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Notebook: Beating the Warriors, Towns, Wiggins, and the week ahead

Steph Curry not playing doesn’t diminish the victory

When a team beats another team while missing it’s best player, we tend to downplay the victory.  This is the NBA, where every team is talented to win on a given night. Even the Brooklyn Nets have eeked out victories over superior competition. If you’re not at your best, victory is no guarantee.

And any time you beat a team like the Warriors, arguably the greatest team of all-time, it counts. Sure, the Warriors sit Steph Curry due to injury and while that helps, they still have Kevin Durant. They still have Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. What makes this Warriors team great is the number of weapons they have to beat you.

You can have an opportunity like this and still fumble it away. The Timberwolves still needed to go out and take advantage of the chance in front of them. If they did, they improved their playoff chances. Had they lost, their season may have officially taken a turn for the bleak.

It helped that Durant and Thompson were a combined 8-for-24 from beyond the arc but Durant still had 39 points. Durant made several key plays to keep the Wolves from resting on their laurels late in the game, including a 3-pointer to bring the Warriors within one point with two minutes to play.

You can’t take away from Towns’ 31 points and 16 rebounds and the big shot he made with a minute to go. You can’t take away from Nemanja Bjelica’s game-clinching block with 30 seconds remaining either.

Aside from that, the Wolves weren’t at full-strength either with Jimmy Butler out. And it would’ve been easy to let this golden opportunity get away.

Towns’ takes over in Butler’s absence

Many figured the Jimmy Butler injury to be the end of the Timberwolves’ season. The playoff race was too tight for them to miss a beat. One loss on the wrong night could put the team in a perilous position. As Tom Thibodeau has said, you can’t replace Butler with one player but with many stepping up for their team.

That doesn’t mean Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t tried.

Towns’ 31-point, 16-rebound performance on Sunday was the exclamation point on a series of strong play since their all-star wing went down. When the team needed a bucket down the stretch, Towns answered to the tune fourth-quarter points. That’s what a star does when a team is in a must-win situation.

In the six games since Butler’s injury, Towns has averaged 23.5 points, 13 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game on 56 percent shooting.

Despite Curry not playing, the Wolves don’t get this win if they don’t feed him like they did in the fourth quarter. Towns had 10 shots and the team made a concerted effort to go to him with the game on the line. This has seldom been the case this season and the team would be better for continuing this strategy.

“We forced it. I told him to get down on that block. He got down on that block and he made plays,” said point guard Jeff Teague. “He’s a talented basketball player, one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen. We need him to be big down the stretch and he did.”

That sums up what the Wolves need to do going forward.

Everyone, including the man himself, agrees: Wiggins must remain aggressive

Remain the Andrew Wiggins that Flip Saunders had driving and spinning to the basket as a rookie? It’s been awhile but it seems that Wiggins has had an awakening. After years of settling for long jumpers that he doesn’t shoot well and bailing defenders out by not using his athleticism, Wiggins realized he’s at his best when he’s attacking.

Wiggins finished Sunday’s contest 9-for-16 from the field and 2-for-4 from deep. This came after a 6-for-21 shooting night Thursday in which he made just 1-of-8 3-point shots. After the game on Sunday, Wiggins acknowledged that he needs to remain aggressive.

“I settle sometimes. I love my shot, but I stay aggressive and keep driving and putting pressure on the
defense,” said Wiggins on Sunday. “If I have my mind set on not settling for jump shots, no one else is there, then I’m driving to the rim.”

It’s one thing to be aware of what you need to do but another to apply it night in and night out. That goes beyond this season. He can’t have that mentality exclusively against the NBA’s elite but also needs to bring it to that game in Sacramento in mid-February. The great players have off nights now and again but never have their effort consistently questioned.

A player like Wiggins is far too gifted to settle for long 2-pointers instead of attacking. If Wiggins has a good 3-point look, he shouldn’t ignore. But he should be getting the vast majority of his 3-point plays at the free throw line. That type of aggression could spread to other areas, like rebounding too.

“We told him to ‘quit settling, man, and get to the basket,” said Teague. “He’s one of the best athletes in the NBA. He did that tonight.”

Rose must adjust his game to be a contributor

Derrick Rose entered Sunday’s game at Target Center to a roaring ovation. For all the fan vitriol over the signing, Rose was welcomed with open arms by the Wolves’ faithful. His performance, on the other hand, was not given a warm reception.

Rose started off on a high note, hitting his first shot — a layup — as a Timberwolf. He would play six total minutes, taking five shots, which was as many as Karl-Anthony Towns had at that point.

Defensively, he was a disaster. On one play in particular, he lost Golden State’s Quinn Cook, whom he was supposed to be guarding, and Cook got a wide open layup. Rose entered the game with his team up by 11 and checked out with the team down 11. In just six minutes, he compiled a -17 plus/minus rating. That’s an impressive amount of damage.

This is not what the Timberwolves need. They have one shoot-first guard already in Jamal Crawford. Rose should consider Grant Hill’s career arc.

Hill was LeBron Lite before ankle injuries derailed his career. After sustaining multiple injuries, he was never able to return to the level that made him Rookie of the Year or an all-star. But he still eeked out an eight-year career. He went from being a low-30’s 3-point shooter early in his career to a near-40 percent shooter in Phoenix at the end of his career. He became a spot-up shooter and found a way to continue to grab rebounds.

Rose can do the same. He can look to set up teammates and work as a cutter. He can crash the glass when needed and focus on playing in the team concept defensively. This Hill-like pivot could extend a career that many believe to be near its end.

Looking ahead: the Timberwolves’ arduous week

From Tuesday to Tuesday, the Wolves will play Washington, San Antonio, Houston, and Los Angeles (C). After those games, the schedule lightens up but a 3-1 record in these four games would go a long way to improve their chances.

The Wolves have the chance to deliver a blow to the Clippers’ postseason chances and clinch the tiebreaker over the Spurs. Since both teams are 1.5 games or less back of the Wolves in the standings, these games are huge.

Washington is 2-4 over their last six games but two of those losses have come to the Warriors and Raptors.  John Wall is still out after knee surgery but still have players like Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre. The Wizards are just one game back of the third seed in the East and the Ramon Sessions revenge game is always in play.

James Harden did miss a game over the weekend with knee soreness but was expected back for Monday’s game against the Spurs. Should he have a flare up, it’s possible Harden could miss the game but Sunday is a ways away. I would bet on Harden playing versus the Timberwolves.


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