Don’t look now, but the Knicks are streaking! Granted, it’s a seven game losing streak, but that’s beside the point. The Knicks are trending down while their opponent tonight, the Minnesota Timberwolves, are trending up. To get a better idea of what to expect out of this Wolves team I brought in William Bohl of A Wolf Among Wolves and Zach Harper of CBSSports.
The Wolves are back over .500 and have won six of their last seven games coming into tonight’s game. What’s clicked for this team recently? Are they finally becoming the team we thought they’d be in the preseason?
yWilliam: A combination of factors has led to the Wolves’ recent surge, not the least of which is the incredible play of Kevin Love. In the timeframe you mentioned (the past seven games), he’s averaged 33/13/6 on 51/46/84 shooting splits – absurdly good production out of Minnesota’s franchise player. Secondly, the Wolves have capitalized on a somewhat weak schedule (over this stretch they have played Sacramento, Utah and Denver, twice) but nice victories over Indiana and Phoenix (on the road) shouldn’t be discounted, either. They’re finally playing the way Minnesota fans envisioned they would during the preseason. Finally, the Wolves’ bench has started to come around. Speaking of which…
Zach: The defense over the last seven games has been much better. A big part of that is defending the 3-point line pretty well and not giving up an astronomical percentage in the restricted area. They’ve struggled with that all season long but with Cunningham and Dieng defending the rim, they’ve had a shot blocking presence to alter shots that Kevin Love rebounds after they’ve missed. Over the last seven games, only four teams have defended the three better than Minnesota. Normally, they’re middle of the road.
The Wolves’ bench has been a major target of criticism this season, but have things improved with the second unit recently?
William: Minnesota’s bench was dreadful the first two months of the season, ranking in the bottom five in points per game, but they’ve been much closer to league average since January 1st. Shabazz Muhammad’s big night against Phoenix last week stands out the most, but other Minnesota reserves have been better as well. The streaky, diminutive J.J. Barea is shooting nearly 50% from the floor over his past 7 games, as is forward Dante Cunningham. Chase Budinger has finally found his legs (and shooting stroke) following a prolonged layoff due to knee problems. Even rookie Gorgui Dieng gets into the mix occasionally, and has provided an interior defensive presence the Wolves otherwise lack, especially with Ronny Turiaf (knee) missing extended time.
Zach: It feels like the bench is a lot more competent than it has been, and I think that’s due to a couple of factors. First and foremost, JJ Barea has been a lot better lately. He’s attacking well and he’s understanding the spacing on offense more. Chase Budinger has been a threat and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Shabazz Muhammad, and Gorgui Dieng have provided a lot of energy and chaos for the opponents. A competent bench has buoyed the game when the starters are out.
Opposing point guards have had a lot of fun against the Knicks this season, but in their previous meeting Rubio and Barea shot a combined 6-for-19 in a winning effort. Should we expect a different result tonight?
William: Between J.J. Barea and Ricky Rubio, the Wolves employ two of the streakiest shooting point guards in the NBA. Both have been better than usual as of late; the oft-maligned Rubio is shooting 44% from the floor, 40% from three and is hitting more than half his shots at the rim since the All-Star break. Those might not sound like terrific numbers, but for fans of the third year Spanish point guard, they’ve been sights for sore eyes. That said, they could go 6-for-19 again, or worse, and no one in Minnesota would bat an eye. It’s impossible to tell with those two.
Zach: I think Barea is in a very good zone right now so he could have a big effort off the bench. Rubio isn’t much of an attacker when he’s playing with Kevin Martin and Love. He’s aggressive in how he attacks the middle of the defense but he doesn’t look for his own shot early in games like he used to. Maybe that will change against whatever defense the Knicks are trying to throw out there. Most likely, I think you’ll just see them try to punish inside with Love and Pekovic.
Having Martin and Pekovic back in the starting lineup is obviously a big boost for this lineup, but what specifically makes the Rubio-Martin-Brewer-Love-Pekovic unit so dominant?
William: It all starts with Kevin Love – he’s 2nd in the league in elbow touches per game and 6th in total touches, often facilitating the offense by hitting cutters, playing a high-low game with Nikola Pekovic, kicking out of the post to open shooters, or finding Corey Brewer for an easy two on a long outlet pass. Kevin Martin provides spacing and three-point shooting, something Minnesota sorely lacked before his arrival, and is a terrific secondary scoring option who can lighten Love’s load. Pekovic does the dirty work, cleaning up the offensive glass and sealing his man for easy duck-in baskets. Rubio is the glue, a pass-first point guard playing with three above-average scorers at their respective positions (Love, Martin, Pekovic) who is more interested in setting them up than getting his own shot. There are some flaws in the Wolves’ overall roster construction, but the starting unit fits together beautifully, and it’s carried them throughout the season.
Zach: They just click as an offensive unit. With Pek and Love rebounding errant shots, it allows Brewer and Rubio to be aggressive defending and put pressure by gambling quite a bit. When it works, they’re deflecting passes and forcing turnovers. This team is very good at forcing turnovers. They’re running on misses and even a lot of makes. They force a lot of mismatches for Love by pushing the tempo and they know how to duck into the paint with Pek for easy buckets when teams try to account for those mismatches.
Who ultimately wins tonight and why?
William: I try to be dispassionate when it comes to game predictions, but between the Wolves’ desperation and the Knicks’ exasperation, it’s hard to picture New York coming away with a victory. The one thing that worries me, however, is the potential for a big night from Carmelo Anthony. Big small forward/power forward combo players have hurt Minnesota this season, as Corey Brewer is much too slight of build (and prone to gambling on the perimeter) to be effective slowing them down. If the Wolves keep ‘Melo in check, it’ll be an easy victory. If not, all bets are off.
Zach: I think the Wolves win because they’re at home and they’re coming back for a key home stand. They can’t afford to give away wins they should record and this is one of those games. Where the Knicks can hurt them is shooting a lot of threes and running/attacking with a small lineup. But that’s going to require some solid/consistent coaching out of Mike Woodson and I don’t have that confidence in him this year.