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Can the Wolves continue to exploit their good luck?

With three games in four days, It’s time for this team to test itself against stiffer competition.

J.J. Barea
J.J. Barea

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ home victory over the Orlando Magic Wednesday night bore a striking resemblance to the team’s opening-night home win over the Sacramento Kings. Almost immediately the opponent exhibited profound dysfunction as the Wolves coasted to an early lead — and then stopped executing with teamwork and purpose before belatedly lowering the throttle to pull away in the second half.

As poorly as Sacramento played in Minnesota’s opener, especially on defense, at least the Kings had some raw talent that compelled respect and occasional reckoning. Not so Orlando.

The Magic are in a full-scale but rather clumsy rebuilding mode after dumping their two best players (superstar center Dwight Howard and forward Ryan Anderson) for a surprisingly low fraction of their value. Among the skeletal crew that remains, three of the team’s would-be starters are out with injuries, and one of them, Jameer Nelson, is the team’s only serviceable point guard.

Thus, for the second home game in a row, the Wolves really didn’t have to contend with any cohesive set plays. For the Kings, it was a stylistic choice — their best players are chaotic freelancers. But for the Magic, with Nelson out, they simply don’t have anyone who can effectively choreograph even the rudiments of a half-court offense. As a result, Orlando shot only 32.4 percent and committed a dozen turnovers in the first half on Wednesday — yet they still only trailed by four points.

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In fact, the Wolves were only up by five with two minutes to play in the third period. A 19-4 run over the next four and a half minutes sealed the win, with combo guard J.J. Barea again providing the crucial gusto before limping to the sidelines with a sprained foot. After four games, Barea’s efficiency is up — he’s shooting less but scoring more on a per-minute basis, and using his trademark energy to get teammates involved. In the final 100 seconds of the third period on Wednesday, he had a steal and fed backup center Greg Stiemsma for two layups and a midrange jumper to ignite the decisive rally. My skepticism about his value to the team is becoming less righteous. Now if he can only stop getting dinged up.

Schedule gets a tad tougher

With both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the sidelines and a batch of new players still learning how to play together, the Wolves have every reason to be ecstatic about a .750 win percentage after four games. Under the circumstances, a fast start fosters confidence in coach Rick Adelman’s teamwork-oriented system, especially since every member of the current t10-player rotation has meaningfully contributed to at least one of the three victories.

That said, the Wolves are a very flimsy 3-1 team, having benefited from an extremely favorable early schedule and circumstance.  If anything, the home wins against patsies like Orlando and Sacramento should have been more decisive. On the road, the Wolves were pummeled by a Toronto team that as of Friday morning hadn’t won another game, and staged a stirring second-half comeback against Brooklyn (their best opponent to date) in large part because the Nets play lousy defense and grew overconfident on offense after dominating the first half with little effort.

The good news is that Minnesota couldn’t ask for a better set of circumstances for their upcoming schedule. It is time for this team to test itself against stiffer competition, but not so rugged that they get blown out of the gym, as would probably happen against the Heat, Spurs and a handful of other opponents. It so happens that three games in the next four days — home Friday against Indiana, then on the road versus Chicago on Saturday and Dallas on Monday — provide just the right dose of diluted rigor.

All three opponents have reached the playoffs the past two seasons and continue to set high expectations for themselves. But each of them has been waylaid by a significant knee injury to its “face of the franchise” star, and is still figuring out how to cope with his absence. (The Wolves will match their woe with Rubio’s knee and raise them Love’s broken hand.) Even so, all three teams retain a solid core of accomplished veterans, solid-to-great coaches, and a purposeful, winning attitude.

It would not be shocking if the Wolves won or lost all three games, although obviously the greater likelihood is a less extreme result. What is certain is that we will know a lot more about the mettle of this Wolves team sans Love and Rubio on Tuesday morning than we know now. Here is a thumbnail preview of the three game matchups.

Friday: Indiana Pacers here

Many pundits believed the Pacers would be the second-best team, behind only Miami, in the Eastern Conference. But they have started slowly, with a record of 2-3, and have learned that the knee injury sidelining their veteran star and leading scorer Danny Granger will take nearly three months to overcome.

Last year, they were one of only four teams (the Bulls, Heat and Thunder were the others) to rank among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (measured as points scored or allowed per possession). Thus far this season, while the Indiana defense remains solid (sixth in fewest points allowed per possession), the offensive has plummeted to 27th. Missing Granger is certainly a factor here, but as a team, the Pacers have committed the second-most turnovers and aren’t getting to the free throw line as frequently. One obvious scapegoat is third-year swingman Paul George, regarded as an emerging star, but currently committing over four turnovers per game and shooting much less accurately than he did a year ago.

Potentially key matchups: Even before Granger’s absence, power forward David West has been the most reliable offensive force for Indiana since his arrival last season. Derrick Williams will have his hands full coping with West, an extremely crafty scorer. At center, both teams deploy freakish physical specimens — Nikola Pekovic for his granite-like mass, the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert for his 7-2 height — but both are much more agile and nuanced than their appearance suggests. If one or the other gets in foul trouble it will be significant.

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Saturday: Minnesota at Chicago

The Bulls are expected to be without 2011 MVP Derrick Rose for most or all of this season, likely putting the two-time reigning top playoff seed in the East down in the middle, if not the bottom, of the playoff pack. But under coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls are still hellacious defenders — it is the Rose-less, 19th-rated offense that is the problem. Nevertheless, they have started 3-2 and are a proud, disciplined bunch who will be playing at home, where they gave the elite Thunder all they could handle before falling Thursday night.

Potentially key matchups: Unlike the preseason, I expect Thibodeau to put his best interior defender, Yoakim Noah, on Pekovic but also rotate frequently because Noah gives up more than 50 pounds to Pek. If Noah is hitting his quirky midrange jumper, it will be a big edge for the Bulls. At off-guard, Chicago’s Rip Hamilton is a perpetual motion machine, making him a tough matchup for Brandon Roy, although Roy has the size to make him pay at the other end of the court. And once again Derrick Williams figures in a significant matchup, as power forward Carlos Boozer is by far the weak link in Chicago’s defense, and D-Will has the athleticism to make him pay — so long as he knows that ball movement is also crucial against the Bulls’ swarming defense.

Monday: Minnesota at Dallas

I infamously said the Mavericks were on the verge of collapse in my preseason NBA preview — even without their clear-cut superstar Dirk Nowitzki, they are 4-1 and rank among the league’s top five offenses. Freed from the limitations of sixth-man status in Memphis, off-guard O.J. Mayo is shooting 50 percent overall and making more than 60 percent of his three-pointers while averaging nearly 22 points per game. Coach Rick Carlisle is one of the best chalkboard guys in the NBA, and has used Vince Carter effectively off the bench. Dallas figures to be one of the three or four teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the West, so strategically this is the most important game of the trio.

Potentially key matchups: Roy on Mayo at the off guard will be interesting. Pekovic could have a big night, as he is too strong for the Mavs’ Chris Kaman. For basketball geeks, watching Adelman and Carlisle match wits will be a treat, especially with patchwork starting lineups and surprisingly (thus far) successful benches at their discretion. Of course by Monday night, the Wolves will have played half as many additional games as the ones they have currently logged, and the equations and matchups will well have taken on a different tinge. Even so, this should be an entertaining — and especially revealing — tussle.