Despite the Minnesota Timberwolves entering the night sitting third in the Western Conference, seven spots ahead of the 1oth-place Utah Jazz, only three games separated the teams in the loss column. Each team was thus playing for their playoff lives and it showed as Utah eventually triumphed, 116 to 108, in a contest that became more and more contentious as the night went along.
The first quarter was close, largely because Utah’s recent turnover bugaboo continued as they coughed up the ball five times. The period ended with the Timberwolves holding a 24 to 23 edge.
Then in the second quarter Rudy Gobert took over. In the first quarter Gobert was called for a ridiculous goal tend that incensed the fiery Frenchman1. Harnessing that ire, he produced perhaps the greatest quarter of his career in the second period, scoring 14 and grabbing an amazing nine rebounds in just over nine minutes of play!
Perhaps even more important to Utah’s ultimate victory was the frustration he created in Karl-Anthony Towns. After being called for a questionable technical while fighting for post position with Jae Crowder earlier in the game, Towns finished a physical hoop through Gobert’s chest and then turned to bark something at the referee. It didn’t seem worse than what happens a dozen times in every NBA game, but for some reason the short outburst prompted a whistle for Towns’s second technical foul. Amazed and furious, Towns left the court after the first ejection of his NBA career, taking a second All-Star away from a team already missing the injured Jimmy Butler, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a meniscus injury.
Down 56 to 45 at half and missing their two best players, the Timberwolves could easily have been expected to quit, especially on the second night of a back-to-back and on the road.
Instead, Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins combined to score 38 points between them in the second half, routinely pushing double-figure Utah leads back within two baskets. Utah’s defense from the first half never regained its footing, and a hot-shooting, hot-tempered half of entertaining basketball ensued.
The Timberwolves’s offense shot a scalding 56 percent from the field and 58 from three in the final two quarters. Yet the Jazz offense countered every burst, pushing leads back up to double digits several times. Eventually frustration set in and Teague, angry at not receiving a foul call on Ricky Rubio defending his shot at the rim, ran full into Rubio on the fast break for a blatant hip check. He didn’t even pretend to make a move for the ball and was rightly ejected for a flagrant two.
Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau and Utah’s Crowder were both assessed technicals after jawing at each other, and Crowder would eventually be ejected with 45 seconds left after complaining a foul call. But amidst all the hard words and chaos, Donovan Mitchell furthered his reputation as a closer, scoring nine points in the fourth quarter and helping the Jazz leave the court with a comfortable win.
Stars of the Game
Superstar: Rudy Gobert (26 points, 16 rebounds, 4 blocks, 1 assist, 1 steal, 12 of 14 free throws)
For stretches of this game, Gobert dominated in every way possible: defensively, offensively, and with his sheer personality. In the first half alone he had 18 points, 10 rebounds, and two (really three) blocks. He was also in full strut and stare mode, commanding the building with his presence. His impact waned in the octane-injected second half, but he still finished the night with a season high 26 points on a ridiculous nine shot attempts. His 12 made free throws were a season high, and his 14 attempts were one shy of his season high mark as well. When he shoots that many free throws, he’s a good enough free throw shooter to dominate a game on both ends of the floor.
Secondary Star: Donovan Mitchell (26 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 made threes)
One of two horses left in an elite Rookie of the Year race kept on keeping on. 26 points on 18 shots. Nine fourth quarter points. A team-high 39 minutes. He made only two of eight three pointers, which is typical of his games where he’s only a solid first scoring option by NBA standards. When he hits that three well he becomes a high quality primary scorer. Imagine how good he’ll be next year at 22.
Secret Star: Jae Crowder (15 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist)
Crowder continues to be everything the Jazz hoped he would be when they shipped Rodney Hood to Cleveland to bring in the son of former Jazzman Corey Crowder, who was in attendance tonight. While Jae required 15 shots to get his 15 points and made only three of his nine three point attempts, these numbers fail to illustrate how important his presence is on this team. A better illustration is to be had in this combination: it was Crowder who got into Teague’s face after his tackle of Rubio, filling his role as the toughest guy on what has quietly become a pretty tough team, on a night where he notched a plus-14 in a game where no other Jazz bench player managed a positive rating.
Stats of the Game
24/29 – Free throws taken/made by the Jazz starters.
19 – Utah’s advantage in second chance points on a night where Minnesota failed to score a single point off an offensive rebound. Utah’s bigs really did thrash Minnesota.
19 – Jazz turnovers, the only thing that counterbalanced the advantage on the offensive glass. It’s the third time in four games the team has had at least 18 turnovers. To do that after three days of watching film must have Quin Snyder ready to chew glass.
120 – Points per 100 possessions exceeded by both offenses in the second half. Each team had an effective field goal rate at or just above 67 percent.
- It’s crazy that a team in third place in the West with 16 games to go entering the night is in trouble of falling out of the playoffs, but that’s where Minnesota finds themselves. Butler is lost for the regular season and their schedule to close the year is brutal, especially their next five games, contests against the Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs, and Clippers. If they don’t play with more poise than they showed tonight, they easily could be outside looking in on the second season.
- Gobert and Favors were awesome tonight, combining for 41 points on a crazy 17 shots! At least ten were dunks. They added 23 rebounds, seven offensive, for good measure. Most of that damage was done prior to Towns’s ejection. Minnesota’s young center has an MVP caliber offensive game, but his defensive impact is miles behind.
- Utah’s starters scored 91 points on 51 shots.
- Jonus Jerebko was blistering hot from three for much of the season, but he’s missed his last nine three points shots. He’s due for a return to form and the team could certainly use that down the stretch.
- Raul Neto appeared out of sync after sitting due to injury. Tonight he was a team worst minus-11 with only a single point and assist to counter three turnovers. Dante Exum is expected to return sometime this month. It will be interesting to see whether Neto’s play will complicate Exum’s re-integration.
- Joe Ingles made another three of five threes. Dude’s a cold blooded sniper if given time to shoot. And he actually dunked the ball, a left-handed throw down that left Gobert goggling for a second. Not bad for a mild mannered math teacher.
The race to fill out the bottom half of the West playoff seeding is producing crazy-good basketball. The Trail Blazers, Thunder, Pelicans, Nuggets, and Clippers have all won seven of their last 10 games. The Jazz have won eight of 10. Anyone who wants a slot in the post season had better keep winning, and the Jazz have the schedule to do that. Their next ten games are extremely winnable with only two opponents currently in position to make the post season. They’ll try to keep their climb going tomorrow in Sacramento.
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