by Myles Brown
Hey you, guess who’s got the League’s longest winning streak?
Quick! I’ll give you 29 guesses!
After a December that cost them their coach, comprised more than half of their losses, surrendered an NBA record 33-point quarter to a single player and frittered away a franchise record 29-point lead, the Minnesota Timberwolves have started the new year with a clean slate. The team is undefeated in ’09, in the midst of its first five-game winning streak since 2005. But the excitement surrounding the Wolves is incredulous at best and skeptical at it’s worst.
Success of this variety is as welcome around these parts as anywhere else–if not more–but the local faithful are still aware that their team has reached the forgiving part of the schedule. The Wolves are on the tail end of a 10 game stretch featuring seven opponents below .500 and haven’t defeated a winning squad during their run. So it’s still unclear whether Minnesota has truly improved or if they’ve merely established themselves as the best of the worst. But watching this particular matchup with Milwaukee would leave one leaning toward the former.
The Bucks are easily the best team to visit the Target Center this calendar year and quickly killed the high of Wednesday’s 42 point victory over OKC. Milwaukee packed the lane and doubled down on Al Jefferson, forcing him to rely on his range and the marksmanship of his teammates. Neither were very accurate as the Wolves shot a dreadful 28 percent in the quarter, falling behind by as many as 14 before reducing the deficit to 9 at the end of the first. Then in a strange and brief sequence during intermission, Coach Kevin McHale was forced to watch the remainder of this contest from the locker room, tossed with two quick and quiet technicals.
“It was a lot harder than watching it from the bench. Especially when I just asked the referee ‘I can’t talk to you?’ and he gave me a technical. I asked ‘So you give technicals for asking if I can talk to you?’ and he threw me out. I said, ‘Wow, I guess so.'”
Perhaps rallying around their wronged coach, the Wolves bounced back in the 2nd quarter with more focused and productive play. Jefferson seemed far more comfortable battling an overmatched Dan Gadzuric than the larger Andrew Bougt and Sebastian Telfair proved that neither Luke Ridnour nor Ramon Sessions would suppress his growing confidence. After a couple of early turnovers and missed shots, Bassy regained his composure, using his quickness and vision to take advantage of an aggressive Bucks defense. Milwaukee was determined to protect the basket and Telfair took the opportunity to find teammates for open 3s while taking a couple himself. But for all the improvement shown in the quarter, Minnesota’s 32 points were matched by the opposition who maintained their 9-point lead.
Milwaukee continued to score almost at will, led by Michael Redd and Richard Jefferson, both far too polished and athletic for any Wolves defender. Al Jefferson continued to struggle with Andrew Bogut’s size. On most nights, this would lead to a breakdown in the offense and another loss for the home team. But on most nights Rodney Carney doesn’t score 18 points in the second half with four treys. The absence of Corey Brewer and regression of Rashad McCants resulted in a bounty of minutes for Carney this evening, and while his defense against Redd and RJ left much to be desired, he would apologize for every miscue with another critical basket. And every one of those critical baskets was assisted to Bassy who poured in 11 points of his own after halftime. Both players are the beneficiaries of injuries and an adjusted pecking order and are taking full advantage of the opportunity. Telfair’s struggles with his jumper have been well-documented, but he’s shown much improvement as of late. This could be attributed to an increase in trips to the line, where he’s taken 44 free throws in the past nine games. He’s always been able to get to the rim with ease, but now that ability is used to draw the foul rather than reset the offense and those free throws just might be helping him get into a rhythm offensively.
Another Timberwolf who’s found his groove has been Randy Foye. Though Al Jefferson was recently rewarded for the team’s turnaround with a Player of the Week award, Foye was also a constant, leading the team in scoring for three of the four preceding victories. The timing of his barrages have been more impressive, with performances in the clutch that are reviving the “Fourth Quarter Foye” moniker. This was an otherwise quiet night for Randy, but the final stanza was his once again with 10 points to supplant his teammate’s surprising efforts.
The schedule will become incrementally more difficult for Minnesota and it remains to be seen if this should be marked as a new beginning or a consolation prize, but for now Kevin McHale is happy to take things a game at a time. Just as winning teams do.
“I told our players I was so proud of them for fighting back. They denied us and there are times where it was just human nature that we thought it’d be easy. That’s the thing…If there were anything bad about a forty point win. We thought we were just gonna come out there and make passes. They denied us and we just stood there like, ‘Please don’t deny me, I’m trying to run our play.’ Give [Milwaukee] credit, they were aggressive. And they were hitting some shots that were really disheartening. But basketball’s a funny game. For Richard Jefferson and Michael Redd-who have both been All-Stars in this league–to get hot, you’ve got you’re hands full. They played very well and got us out of our game, but we battled back. “