103-101. If the Wolves are able to win the key statistical battles they did last night, and hit a few more shots, they could prevail here.
The Heat’s defense may not be near where it was last and they’ve struggled on the glass, too, but that doesn’t matter when they shoot the ball as well as they do. Obviously, LeBron is athletic Freakzilla and has a grab bag of skills from many of the various greats in NBA history, but it’s really un-freaking-fair when he’s able to shoot .541 from the floor and .424 from deep, too. In short, he’ll beat you inside and he’ll beat you outside, which is something that he hasn’t been able to do in the past, and certainly not to this extent.
It’s not just LeBron, though. Check this out:
- Ray Allen: .494/.474
- James Jones: .455/.455
- Rashard Lewis: .486/.474
- Shane Battier: .433/.443
- Mike Miller: .426/.391
This list doesn’t even include Dwyane Wade’s .508% from the floor, either. Look at this; their “worst” shooting shooter is shooting just under .400! Guess how many .400% three point shooters the Timberwolves currently have? Zero. Their best shooter from deep has been Luke Ridnour with a .365% mark. When you look at it, it’s an incredible contrast.
Some of this may be attributable to LeBron’s 32.9% assist percentage, which combined with his other numbers/abilities more than justifies a 29.8% Usage Rate, but also the fact that Wade and Chalmers each have an assist percentage in the twenties, too. When you combine good ball movement, with good shooters, the Heat have just so many shooters you have to respect. When you combine all of this, it has increased the Heat’s offensive efficiency from a year ago, and off-set some of their defensive shortcomings thus far.
Fortunately for the Timberwolves, they are the NBA’s sixth-best defensive bunch. However, the Heat are the second-best team in the league protecting the ball, so they’ll have to look to exploit them on the boards to control the game and get second chance points.
In European folklore, the unicorn is a mythical creature that was seen as a creature of purity and grace, and could only be captured by a virgin. Well, the Timberwolves may not be pure, per se — we’ve made that walk of shame a few more times than we care to admit — but we proved that to be false and managed to capture our own, and he returns tonight. No, this isn’t about me attending my first Timberwolves game of the season; this is about Ricky Rubio making his return to the court tonight!
The unicorn’s horn was also believed to be able to cure the ill, and make undrinkable water drinkable. Well, from 2011 to 2012 our unicorn turned the league’s sixth best offense to the eighteenth, and the league’s twenty-seventh best to the twenty-fifth. This team currently sits fifth in opponents points per game, and that’s without a key part of their defense– Rubio.
You know what else Ricky and unicorns have in common? They’re both beloved by the ladies. Seriously, Leonardo DaVinci once wrote this about unicorns:
The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.
Your wife/girlfriend/mother/sister may not like basketball, but I promise she likes Ricky Rubio, in a surely innocent way. More importantly, the Timberwolves managed to get to 11-9 and sixth in the West despite his absence, which is all we could’ve asked for.
(I’m still watching you, Ricky.)
And Rubio returns tonight against the Dallas Mavericks, who have played three games in four nights, on the second night of a back-to-back, and suffered a humiliating 95-74 defeat last night against the Raptors.
I wanted to see Dirk Nowitzki for the first time tonight, but he’s out and I get Derek Fisher instead, because life isn’t fair. Ever.
Then there’s OJ Mayo, who’s having a ridiculously good season, averaging 20-4-3 on .484 and .508 shooting. Maybe not ridiculously good, but very efficient, especially for a guard. Which is what they’ve from players like Mayo and supporting players like Shawn Marion and *gulp* Chris Kaman. Oh, good; I get to watch Chris Kaman, too.
Perhaps their biggest factor off of the bench has been Vince Carter, much to the delight of a 10-year old Derek in a purple #15 Raptors jersey. Whether he’s been accused of coasting during games, earning the nickname “Wince” for faking injuries (He’s been remarkably healthy for most of his career), or forcing his way out of Toronto, Vince has endured his share of scrutiny despite being continually productive.
With all of that being said, after Vince’s second season with the Orlando Magic, it seemed as if he was on his way out and was dealt to the Phoenix Suns, who chose not to re-sign him at the end of the 2011 season. Fast forward to this season and Vince is shooting threes like he’s back in New Jersey, has the highest PER in three years, and has even evolved into a solid man-to-man defender in the post.
Hold on. I need a moment to process this…
…ok, I’m good now.
You want to feel old? Vince turns 36 in February and is in his 14th season in the league. Seriously, wasn’t 1999 like a few weeks ago? It was about that long ago I attended a Timberwolves-Raptors game in a Vince Carter jersey, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Unreal.
Anyway, good game tonight, and may help the Wolves’ playoff odds to win this game since the Mavs figure to be in the picture for much of the rest of the season. And if you’re near section 210, stop by and say ‘hi’.
I won’t lie, I really don’t feel like writing about basketball right now. Something about talking about something like sports just doesn’t seem right at this point. Maybe it’s because I spend too much time on Twitter where you can get news in an instant, for better or worse. Today, it’s probably for the worse. I don’t even have to mention what I’m talking about, and you know what I’m referring to. I don’t even have kids, or family in Connecticut, and yet, I’m affected by this, if only as a human being.
Again, I really don’t feel like talking about basketball, and the thought of linking this piece seems almost insensitive, although that is far from my intention.
But then I remember why sports can be helpful in times like these. Going to a game or watching a game serves as a good distraction for a couple hours. I think back to the first Wolves game I went to with my Dad, and think back to the great time we had about the game, and I’m reminded that sports help bring us together, even if the interest isn’t necessarily a shared one. Ultimately, it’s the same thing if you’re at home on the couch, catching up with your friends.
For a few hours, the only things that really matter are the score, who on God’s green earth is going to play shooting guard and when the next time the peanut vendor is going to pass by your section again.
No, sports don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but there are times when you need something else but the “real world” to get lost in for just a little bit. After this, I think I’m going to disconnect from things like Twitter. Or at least try to. I’m looking forward to watching Kevin Love against Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon looking like a bargain and marveling at how bad Austin Rivers has been so far. I’m really looking forward to what it’ll look like when the league’s 28th best offense (New Orleans) looks like when it faces the NBA’s 4th best defense (Minnesota).
It may not truly matter, but things like a basketball game on a Friday night are one of the little things that make getting out of bed worth it. It doesn’t do you any good to dwell on something so saddening and heartbreaking, anyway. That’s not to say to forget about it, or that it’s insensitive or indecent to think about other things right now, either. Tonight, I’m saying thank God for sports, and maybe we can get back to talking about Ricky Rubio’s return and a hopeful playoff run soon.
Projected Starting Fives:
Luke Ridnour — PG — Grievis Vasquez
Anthony Peeler — SG — Austin Rivers (Seriously?)
Andrei Kirilenko — SF — Al-Faroq Aminu
Kevin Lopez — PF — Anthony Davis
Nikola Pekovic — C — Robin Lopez (Ok, seriously, Monty?!)
Injury Note: No Malcolm Lee tonight (knee) and Josh Howard is questionable (Illness).
Remember the last Nuggets preview I did when I pointed out they were a streaky team, because they lost three in a row, then won four in a row, and then lost three? They came into Target Center having won two straight that night and I mentioned that if you believe in trends and patterns the Wolves would be a part of another winning streak, and sure enough Denver came out the winners. What’s more is that they would win two more after that to make another four game winning streak. Crazy, huh?
Well, tonight they come in having lost every other game since last Monday, and they won their last game, so you know what that means: yes, a sure-fire victory! After all, the pattern didn’t let us down before…
We thought we might have Ricky Rubio return against this Nuggets team, as Kevin Love did last time, but he’s been ruled out for tonight’s game. Or so we think; we didn’t think Love would play that night either.
Not much has changed with these Nuggets; they still rebound and score among the league’s best. But they their Defensive Rating matches their Offensive Rating (Not a good thing), and they still can’t shoot things like three pointers and free throws. Oh, and Ty Lawson! Andre Iguodala! Basketball!
The Wolves are still adjusting to life with Love again, and will have their full roster minus Brandon Roy, Rubio, and Derrick Williams should he earn another DNP-CD. (That was unnecessary…)
I could throw a bunch of Timberwolves stats at you, but it won’t matter since the Nuggets have gone W-L-W-L-W in their last five games, and therefore ensuring a Timberwolves win tonight. The pattern wouldn’t lie to us, would it?
Hear It: WCCO-AM 830/ In-person (As long as you turn around in your seat, but you may weird out the people behind you if you do that.)
Sorry, Cleveland. The blows just never stop coming, do they? Oh, you didn’t know that I overlooked your name on tonight’s schedule, and wrote an entire preview on next Friday’s game? Well, I did. It’s not personal, it’s just that you’re 4-12, and missing two of your top three players. I mean, Anderson Varejao is nice, but I’m probably not tuning in just for him. Watching Tristan Thompson get his shot blocked might be fun, but may get sad by halftime.
With the 21st and 24th best offense and defense in the NBA, you really don’t scare anyone. If it weren’t for Varejao and his rebounding, the Wizards would probably be making, “At least we’re not Cleveland!” jokes since you really don’t have anything you’re even just average at other than three point shooting.
I suppose it’s just as well Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are out, because whenever I have watched this Cavs team, they’ve somehow forgot they have one of the league’s best ballhandlers and played him as the off-guard.
And then, that bench, which could only be described as diseased when you glance up and down the roster. If the Wolves are fair, maybe they should sit Andrei Kirilenko another game, or go four on five to even the playing field. Kevin Love may literally be able to beat this team with one hand; that’s not a joke. But, hey, at least Pekovic versus Varejao will be a fun matchup to watch!
The fact that Cavs fans can even get out of bed in the morning is a true testament to the perseverance of the human spirit. Although, if you’re from Cleveland, you can probably get through anything by now. I mean, your starting shooting guard’s name is “Boobie” for Pete’s sake! At least show some self respect.