Riding the most ridiculously accurate long-range shooting performance in the NBA this season—and in the entire 26-year history of their franchise—the Minnesota Timberwolves pried an onerous 15-game losing streak off their backs with a come-from-behind, 110-101 victory over the Indiana Pacers Tuesday night.
Mo buckets, no problems
The superhero of the evening was shoot-first point guard Mo Williams, who, with flames flickering off the ends of his fingers and a bemused, slightly insane smirk on his face, had 37 points in the second half alone en route to a franchise record 52 overall.
Let the record show that just two of those points were scored within eight feet of the basket. Only six more were scored within 16 feet of the basket, along with the eight free throws Mo converted in nine attempts.
That leaves a whopping 36 points that Williams tossed in from beyond 16 feet. It didn’t matter where he was or what circumstances complicated his onslaught. On one play, moving to his left, he was jostled by a Pacer defender fighting through a screen. Believing he was fouled, he flung the ball in mid-motion from three-point range and hit nothing but net as it moved through the hoop. A while later, with 6-9 power forward David West racing toward him and leaping out to block his shot, Williams fell backwards, cutting loose of the orb before going out of bounds 25 feet from the basket—nailing it for another trey.
Practically every spot was a favorite locale for Mo this night. From the left side of the court, Williams was 3-for-6 shooting from 16-24 feet away and 3-for-4 from three-point territory. From the right side, he was 5-for-7 on long two-pointers and 2-for-3 on treys. From the middle, he sank his only long two and was but 1-for-3 from long distance, with one of them a half-court heave that, surprisingly, didn’t swish the twine.
Put it all together and Mo finished 19-for-33 from the field, including 6-for-11 from three-point range and 8-for-9 from the line. More importantly, he did what he had to do to snap his team’s spirit-sapping losing skein.
A 32-year old veteran in his twelfth season, Williams has earned the reputation for becoming an unconscionable gunner on occasion, at the expense of enabling good shots for his teammates. On Tuesday, that vice morphed into a virtue. As it became increasingly apparent that his shooting stroke was magical and his team was desperate for a victory, Mo gleefully kept upping the ante.
He had six points and doled out three assists in the first period. In the second quarter he added nine more points, but still hadn’t converted a three-pointer by halftime. Then, boom! Sixteen points in the third period, followed by a glorious 21 points, with four assists, in the fourth and deciding stanza.
Pretty much all of them were necessary, as the Wolves didn’t seize the second-half lead until there was just 4:29 remaining in the game and were up by just three points with 100 seconds left to play.
After the game, coaches and players from both teams and Mo himself trumpeted the accomplishment with the proper hosannas. But as to its genesis, all anyone can do is shrug. The man was hot, and knew down to his marrow how to revel in the heat.
The feng shui of Gorgui Dieng
A trio of Mo’s Timberwolves teammates deserves mention as important contributors to this victory. Begin with center Gorgui Dieng, who was suffering from elements of a cold and the flu enough that it was uncertain whether or not he could play just a few hours before the game. Dieng was matched up with behemoth center Roy Hibbert, who at 7-2 is three-inches taller and weighs 33 pounds more than Dieng, who tips the scales at 245.
No matter. During Tuesday night’s game, Wolves announcers Dave Benz and Jim Petersen noted that Dieng had exhorted his teammates to get angry enough to erase the losing streak that had cast a pall on the team for more than a month. By his inspired play in the first quarter, he walked that talk.
Battling Hibbert with precious little assistance (with West matched up against Thad Young, the Wolves were also undersized at power forward, a typical situation this entire season), Dieng did a little bit of everything well. Specifically, in the first period alone, he sank three of four shots against Hibbert, including a resounding slam dunk and a nifty up-and-under move that emphasized his footwork. He blocked two shots, most notably hustling back down the court after slipping hard on a drive to the hoop at the other end, arriving just in time to swat Hibbert’s layup. He had two steals, scrambling to get a loose ball on one play and denying an entry pass to Hibbert on another. And after his three baskets began drawing defenders, he stepped out to the high post and found rookie Andrew Wiggins for a pair of beautifully lofted assists for layups in the final two minutes of an opening quarter that had the Wolves up by four.
A significant turning point in the game also involved Dieng. Halfway through the third quarter with the Pacers up by seven, Dieng received a pass near the hoop and got Hibbert in the air with a shot fake. As Hibbert tumbled to the floor and Dieng went up for the slam, Hibbert grabbed his shoulder and yanked him down, a dirty play that earned Hibbert a flagrant foul and an ejection. (That foul and the Pacers terrible free-throw shooting in the second half certainly provided the Wolves with a path to victory that might otherwise have been closed.)
After the game, Dieng acknowledged that his back was injured by the takedown. But he kept playing because “at some point it is more personal … I’m sick of losing,” he said.
A lot more can be elucidated about the contribution of Dieng, who has been Minnesota’s best overall performer through the first half of this checkered season. I’ll give him the space and focus he merits in a column on Friday.
A replacement dynamic duo
The other two players significant to this victory are best mentioned as a pair because of the way they complemented each other’s games on Tuesday—the heralded rook Wiggins and the second-year, second-round pick on the fringe of the roster, Robbie Hummel.
Before Saturday night’s game against San Antonio, I asked Wolves coach Flip Saunders if Wiggins would miss the presence of swingman Bazzy Muhammad, who is now out with an oblique injury. Saunders affirmed the negative impact of Muhammad’s absence by noting that opponents had generally been assigning their more rugged wing defender to Bazzy, usually leaving Wiggins to deal with a quicker but smaller man guarding him.
In the past two games, Chase Budinger has replaced Muhammad in the starting lineup. He is listed at 6-7 and 218 pounds but is properly regarded as much less of a threat to score inside than is the 6-8, 200-pound Wiggins, and so opponents have confronted the rookie with more strength and sinew—he’s being treated as a “small forward” instead of a “shooting guard.”
But when the 6-8, 215 Hummel replaces Budinger in the lineup, he is rugged enough as an interior scorer to demand coverage by the opposing small forward—creating a similar dynamic to the one that makes Wiggins and Muhammad an effective wing tandem.
Against San Antonio, Wiggins was plus 14 in the 10:47 that he played shooting guard and Hummel was in as a small forward—and minus 21 in the other 29:10 he was in the game. (What’s more, San Antonio small forward Austin Daye, a below-average player getting time because of injuries on the Spurs, scored a game-high 22 points and was a game-high plus 19.)
Against Indiana, Saunders subbed in Hummel for Budinger after just 8:34 of play and the Wolves down by two. Over the final 3:22 of the first period, the Wolves outscored Indiana by six. Yet when Saunders went small to start the second quarter, sitting Dieng and using Hummel as the power forward or center in tandem with Anthony Bennett, relegating Wiggins back to small forward alongside Budinger, Minnesota was outscored by seven in just 2:19.
Hummel and Wiggins weren’t paired with Dieng again until the final 49 seconds of the third period, when they were plus one. Wiggins then rested for the first 4:51 of the final period, setting up the joint heroics of the Wolves crunchtime surge.
When Wiggins returned, Mo Williams was in a resplendent fury with 40 points, but that represented nearly half of the Wolves total in a 83-83 tie. By the five-minute mark, Williams had upped his total to 45, but the Wolves trailed by two, 90-88. It was too much of a one-man show. And that’s when the Hummel-Wiggins dynamic joined the party.
Hummel fled to the corner during ball movement, drawing his larger defender out and he went up for a three-pointer. Wiggins went inside with his smaller defender, grabbed the offensive rebound, and slam-dunked the putback to re-tie the game. Then Wiggins ran the floor after a turnover and took a feed from Williams for a layup and a three-point play. After a pair of Dieng free throws, Wiggins then stuck an 18-foot turnaround. Hummel got into the act with a beautiful basket cut when Williams was being double-teamed and the shot clock was winding down, taking Mo’s pass for a successful, wide-open pull-up jumper.
When it was over, the Wolves were plus 16 in the 11:20 that Hummel, Wiggins and Dieng shared the floor and minus 7 in the 36:40 the trio wasn’t together.
The LaVine blues
It is a significant difference, but unfortunately not as dramatic as the carnage that ensues when Zach LaVine plays. Williams was so prolific, and the Wolves so desperate for a win, that it was understandable to accept Williams playing 43:48. But it is not sustainable. And even amid the relief of a broken losing streak it is hard not to notice that Minnesota was plus 14 with Mo on the floor and minus 5 in the scant 4:12 LaVine was allowed to play.
For the season, the Wolves are now being outscored by 14 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the court. It is very hard to win basketball games when a player so damaging to your overall performance is getting 24.3 minutes per game. One would be hard-pressed to find a player less ready to play in the NBA getting so much time.
Ricky Rubio, come back soon. Either that or Mo Williams has to play nearly the entire time, and take aim at his new franchise scoring record.