Opening the game, the inexperienced Wolves did little to force or rush things. As the Kings played carelessly in the first half, the Wolves played cool, almost sleepy and unassertive. The problem; when the Kings finally woke up and connected with a couple jabs late in the third, Minnesota responded like a dazed, panicky young boxer.
Ricky Rubio first pounced on Sacramento’s sloppy start by leaking off his defensive assignment to swipe the ball from an unsuspecting posted up DeMarcus Cousins, leading to a two-on-one Rubio to Zach Lavine fast break jam. A few possessions later, Rubio was at it again, disrupting a lazy Ty Lawson Pass to Aaron Afflalo and dishing it to Andrew Wiggins for another transition two.
Minnesota jumped out to a 13 point lead off the spate of King bad decisions in the first quarter that grew to 16 in the second, ending the half up 65-54. By the the middle of the third, though, the Kings started showing signs of life. Specifically Cousins and Rudy Gay.
Cousins tormented Minnesota’s bigs. Facing up the basket from 18 and 20 feet out, the 6’11” phenom crossed over and maneuvered his way to the rim and the line. Gorgui Dieng found himself in foul trouble, leaving new big man reserve and flat footed Cole Aldrich to the rescue. Cousins blew past him with ease.
Towns was quiet throughout, taking only 13 shots and two from the line. Although Cousins primarily guarded Towns, Tom Thibodeau had Towns defending Kosta Koufos or Willie Cauley-Stein and providing weakside help, which sometimes slowed down Cousins barely impeded attack on the rim on his way to 29 points, but not by much. Complimenting Cousins throughout the night was Rudy Gay, who poured in 28 himself in a more one-on-one battle with Wiggins.
As the Kings got into a groove, levying their Cousins-Gay one-two punch with a 13-point lift off the bench from Ben McLemore, Wiggins was the only player to respond. Posted right on the block or further out along the baseline, Wiggins kept the Wolves in the game with turnaround jumpers and quick spins around Gay or other defenders for an attack at the rim or a trip to the line (he finished 8-11 from the stripe).
With six and a half minutes left in the game, score at 88-96 Kings, Rugio had to leave the game due to an apparent elbow injury. Wiggins took over ball handling for the remainder of the game, inching the Wolves back within two points through pick and roll action with Towns or Dieng. This set up Wiggins with breathing room he hadn’t seen all night for drives to the basket or pull-up jumpers. But the Kings closed in around Wiggins. And with no one else feeling it for the Wolves, the Kings held on for the 103-106 win.
Bits and pieces:
Zach Lavine is a worry. He’s bouncing with offensive potential and hops, but he’s a defensive liability and he shoots with such reckless abandon. There were too many possessions that could have generated a team rhythm, maybe a few more touches for Towns, that ended early in the shot clock with an off-the-dribble pull up from Lavine. He’s hero ball graceful when he rises up, but he’s too in love with his own shot. His game may be better a second team, Jason Terry/Jamal Crawford contribution.
Brandon Rush provided some much needed moments of veteran play as the most stabilizing player off the bench. He and Shabazz Muhammad make for a nice second team duo. In the second and third quarter, Muhammad was his typical bounding-off-the-bench self, attacking the rim on his way to nine points including an and-1 and 3-3 from the line. Late in the third, Rush hit a corner three to keep the game within six points at 77-83. Thibs didnt go small at all, clearly electing to stay big and attempt to deter Cousins, but these guys could contribute to either fast-paced (Bazz) or floor-stretching (Rush) small ball play.
Cousins had KAT’s number tonight. Towns was effective attacking early on but was bailing out of double teams and shots at the last second as the game came to a close. It seemed Cousins – who played a Cousins-esque boisterous, animated, and impassioned game – got into KAT’s head. Towns seemed happy to defer to Wigs. When KAT and Wigs are equally late game confident, watch out. Their pick and roll action when Rubio was out was deadly until the Kings clamped down and the Wolves panicked.
Marauding up and down the sidelines as the Wolves squandered its lead, Thibs is the vision of the coaching grump. Of the many encouraging things this popping with potential Wolves team has to offer, the sight of a pragmatic and hard nosed (perhaps to a fault) coach gagging at the sight of of the young Wolves losing in what has been a very Wolves way over the past decade was fun. Coach worship is way overblown in all sports, but the idea of Thibs making the Wolves work Jimmy Butler-48-minute-games hard to make up for letting this game slip past is encouraging.
There’s been talk of Kings interest in trading for Rubio. And given their ball distribution woes to start the game, it makes sense that they would want him. It also makes sense that the Wolves need him and his reasonable contract.