Despite Injuries, Wolves Post Best November Since 2005-06
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It’s easy to lose perspective or dilute what the Minnesota Timberwolves did in November. Ravaged by injuries and dropping a string of games in the fourth quarter to end the month have the Wolves at 7-8 heading into December, putting a damper on their 5-2 start midway through the month.
Then you take a look at the circumstances surrounding that start. The Wolves have yet to play point guard Ricky Rubio as he wraps up his eight-month recovery from knee surgery. All-Star forward Kevin Love missed nine games with a broken right hand. Two starting shooting guard—Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger—have undergone their own knee surgeries. At times, the Wolves have dressed nine players for games and played veterans like Andrei Kirilenko and Luke Ridnour for 40-plus minutes a night.
Through all that, the Wolves still won more games in November than they had in any November since 2005-06. That’s the mentality Minnesota is taking into December, hoping they’ll get a little more solidified health in order to start making up some ground in the West.
The Wolves' backbone has been a collection of versatility, trust in one another and perseverance as players stepped up in the absence of others—sometimes on short notice. And while the Wolves are visibly unsatisfied with being under.500 heading into December, the way they’ve stayed afloat without a full lineup through 15 games is giving them belief that even better days are ahead.
“We’ve got faith in each other,” center Greg Stiemsma said. “We’re still getting to know each others’ tendencies a little bit, but once we really get that in line and really clicking, I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t have high hopes for this team.”
This organization has gone through rough starts in the past eight seasons, even with their top players healthy and available. From 2007-2010, the Wolves went a combined 9-48 in the month of November. Their last near-.500 month of November was a 6-8 stretch in 2006, and the last time they were above .500 heading into December was a 7-6 start in 2005.
Even the revered 2003-04 team had an 8-7 November and was 9-8 overall heading into December.
Half of this year’s team is brand new players in 2012-13, and only Ridnour, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic were on the team when the Wolves last played a November schedule—last year the NBA lockout ensured games began in late-December. The personnel are different, and Ridnour said the mindset has changed during his time with the team.
“Just the positive attitude around here and belief that we can win is there,” Ridnour said. “The coaches are, they’re really good coaches. Rick’s great, and then all the assistants. That just helps the system we have, and it’s perfect for the type of team we have. It’s up to us now to find a way to win enough games to get to the playoffs.”
Stiemsma was part of the organization in 2010 toward the end of the season, spending April and Summer League with the Timberwolves. He said this group of players holds itself to a higher standard, and they’re expecting to see the results of that mentality at the end of the season.
So far, the key has been on the defensive end.
Minnesota ended the month fifth in the NBA allowing opponents 92.6 points per game. On Nov. 16 they were best in the league in that category.
Hustle players like Kirilenko, Stiemsma and Dante Cunningham are making the difference on the defensive end, as well as the youthful presence of players like Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee.
The Wolves are getting off to good starts defensively; they’re currently best in the league in opponents’ first quarter points per game allowing 22.0 per night. They’re third in opponents’ assists per game, fifth in opponents’ rebounds per game and sixth in opponents’ shooting percentage.
With everyone healthy besides Rubio and Love, the Wolves got off to a 3-1 start and managed to climb to 5-2 despite losing players in four consecutive games from Nov. 7 through Nov. 12. That sent Minnesota into a losing skid, and the Wolves went 0-5 before winning two of their last three games to close out the month.
“I’ve been here four years now, and seeing the run we’ve had—whether it was last year in kind of March and April, and then the first month of the season—so many guys got hurt,” Love said. “It’s been tough, but for us to come out 7-8, it’s good to see we can play without certain guys.”
Stiemsma said teamwork is a big part of the equation. Regardless of who steps in, the team believes everyone is putting in their best effort.
“It doesn’t matter what the names are [on the court],” Stiemsma said. “We have to play with the same level, and when we do that we’re tough to play with.”
The mindset is there, as is the talent. Now, the key is keeping all the players healthy and on the court.
If they do, the Wolves could be seeing more monthly spikes in the win column.
“We believe we can win,” Ridnour said. “Obviously that’s getting everybody together and getting the camaraderie down and the chemistry. But we feel that’s there, everybody gets along and that goes a long way.”