By: Dan Slaubaugh
Steaming hot. The Minnesota Timberwolves are steaming hot.
Friday night, the Wolves threw back the Golden State Warriors 103-102 in front of a packed Target Center crowd in what was their sixth win of the past eight games. Three of those wins have came against top five teams in the Western Conference - Golden State, Los Angeles (C), and Utah.
Tom Thibodeau has ignited a gritty flame under the Wolves' defense. Entering tonight's contest, the Wolves - who had allowed just 91.1 points per 100 possessions since the 142-130 loss at Houston - ranked 23rd in the league on the defensive end of the floor, allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions. They had allowed less than 100 points in seven of the past nine games (6-1 record) and were looking to make it eight of the past ten tonight.
They almost accomplished that feat, but allowing 102 points to the best offense in the NBA isn't too shabby.
Minnesota's defensive rotations were crisp. They closed out with meaning. Their hands were active, deflecting a noticeable amount of Golden State passes.
They were playing good team defense.
Combine that with the elite scoring punch of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns fueled by the elite distribution of Spanish maestro Ricky Rubio and you'll find a playoff-caliber team in Minnesota.
Towns was fantastic again tonight netting 23 points and nine rebounds. He was being double-teamed by Golden State for the majority of the final three quarters, but made quick, rational decisions setting by his teammates up for easy baskets. He now has scored 20+ points in 19 straight games, matching Wiggins' franchise record set earlier this season.
After a quiet first half, his sidekick - Mr. Wiggins - was very aggressive throughout the remainder of the game. He picked it up when KAT was being bodied by Zaza Pachulia in the paint, giving Minnesota a much-needed 5-0 boost in the mid-point of the third quarter.
Wiggins finished with 24 points and four rebounds -- 20 of those points came in the second half. His biggest, of course, was nailing his final free throws after botching his first chance at the line by missing both with 29 seconds left.
Moral of the story: You can't take away both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It's just not possible.
Ricky Rubio was sensational again, notching his third straight double-double with 17 points and 13 assists. He's more or less outplayed Chris Paul and Stephen Curry in the last two games. The reigning MVP finished with 26 points but inefficiently, hoisting up 27 shots including 1/8 from three-point range. Rubio has been playing at a very, very high level lately and is a big reason the Wolves are playing their best basketball of the season.
Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica gave the Wolves a much-needed boost off the bench, combining for 21 points and 20 rebounds. When you play an elite-level team like Golden State, you have to receive contributions throughout the roster. Bazz and Bjelica provided that tonight. Big time performances by the bench duo.
Although the Wolves came out on top, they did not play well down the stretch. Golden State tied the game at 98 with 2:37 to go after Stephen Curry hit a trio free throws. If you hadn't watched a game since January, you'd be convinced Minnesota was about to fold and give the game away. But this is a different Wolves team. This team finds ways to win and ultimately refused to blow another 10+ point lead against the Warriors at Target Center this season.
I've followed this team extensively for eight years. With 19 games remaining and back 2.5 games of the 8-seed, this was the franchise's biggest win in that time period. And it all happened in front of the largest Wolves crowd in Target Center history (20,412). That, my friends, is what you would define as "big time". I probably sound like a homer, but the Wolves are becoming legit. I'm sure it's weird to see those word in writing, but with two dynamic scorers and a defense that's slowly molded into elite category with the cruel tutelage of head coach Tom Thibodeau, you'd better believe it's true.
Finally, we're witnessing happy times in Minnesota.
-- Klay Thompson led Golden State with a team-high 30 points and grabbing six rebounds.
-- Draymond Green is an excellent player and great leader to have on your team, but man is he hateable.
-- Gorgui Dieng finished with 12 points and four rebounds. Seven of his 12 points came in the first quarter.
-- Most people figure Rubio will be traded this offseason. With the way he's been playing as of late, I'm not so sure that'd be a good thing. He IS needed on this team.
-- One could suggest Lance Stephenson's defense would have been useful tonight. Perhaps Thibs didn't want to play him on a back-to-back with that ankle?
-- The Wolves are now 5-2 since the All-Star break.
-- This was Minnesota's first win over Golden State at Target Center since February 27, 2011.
-- Unfortunately, both the Nuggets and Mavericks came away victorious at home tonight.
-- Up next: Milwaukee (A), Washington (H), Boston (A), Miami (A).