Can we at least do better than the Sixers?
The Minnesota Timberwolves have banded together away from home, their 5-2 road record including a 117-107 win in Atlanta on November 9, an OT victory in Chicago, a double-digit win in Miami, and two losses by a combined margin of seven points. Here at the Target Center, site of tonight’s rematch with the Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports North), they’ve been a mirror image of themselves.
The Wolves (6-8) were 0-6 in front of their home crowd, coming into Monday’s action. They then found themselves down 13 in the first half, then six points with five minutes to go, against a deliberately winless Philadelphia team that ended their 0-17 spell in this same building last year. Thankfully, Philly said, “Sike!” once again. Two nights after bailing Miami out from a 17-point second-half deficit, they gifted Minnesota 20 points in the final five minutes to let the Wolves off the hook.
After starting off the season playing well on the road, the Hawks have dropped their last three away games, and know they must put in a better 48-minute collective effort than the Suxers did to avoid stretching the skid to four.
While it took a minute, Wolves fans were treated to a howling good time at the close of Monday’s comeback victory, thanks to Andrew Wiggins. His 15 fourth-quarter points brought him to within a point of the career-high 33 points he enjoyed at Philips Arena a couple weeks ago. Wiggins’ assertiveness on forays to the rim drew attention away from his teammates, and he made his opponents pay when he dished the ball off a drive to a struggling Kevin Martin for the game-clinching three-pointer.
Wolves coach Sam Mitchell moved K-Mart II back into the starting lineup, hoping it would spark the former high-scoring wing to get beyond his shooting woes. He made two of his five attempts from downtown in Atlanta, but on the rest of the season is 7-for-31, contributing to a career-low 36.5 FG%.
Until now, Smitch could turn to stretchy rookie big Nemanja Bjelica (3-for-5 3FGs, 4 assists @ ATL) and Zach LaVine (yes, Lavine: 38.3 3FG%) when he needed sparks of perimeter firepower off the bench. But with Bjelica having missed the past two games with knee soreness and questionable for tonight, Minnesota (last in 3s made and attempted; 27th in 3FG%) needs to lean on Martin more.
It was a rough outing on Monday for Karl-Anthony Towns (6 points, 2 rebounds with foul trouble) in his first head-to-head with Philly’s Jahlil Okafor (25 points, 12 rebounds). He’ll try to make up for it with a repeat of his performance in Atlanta (17 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks) a couple weeks ago. Behind Wiggins (15-for-22 FGs), KAT and an active bench, the T’wolves were able to overwhelm the Hawks to the tune of a 72-point first half.
Atlanta (10-6) will need a stronger defensive effort keyed by Al Horford, who had light work on Dikembe Mutombo Night (11 points, 4 rebounds, one finger-waggable block) but faced little resistance from Jared Sullinger (7 points and 5 boards). Mike Muscala blocked a pair of shots but was otherwise ineffective off the bench, so we’ll see if Edy Tavares eats away at the minutes of Roseville’s Finest tonight, while Tiago Splitter continues to rest his hip.
Jeff Teague (16 points, 9 assists, 3 turnovers) was a fairly steady influence in his return to the starting lineup yesterday, a contrast to an erratic Dennis Schröder (1-for-7 FGs, four assists, 5 TOs vs. BOS). Teague’s defense on a flustered Isaiah Thomas (1-for-6 2FGs) was noteworthy, a good sign heading into his meeting tonight with a different class of lead guard in Ricky Rubio. The Hawks will want to impede Rubio’s penetration, without fouling, and close out on the recipients of his passes, forcing somebody else to make plays. Without Rubio or Bjelica dishing the rock, the rest of the Wolves have an assist-turnover ratio of 0.98.
Schröder fits many of the characteristics of a player who will get needled by Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett. That’s a good thing if it’s during the flow of the game and Dennis is playing better, since it will take KG’s defensive attention away from the multi-talented Paul Millsap (10-for-13 2FGs, 9 rebounds last night). Schröder needs to find his open bigs on his dashes to the glass.
Filling in for Hawks starter Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha had a pretty complete game last night (7-for-8 FGs, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks), and it’s good to have some help off the bench from rookie Lamar Patterson (3-for-5 3FGs, career-high six rebounds) in his third consecutive game of 20-plus-minutes. After playing just briefly yesterday, Justin Holiday is likely to get into the act tonight to help relieve Kyle Korver (team-high 33 minutes, 3-for-3 3FGs vs. BOS) and Sefolosha. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was thrilled to be back on the floor last night and may get some burn again as well.
Two-way production from a deep bench could make a difference for Atlanta in tonight’s game. Mitchell is struggling to find defensive answers between Gorgui Dieng, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Andre Miller, and Damjan Rudez, which is another reason Tayshaun Prince was relegated in favor of Martin.
In the aftermath of coach Mike Budenholzer’s incidental ref-bump and subsequent fine, it’s no coincidence that Atlanta was whistled for a season-tying 25 personal fouls on Tuesday, sending the Celtics to the line for 26 free throw shots. The Wolves (28.1 FT attempts per game, 4th in NBA; 79.9 FT%, 5th in NBA) will be thankful for some favorable calls, especially the tenacious Garnett, Wiggins and Martin. The Hawks’ ballhandlers and screen-setters must avoid the risk of offensive foul calls that will slow down the game in Minnesota’s favor.
Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s Go Hawks!