The energy at Target Center was different when the Stephen Curry and Draymond Green-less Golden State Warriors set foot in Minneapolis on Sunday. This wasn’t just any other basketball game. It was a matchup against a former pillar of the Minnesota Timberwolves and a chance for the current team to get a convincing win over the most well-coached team in the Western Conference.
Fortunately, the Wolves were able to get the job done. They did not take the return of Andrew Wiggins lightly, cruising to a 119-99 win on Monday night. Minnesota’s starters didn’t even play in the fourth quarter as Malik Beasley and the bench unit got off to a blistering 20-5 run to start the final period. After a tight game that otherwise saw many lead changes, the reserves made sure to put this one away for good. It gave some comfort to a fanbase that was growing uneasy with the two-game losing streak.
Winning this thoroughly against a great team like the Warriors, no matter who they are missing, is evidence of a team that is beginning to find itself and its identity. Last week I wrote about how the Wolves are finally starting to win the games they “should.” For context, this was before a disappointing loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, who seem to play Minnesota tough this year. In addition to winning these games, Minnesota is consistently finding a way to show up in their “grudge match” games.
When I say grudge match, I’m saying what you think I am. These games are against a former player who moved on from their tenure in Minnesota disgracefully.
We can think of numerous Hindenburgian exits over the last decade: Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio (Episodes I & II), Jimmy Butler, Dario Saric, Wiggins, Juancho Hernangómez. Franchises as perpetually dysfunctional as the Timberwolves seldom have amicable splits from talented players.
It is formulaic:
- Minnesota fails to provide said player with adequate surrounding talent
- They get upset
- They force their way out of town
- And they stick it to the Wolves every time they play them in subsequent years
Think of how the Timberwolves would wither in Butler’s presence after his infamous exit. It is one thing to lose a basketball game; that happens all the time. It is another to get utterly embarrassed on national television against your franchise’s biggest villain.
Minnesota’s first game against the Philadelphia 76ers after the Butler trade was a complete debacle. The Timberwolves completely fell apart, giving up a gazillion (83) first-half points en route to a 42-point loss. Joel Embiid had 31, and Butler went 8-of-10 for 19 points in his first game against the Wolves since the trade. Towns had 13 points while finishing the game minus-42.
It was every bit as bad as it could have been.
The identity of the team has changed considerably since then. Only Towns and Josh Okogie remain from the squad that suited up against the Sixers in January 2019. Things did not get easier for Minnesota, but they have found themselves building a foundation that can stand up to the bullies of the league.
However, Butler’s Miami Heat teams are only 1-3 against the Timberwolves in games he’s played since he took his talents to South Beach. In the most recent meeting this season, Anthony Edwards was not afraid to stand up to Butler when he tried to tough-guy his way into a scuffle. Wolves teams of the past would have shied away from this moment, but not anymore. Edwards has single-handedly changed the identity of this team, and it is paying dividends.
With Wiggins returning to the Target Center on Sunday, many expected him to go off and have a career night. Minnesota fans are acutely aware of Wiggins’ propensity to show out in “revenge” games. He torched the Wolves for 35 points on 14-of-19 shooting in November. Curry and Green were out for this game, so the stage was set for Wiggins to take over and show Minnesota what they were missing. However, Wiggins failed to deliver with a golden opportunity — much like the rest of his time in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves held Wiggins to 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting with two rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes. We’re talking the same Wiggins who is in the top-5 in All-Star voting for Western Conference forwards. Head coach Steve Kerr could not trust the forward to close out the first half of the game. Jonathan Kuminga was the preferred option in the waning minutes of the second quarter.
Minnesota exorcised some demons in winning this game and holding Wiggins to that poor stat line. It was also emblematic of a team showing clear signs of mental toughness and development. It would have been very “Old Wolves” to blow this game against a team missing all of its star players except Klay Thompson. However, the Wolves got in and got the job done with a complete team performance.
The Timberwolves didn’t buckle under pressure, and the likelihood of seeing a playoff berth this year becomes increasingly evident. Minnesota is winning the games it should and isn’t letting storylines and theatrics derail its performances. This team is exhibiting a mental fortitude that the state hasn’t seen in quite some time, and the Timberwolves still seem to be ascending as a team.
With more victories in grudge matches like this, the confidence will continue to soar. There will undoubtedly be more on the way.