The Wolves faced a pretty brutal back end of a back-to-back Wednesday night.
That’s nothing unique; all teams go through daunting scheduling demands. But there was reason to believe flying Tuesday night after their road win in New Orleans only to host the Chicago Bulls less than 24 hours later may have impacted the outcome of the Wolves’ Wednesday night performance.
But after shaking off the rust in an underwhelming first quarter, the Wolves pushed the pace to defeat the Bulls 115-108 and earn their first two-game win streak since Jan. 5.
Playing uptempo has been a priority for the Wolves all season, and they were ranked seventh in pace before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. But since then, the Wolves are playing with the fastest pace in the league (107.35 possessions per game).
This improvement is largely due to the Wolves’ new backcourt of D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. Gone are the days where the Wolves dribble the air out of the ball only to chuck up a brick as the shot clock expires. Russell and Beasley are directing the offense with intention rather than wasting time trying to find what opposing defenses give them, and the change has resulted in the Wolves’ offensive rating improving from 23rd in the league (103.20) to eight (107.35).
Beasley led the way with a team-high 24 points and was 4-for-8 from deep. He’s now made four 3s in the Wolves’ last three games and is setting a perfect example for young gym rats who’re curious how far a consistent work ethic can take them.
Russell followed Beasley’s lead with 19 points, but his passing may have been the most impressive element of his performance. He’s establishing himself as one of the best distributors in the league while making the feat look effortless.
I’d be remiss not to group backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin with the offense leaders. We’re getting to the point where 10-point and 7-assist performances should become expected from J-Mac. There’s no questioning whether he belongs in the league anymore. He just does. J-Mac plays with no regard for the size of his opponents. If he sees an opportunity for himself or a teammate, no one is telling him “no.”
He had two momentum-swinging plays in the second quarter, which may have been the turning point for the Wolves. He first picked off a pass that led to a layup for himself then assisted a James Johnson alley-oop out of transition to get the Wolves within one point.
What’s maybe most impressive about J-Mac’s game aside from his small stature and large heart is that because of his two-way contract, his days with Minnesota are limited. He’s not at every practice and game, but he’s still proving to be a key cog with his NBA team.
For a team that’s only been together for less than a month, they sure didn’t pass like it on Wednesday night. Twenty-seven of the Wolves’ 40 made field goals were assisted, and dropping dimes wasn’t limited to just the guards. Seven of the 10 Wolves players who saw the court recorded two or more assists in Wednesday night’s win. There isn’t a single selfish player on this team, and it’s evident how much this group values swinging the ball to make an extra pass.
The Wolves’ frontcourt players of Naz Reid, Johnson and Juancho Hernangomez combined for 10 assists (five came from JJ) and all filled their stat lines in a well-rounded win.
After recording the first double-double of his career in Louisiana on Tuesday, rookie Reid matched his effort on Wednesday by recording 16 points and 11 rebounds along with three assists, two blocks and just two personal fouls. He was also a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond the 3-point arc, and you can the confidence he played with early on in the season is starting to return.
Five Wolves players made two or more 3s against the Bulls in the team’s 19-for-43 3-point shooting effort. Jarrett Culver’s contributions to that 44.2% performance may have been the most enjoyable. Culver was 3-for-6 from deep on Wednesday and is now shooting 42.8% from deep since the trade deadline. He’s just another example of the impact extra hours in the gym can make.
The Wolves had every reason to fall into the lethargy trap back-to-backs present, but instead, they persevered. That’s becoming a common theme for this group.