AP Photo by Nikki Boertman
Game #79, Road Game #39: Minnesota 102, Orlando 101
Game #80, Road Game #40, Minnesota 114, Memphis 105
Season Record: 21-59
1. Wanting It More
It does not significantly diminish the two wins posted this weekend by the Timberwolves by pointing out that neither Orlando nor Memphis bothered to be particularly resilient or really dedicate themselves to "the old college try." The Magic have a #3 seed in the east sewn up and didn’t seem especially distraught about allowing the Wolves to overcome a 9-point deficit in the final 4:23 of the game. The Grizzlies rested outside sniper Mike Miller (bad back) and benched their top two centers, Darko Milicic and Jason Collins (each DNP-CD) to get a longer look at the small (6-9) youngster Andre Brown in the pivot. Such are the vagaries of late-season hoops. Consider that the previous two years, the Wolves themselves bent over backwards to move the clicker upwards in the loss column.
By contrast, the Wolves weathered a blistering 3-point shooting performance by Orlando in the first half and overcame the Magic with a balanced scoring (abetted by riding their most highly-touted quintet of the future at crunchtime) and more diligent defense; then blew Memphis out with a franchise-record 43-point first quarter and their most dominating performance of the season on the boards. What these things have in common–the resilience, the ball movement, the rebounds, the defense–is an abiding desire to win. It has been awhile since this team was demonstrably hungier than its opponent for two successive games.
Let’s focus in on the pivotal movements of both games. After playing cat-and-mouse with the Wolves with a lead that fluctuated from 4 to 14 since the first 90 seconds of the game, Orlando and Minnesota each made key substitutions with 8:18 to go and the Magic up 5, 91-86. For Minnesota, it was Al Jefferson in for Chris Richard, giving the Wolves a lineup that includes their last three first-round picks–McCants, Foye, Brewer–and arguably their top two players this season, Jefferson and Gomes. Somewhat remarkably, despite the frequency with which the Wolves play smallball, this particular quintet does not even rank among the top 20 most-frequent five-man units this season for Minnesota (according to 82games.com), which means it hadn’t even mustered 36 minutes up this point.
Well, for the final 8:18 they stayed intact, and the result was a 16-10 margin, including 12-2 over that last 4:23. A primary reason for this disparity was Stan Van Gundy’s decision to sub in Jameer Nelson for Carlos Arroyo instead of Keyon Dooling, giving the Foye-McCants backcourt a substantial physical mismatch versus Nelson (6-1, 190) and Dooling (6-3, 195)–especially when you consider that the Magic flank the beastly Dwight Howard with a pair of 6-10 swingmen (Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu) and throw the 6-5, 220 Maurice Evans in the backcourt as starters.
Consequently, the Wolves were able to rally despite zero field goals from Jefferson, who went 0-4 from the floor while the rest of his teammates registered 10-18, including 4-4 from beyond the arc, two apiece by Foye and McCants, who played together over the last 17 minutes. For that matter, Foye played the entire second half, and all but 34 seconds of the entire last three periods, leading the team in points (25, on 10-21 FG) and assists (6). With Jefferson otherwise engaged with the giant speciment named Howard, Foye went off for a dozen 4th quarter points, McCants added 8–but more significantly, hit a vital crunchtime trey to bring the Wolves to within a point with 1:17 left to play. This was right after the Wolves looked doomed by a sequence where Ryan Gomes clanked a wide open jumper and Turkoglu drove the left lane for a layup. It was also the last field goal of the game. The Wolves’ defense clamped down, the Magic, worried about Howard getting fouled and missing free throws, chose to have Dooling and Turkoglu miss out side jumpers, and the game came down to a scrum where the Wolves battled for an offensive rebound that eventually fell to Gomes. Howard fouled him with 2 seconds on the clock. Whatever Gomes’s difficulties with jumpers with the game on the line, he’s money from the free throw stripe–swish, and swish. Ballgame, Minnesota.
Still riding the high of their first road victory of the season against an Eastern Conference team, the Wolves ensured that there would be no drama in the game against the Grizz. They purely and simply blew out Memphis in the first period, led by Kirk Snyder, whose four turnovers and minus -14 in less than 25 minutes of play against Orlando stood in stark contrast to Corey Brewer’s fine outing. Against Memphis, he went hard to the hole, scoring nine points on a putback layup, dunk, and a driving layup, plus three FTs. Meanwhile, the Wolves doubled up the Grizzlies (who made the smallball Minnesota squad look rather large with their pipsqueak lineup) on the boards, 20-10. That set the tone, which had the Wolves racking up a monstrous 21 *offensive* rebounds in the first three periods alone, finishing with 62 boards overall. Four players–Jefferson, Gomes, Snyder and Brewer, had double-digit rebounding totals. McCants was again a deadeye from outside. The final 9-point margin really wasn’t that close.
2. The Return of Corey Brewer
How long has it been since you were excited about Brewer’s NBA future–a month? Six weeks? I daresay the same might be said of Brewer’s own outlook. But, as will probably always be the case with Brewer, he rekindled his nearly snuffed confidence with defense on Friday, particularly in the final 6:58 of the second period. It started with a steal of Arroyo and floor length drive culminating in two free throws. Then he went high flying sidewise to block Arroyo’s open court layup attempt a few minutes later, stuck a jumper after that, and filched the ball from Howard and generated another layup in the final minute of the period. Bottom line, in the second quarter alone, Brewer had 8 points, 4 boards (two offensive), two steals and a block. No doubt it helped that he and his former Gator college teammate Richard both had dozens of friends in the stands down in Florida. In any event, shaking off all those weeks of bad ju ju, he carried over the old Brewer hustle into the Grizzlies game and racked up 11 rebounds to give him 20 in less than 52 minutes of play his last two contests, along with four steals. Yes, he can get overamped–he fouled out against Memphis and had moments versus Orlando where he was ball-dogging a player who wasn’t his man–but when that enthusiasm is productive, he can flash back to the steals and blocks and boards rather than those hideous misses that have marred his play before then.
3. Quick Hits
Chris Richard also had dug his niche a little deeper as the backup center with a pair of nice games over the weekend. While it remains possible that Richard will become this year’s Bracey Wright–a kid with a flash of promise honing everything he can out of his game who just doesn’t have NBA ability in the long run–his attitude and work ethic have been a joy to behold this entire season.
Another second-rounder who constantly works hard at refining aspects of his play–Craig Smith–has not been missed at all the past two games, which could help make some signing decisions a little easier in the off-season.
During the trey for the Milwaukee finale, I’ll announce a couple of playoff games or series in advance that I’ll be covering along with delivering my choices for various awards, and guessing the winners of the first round matchups. If we can keep this beautiful conversation going into the postseason, I’m game.