Coming into tonight’s game, the Minnesota Timberwolves — many analysts’ darling Cinderella pick in 2016-2017 — are just 1-4 and their one victory came in a contest in which Marc Gasol and Mike Conley did not feature for the Memphis Grizzlies. Karl-Anthony Towns is a blossoming superstar, Andrew Wiggins is comprised of flashes from vintage Kobe, and Zach LaVine is the back-to-back Slam Dunk Champion — all educated by a head coach universally hailed as a defensive mastermind. So, then, what’s wrong with the Timberwolves?
Pointed out by the always-astute Zach Harper on A Wolf Among Wolves, Minnesota has a bit of a third quarter problem. Sound familiar? Between two upstart, young teams, the battle would likely be won from behind the arc, between Brook Lopez and the aforementioned Towns, and in the turnover battle.
Even in the best case scenario, Lopez doesn’t matter up particularly well with Towns — OK, well, not at all, really — but the sophomore had trouble sticking alongside the veteran’s extended range. And, aside from a scary moment involving Gorgui Dieng stepping on Isaiah Whitehead’s face accidently, this was your garden variety first quarter in Brooklyn: Lopez started off hot, Towns responded in spades, Trevor Booker made some freakishly athletic plays, and Bojan Bogdanovic hit a three-pointer.
And, although Towns ran riot and the Nets secured just 7 first quarter rebounds, there were certainly some positives to take from the early results. Randy Foye, making his Nets debut, was an immediately calming presence on the perimeter — particularly so without Jeremy Lin alongside him; and Justin Hamilton’s emergence as another seven-footer is encouraging as well.
The second quarter gave onlookers, perhaps, the 6 most exciting minutes thus far this season. Entrenched in a heat-checking battle, Lopez went toe-to-toe with the Goliath, hit a three-pointer off the dribble, and considered chucking up another one moments later just for the laughs. And, for all the All-Star Game-level defense we received in the first half, the Nets held a narrow 66-65 lead.
Sean Kilpatrick — who either seems to have stunningly brilliant efforts or shockingly dull performances — was off all night so much of the bench onus fell upon Joe Harris. The shifty-shooting guard saved the Nets throughout their, at times, listless third quarter movement, single-handedly turning broken plays into buckets. Whitehead, to many’s surprise, was a level-headed contributor for the Nets, tossing 7 assists in 26 minutes with just 2 turnovers.
Into the final frame, Harris was tasked with guarding Wiggins — a tough ask for anybody, much less Harris’ wiry frame. All things considered he — and the bench unit of Hamilton, Scola, and Foye — helped the Nets up as much as 6 points while they waited for the starters to return.
With 6 minutes to play, Wiggins, who finished with 36 points, continued to smolder and nailed his sixth three-pointer of the night — Minnesota, there, would take a 102-100 lead. After a smattering of buckets from Towns, Wiggins, Lopez, and Hollis-Jefferson, the score seesawed back and forth until the game reached its tipping point.
However, it would be the Nets that brought the fierce, clutch defense tonight. Hollis-Jefferson forced a shot clock violation on one end before an aggressive Kilpatrick drive lead to two important free throws. With 37 seconds left, Bogdanovic, who had been relatively quiet up until this point, hit from Stephen Curry range to push the Nets’ lead back up to 5. A absolutely frantic finish saw 3 or 4 loose ball opportunities in the span of a few moments, but it ended up in Whitehead’s hands and they shot free throws until the final buzzer.
The Nets don’t always make things easy, but, man, they deserved this win tonight.
The stats: 13 PTS, 3-4 FG, 4 REB, 2 AST, 2 TOV
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson didn’t stuff the stat sheet like he did against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday, but he’s looked better and better each night.
Following a clutch, late hoop, he forced a shot clock violation with 1:50 to go — in what would prove to be the biggest defensive play of the game.
Hollis-Jefferson may just have his mojo back, ladies and gentlemen.
The stats: 11 PTS, 5-9 FG, 1 REB, 1 AST
Joe Harris bailed the Nets out on a handful of horrible, motionless possessions.
Long live the desperation Harris-iso.
The stats: 26 PTS, 10-16 FG, 3-7 3PT, 3 REB, 1 AST, 3 BLK, 5 TOV
Thankfully, Brook Lopez did his reliable-offensive thing — scoring 7 points in 7 minutes — because future world leader Karl-Anthony Towns was a freakin’ handful for the lumbering center. Whether it was cutting through the lane like a dart or taking step-back jumpers near the perimeter, Lopez was out an island.
The second quarter, however, was one of the most impressive Lopez exhibitions I’d ever seen. Entwined in a three-point contest with Towns, the two centers traded barbs on four consecutive possessions before the youngster put Lopez on a poster.
Little did we know, we’d just be warming up.
Lopez had an issue with turnovers tonight, but his 3 blocks were huge for the Nets as they protected the paint as well as you might expect. His 26 points lead the way and it’s so, so clear that the Nets need him on the court to have a fighting chance.