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After wretched road trip, the Wolves redeem themselves with a win over the Knicks

For a change, adversity became opportunity for the Timberwolves.  

Shabazz Muhammad fulfilled the need for aggression and for a stolid presence down near the basket at both ends of the court.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

So my plan was to analyze the history of three-point shooting by this year’s edition of the Wolves — and the other teams coached by Flip Saunders during his long career. But that can wait until tomorrow. The Wolves registered a feel-good victory over the New York Knicks last night, and after mercilessly (and, I believe, appropriately) ripping this team for their recently completed, wretched road trip, it behooves everyone to bask a little bit in the prevailing goodwill.

For a change, and at a propitious time, adversity became opportunity for the Wolves. As expected, Ricky Rubio, their gifted point guard and team leader, was out with the significantly sprained ankle. More surprisingly, their second-best player, power forward Thad Young, had decided to wait a few more days with his family grieving over the death of his mother. Then there was leviathan center Nikola Pekovic, who was sidelined with chronic foot problems, and a sprained right wrist besides.

Head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders responded with a pair of key changes to his starting lineup. New York’s star player, Carmelo Anthony, is both a quick and rugged player, a combo forward who presents a difficult matchup. Without Young, clearly the Wolves’ best option under normal circumstances, Saunders decided to deploy second-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad along with rookie Andrew Wiggins on Anthony. After sculpting his 6-6 frame down to a rock-solid 225 pounds over the off-season, “Bazzy” had demonstrated in limited minutes that he was aggressive and hungry for playing time. He’d erupted for 18 points in less than 14 minutes on the court during the final game of the road trip in Dallas.

“Sometimes he is in the wrong place—and I yell at him,” Saunders said of Muhammad during the post-game press conference. “But he plays so hard and I just felt that what we needed — with Carmelo in their lineup — we needed some physicality and he brings that. He is pretty relentless going to the glass, [and] trying to go to the basket.”

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It was the first start of Bazzy’s career, and the 32 minutes he logged on the court was the most he had ever played in the NBA. He fulfilled the need for aggression and for a stolid presence down near the basket at both ends of the court. At one point he achieved jaw-dropping height skying for a rebound. It has always been apparent that he is, like Anthony, a combo forward who thrives in certain matchups, especially against smaller teams where he can be used in the paint. When I asked Saunders if he could foresee some small-ball lineups where Young became the center and Muhammad the power forward, he didn’t discount the fairly radical scenario. At the very least, if, as rumored, the Wolves do decide to trade Corey Brewer, Muhammad is an intriguing replacement for Brewer’s minutes.

But because second-year center Gorgui Dieng was filling in for the injured veteran Pekovic, Saunders now had three starters—Muhammad, Wiggins and Dieng—with precious little experience. Flip responded by going with 11-year veteran Mo Williams over rookie teenager Zach LaVine at point guard. When Rubio had gone down, Saunders choice of LaVine as the replacement was the clearest signal in this nascent season that he would opt for player development over short-term gains in the team’s won-lost record, a question of balance that is the dominant subtext of this entire season.

Saunders had tried to spin the decision as one where he was “protecting” the 31-year old Williams from excessive wear and tear. I didn’t believe it, but agreed with the choice because of the youth-development message it sent in terms of the team’s priorities, and because Williams would be better able to stabilize the second unit while allowing LaVine the advantage of playing with the established veterans.

But, to put it politely, the gambit backfired. LaVine was incapable of running any of the set plays in Saunders’ sophisticated offense while Williams clanked shots on offense and seemed grossly indifferent on defense. Whether he was pouting over being leap-frogged by the callow LaVine or simply lacks the character to sustain full effort under wretched circumstances remains unclear. In any case, the play of the point guards was a deficiency gilded in neon during the five-game losing streak.

Lo and behold, the revamped starting lineup synchronized like a charm. Perhaps better still, it was powered by a pair of veterans, Williams and shooting guard Kevin Martin, who had been the most notorious scofflaws of team defense and stabilizing leadership during the losing streak. Martin was a hot shooter all night, pouring in 37 points. But unlike the loss in Dallas, where he scored 34, he didn’t sabotage his team with porous defense. After going minus 21 in a 14-point loss to the Mavericks, he was plus 22 in the Wolves’ 115-99 triumph over the Knicks Wednesday night. And Williams was a game-best plus 29, in less than 32 minutes of play, doling out 13 assists against only two turnovers.

After the game, Saunders had every reason to feel good about himself and his team. This entire season will be borne along on a fragile equation of conflicting needs, to both season the youngsters and appease the veterans. Losing Rubio near the onset of a soul-shredding road trip where the kids were overwhelmed and the veterans (with the notable exception of Brewer) were under-motivated threatened to become an extended detour into malaise. Beating the Knicks at least temporarily staved off that deepening dolor. And it was done via inspired performances by two of the veteran malingerers Sauders had helped massage back to competence. Also by the solid, active play of the two players chosen by Saunders in the 2013 draft, Muhammad and Dieng. Brewer, signed as a free agent last season, and Wiggins, the star-in-waiting who was the main chip acquired by Saunders in the Kevin Love trade, were also due for praise.

Hey, even LaVine called out a play, using a thumb down signal, and engineered its credible (if unsuccessful) execution in the half-court. Baby steps.

Enjoy the goodwill as long as you can. The defending champion Spurs come to town on Friday.