Trailing by as many as 21, the Wolves roared back to beat the Bulls on the road.
The first quarter of this game felt like the low point. All of the Wolves flaws were on display on national television, and it was ugly. Their interior defense was toothless, their ball-handling sloppy, and their shot selection abysmal. Six minutes in, the Wolves trailed 26-6, and looked like the worst team in the league.
They stabilized a bit with a few perimeter makes, but still trailed by 21 midway through the second quarter, when all of a sudden, they started finding a defensive rhythm. Contesting shots, forcing mid-range jumpers, and grabbing rebounds, they went on a 22-5 run to end the half within four points, setting up one of their better second half efforts of the season.
The Wolves pushed ahead in the third quarter with a terrific effort defensively, wearing the Bulls down and getting out in transition. After a brief hiccup early in the 4th, the managed to regain control of the game and play from in front down the stretch, holding off the Bulls until the were able to ice the game at the line.
The story of this one for me was the play of the Wolves wings, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. They combined for 47 points, not an unusual figure, but they both contributed in other ways as well, something we don’t always see. They also combined for 15 boards and nine assists, and outplayed their all-star counterparts, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. In particular, it struck me as a strong defensive effort by both of them, especially in the second half. When your wing players do things other than score, it leads to winning.
I also thought it was a strong game from Ricky Rubio, his second quality performance in a row. Better play from Rubio would be a godsend, and I thought he was particularly active tonight in ways we saw last season, especially defensively. He was around the ball a lot more, digging back, disrupting plays, and generally making the nuisance of himself we’ve come to expect. He finished with a double-double (11-10, with five boards), and was a factor in a way we haven’t seen all that often this season.
One sequence revealed his importance. Up 95-91 with under three minutes to play, Thibs decided to go with the point-Wiggins look. Two straight possessions led to two turnovers and two Bulls baskets to tie the game. Next possession they ran a Rubio-Towns pick-and-roll, and he found Wiggins for an open jumper. Rubio rebounds a Bulls miss and finds LaVine ahead of the field for the lay-up, the four point lead is restored, and the Wolves closed it out from there.
It was a terrific night in a season that hasn’t seen many of them so far. Perhaps the first quarter tonight really was the low-point of the season; it felt as though the team, particularly the starting unit, finally had enough, and realized it was time to start growing up. They now have three days off before their next game on Saturday against the Rockets, and we’ll see if anything carries over from this one.
• Should have mentioned Gorgui Dieng above; he had a strong game offensively, especially early trying to keep the Wolves in the game. Made his first six shots and finished 7-12 for 16 points.
• By my count, the Bulls made only eight of their final 27 shot attempts; I can’t say enough about the Wolves defense in the final 30 minutes of this one. The Bulls were cruising along at around 70 percent from the field well into the second quarter, and finished at 43 percent for the game.
• A tough statistical night for Karl-Anthony Towns, who shot only 6-21 and had four turnovers. But he made some big ones, and stiffened defensively considerably. His block on Wade in the final minute sealed the win (and got Wade ejected.)
• 15 offensive rebounds by the Wolves were huge-everyone who played had at least one o-board. After getting dominated in the paint early by Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson, the Wolves really asserted themselves on the glass.
• Only nine bench points tonight, as the return of Nemanja Bjelica didn’t provide much tonight.