The Timberwolves needed this. After losing Ricky Rubio to a season-ending injury just a few days ago, and after not being able to muster the energy to take care of business at home against the horrible Hornets the day the news was confirmed, Minnesota began a tough seven-game road trip on Monday with an offensive explosion in a 127-124 victory over the Suns.
“It’s really huge,” said T’Wolves head coach Rick Adelman. “Especially after losing two at home the way we did and losing Ricky, to come out and get this win, it’s a huge confidence boost.”
The game was a shootout between two teams not exactly known for offense this season, with both ranking in the middle of the pack from an efficiency standpoint. Kevin Love led all scorers, but did most of his damage in the second half where he scored 23 of his 30 points and knocked down five of eight from three-point distance.
While Love struggled early thanks to Phoenix throwing a hard double team at him whenever he touched the ball, Minnesota was brilliant in making the extra pass to find the open man. The one who benefited most was Nikola Pekovic, who finished with 24 points but got 15 of those in the first quarter while the Suns scrambled to recover defensively.
“We had 15 assists in the first half,” Adelman pointed out. “They came out to double team Kevin trying to change things up, but our guys moved the ball. If they play together and make the right play, we’ll be okay.”
Minnesota finished the night with 30 assists, a season high. The 127 points were also a season high, and it was unusual to see against a Suns team that has held its opponents to an average of 89.2 points per game over its last five at home. Jared Dudley, who led Phoenix in scoring with 28, tried to explain.
“I wouldn’t say it was a defensive battle out there today,” Dudley said. “Everyone played well: Pekovic was dominating the boards, Love was inside out, [Michael Beasley] got hot in the first half, and [Derrick Williams] in the second. We did a bad job of rebounding; in the pick and roll coverage, we weren’t crisp at all. And because of that, they made us pay. And even with that, the crazy thing about how poorly we played defensively, we played one of our best offensive games this year, and had chances.”
The game featured eight ties and 15 lead changes, and late in the fourth quarter, neither team seemed to be able to miss. Love had 13 in the final period (including three from three-point range), and Sebastian Telfair had 10 points in under eight minutes, six of which came in a five-second span where he converted a four-point play, then stole the ensuing inbounds pass and went in for a layup.
The Suns’ chances were the kind they’d take most nights. Trailing by one with under two minutes to play, Steve Nash — who finished with 25 points and 10 assists, and had made 10-of-14 from the field to that point — missed a 16-foot runner, and then an 18-foot jumper, both of which were open looks and shots he usually can get to go down.
After Love made two free throws, the Suns ran a play to get Dudley an open look from three that was on target, but that just didn’t fall.
“Probably the best look I had all night,” Dudley said of that late three. “Grant Hill set a perfect screen that made my guy fall on the ground, and when I shot it I thought the ball was good, and it went halfway in.”
Marcin Gortat, who was taken out of the game for most of the night due to foul trouble trying to bang down low with Pekovic, ended up at the free throw line after a loose ball foul with a chance to cut the lead to one with 12.2 seconds left … but he missed both attempts.
“Ridiculous,” Gortat said of his missed free throws. “It was not even funny, it was just … bad.”
The opportunities were there for Phoenix, but on this night, they couldn’t keep up with a high-energy and hot-shooting Timberwolves team that, given the circumstances, may just have needed this one a little bit more for their collective psyche. Love may have summed it up best.
“Obviously losing Ricky was a big detriment to the team, it was tough for us — psychologically, mentally, emotionally,” he said. “Tonight we were able to, I wouldn’t say put that behind us; we’re always going to miss him because there’s a lot of times out there where the ball stops moving … But tonight was a big difference as far as energy level and how we felt.”