Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
Without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in the lineup, the Timberwolves were hoping to merely tread water. Through four games, though, the team is 3-1, and what's more, has shown flashes of surprisingly good play.
Most optimists would have hoped for the Timberwolves to be 3-1 after the first week of their season. Minnesota was lucky enough to be scheduled for home games against both the inconsistent Kings and the hapless Magic, two games that should be won by any reasonable collection of NBA talent. Minnesota also had a difficult two-country, two-night road trip, with back-to-back games in Toronto and Brooklyn, but optimists surely hoped they'd take one of the two.
For once, with the Wolves, the optimists were proven correct. Minnesota beat both Sacramento and Orlando, and while they lost abjectly in Toronto, they more than made up for it with a 22-point comeback win the next night in Brooklyn. And even more happily for the optimists, Minnesota - even sans Love and Rubio - has looked surprisingly good. Let's look at the top stories from week 1 of the Wolves:
1. J.J. Barea has been the catalyst for the Wolves, even from the second unit. Minnesota has stuck with the same starting lineup in its first five games - Luke Ridnour and Brandon Roy at guard, Andrei Kirilenko and Derrick Williams at forward, and big Nikola Pekovic at center - but at times it's been the team's second unit that's looked the most dangerous. Most of that is due to Barea, whose skill at getting to the rim has opened up the floor for shots for Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger in the second unit. When the team needed a jolt against the Kings, when the team needed anybody with some life in him against the Nets, Barea was there; he scored 21 against Sacramento, and had six assists against Brooklyn.
2. Greg Stiemsma has, excitingly, been a legitimate backup center option. Like Barea, he was key in the win against the Kings, blocking four shots and scoring nine points, as well as forcing the hack-prone DeMarcus Cousins into a couple of fouls. He also scored twelve points against the Magic and blocked two more shots and generally acquitted himself as a guy who can play 12-18 minutes per night in relief of Pekovic.
3. Dante Cunningham will be getting minutes this season. I wrote earlier this year that, with Love, Williams, and Kirilenko in front of him, Cunningham might struggle to see the floor, but he's proving me wrong by being the Wolves' best option at power forward so far. It's telling that Cunningham (21 minutes per game) has played almost as much as Williams (23.8 minutes per game). On opening night, head coach Rick Adelman said he wasn't so much interested in who started at power forward as he was in who was on the floor at crunch time. It's instructive to note that in the team's two close games - against Brooklyn and Sacramento - it was Cunningham, not Williams, manning the power forward slot in the fourth quarter.
4. In some ways, Brandon Roy has been the team's most disappointing player. We all had high hopes that Roy could handle much of the scoring from one of the wing positions, but he's very much yet to get on track this season. Roy is averaging less than six points a game, is shooting an ugly 26% from the floor, and has shown neither the ability to create his own shot, nor the ability to hit an open shot. He has led the team in assists, dishing out more than five per game, and has taken some of the ballhandling load off of Ridnour with the first unit - but I don't know if he's made a jumper the entire year.
It's been a good week for Minnesota, but now, the schedule gets tougher. In some ways, week 2 will be a harbinger of whether the team is just treading water until Christmas, when Love and Rubio return, or is hoping to do even more. The Wolves take on Indiana (at home) and Chicago (on the road) on back-to-back nights this weekend, then play in Dallas on Monday, a three-game stretch against playoff teams from last season. Winning one of the three would be a reasonable return; winning two would be excellent.
(The Wolves also take on Charlotte next Wednesday at home, which they must win, in order to not be pelted with garbage as they leave the floor.)
3-1 in the first week was cause for optimism. 3-1 in week two - well, that'd be a cause for celebration.