The Wolves continue their absurd schedule tonight, after finally getting an extra night of rest, with a dreaded 4 games in 5 nights stretch as a reward, and their 3rd and 4th back to backs of the year. To add salt to the wound, each of the "-to backs" are against Western Conference contenders. Stern's last dance against the Wolves. The "easy" teams are on rest nights and those are the ones the Wolves really must win. If they split the 4 in 5 stretch (2-2), this will be fine. Even better if the pups squeeze out a win vs. Houston or LA, but wins against the Nets and the Wizards, two Eastern bottom-feeders, is a definite must.
A few keys tonight against Washington (2-7):
Tonight is a must win. I know this sounds simple, but one of the trends thus far are a lot of teams starting off the season with an easy schedule, such as Portland. The difference between the Blazers and the Wolves thus far has been Portland winning just about every game they have played, even on the road, against said inferior competition. I'm not sure whether it is a start of a trend/concerning or just the team needing to "gel" (overblown cliche' generally uttered by coaches on the hotseat, might I add), but the Wolves have lost 2 of their 4 games against sub-.500 opponents. During the season some teams will just let a few get away (this is how the 2009 Wolves somehow managed to win 15 actual NBA games), but seeing the Wolves lose to Cleveland and Denver, mainly due to a lack of overall effort, is a bit concerning. Those are the games you absolutely have to win in order to maintain a rank in the west hunt, particularly with New Orleans underperforming thus far (bounceback ahead?) and Kobe returning to the sidelines in short order. And while the Blazers will most definitely take a big tumble as soon as they play actual NBA teams on the regular, their consistent winning thus far at least puts them in the playoff hunt for now barring one of their annual collapses.
While the Wolves just recently enjoyed their first extra day off of the season, 4 games in 5 nights is indeed a first (and last) of the season. These are brutal, brutal stretches. You may recall an injury-depleted Wolves win against Houston last January where the Wolves emerged to a surprising win. This was Chris Johnson's temporary coming out party as the recently-departed center scored 15 points on perfect shooting, with Gelebale adding 11. The major, major caveat here is that Houston was playing its 4th game in 5 nights and shot just 32% from the floor. Here is the box score. The point is, 4 games in 5 nights is not easy. it does no services to fans, creates a bad product, and results in bad basketball and Chris Johnson guaranteed contracts. The Wolves, coincidentally, end this stretch against Houston on Saturday where the Rockets will most assuredly exact their revenge. And even more humorous? The Wolves only get one extra day of rest after this stretch and then have to go to Indiana to play the undefeated Pacers. You can't make it up. The point is: try not to get discouraged if the team comes out of this with more losses than wins.
Luckily, over these past few games, our old pals JJ Barea and Dante Cunningham seem to have woken up a tad. JJ is averaging 13.3 points on 59% shooting these last three games and has hopefully returned to a somewhat less maddening role. Cunningham is putting up similar positive results offensively with 53% shooting and 10 points a game (as well as 5 steals vs. Boston), both far cries from their less than stellar beginnings. Robbie Hummel has worked his way into the rotation as well, and can help spread the floor with his outside shooting touch. This uptick in bench production is a nice sign moving forward and this improved play must continue in order to get through this stretch in one piece.
Ideally vs. Washington the Wolves can enjoy another one of their patented blowouts. Despite the Wolves being dealt a fairly pleasant hand in terms of quality of opponent thus far, they have responded by winning four games by 18 or more and are 3rd in the league in point differential behind Indiana and the Spurs. This is a great trend that builds confidence and puts less strain on the starters late in games. Washington, ideally, will be one of those opponents, leaving the Wolves with enough juice to compete tomorrow in a rematch against the Clippers.
In terms of matchups, the two match up nicely in favor of the Wolves. Love and Nene are both physical players, and despite Nene's size and physical stature, he is a very poor rebounder for his position. Love should be able to dominate Nene on the glass. With the Wizards missing Ariza tonight, Brewer will face off against Martell Webster and given his penchant for bone-headed plays and Wittman's penchant for bone-headed coaching, hopefully the Wolves can take advantage of Brewer/Love leakouts and build a lead easily, with Martin shooting well after a rough shooting night from outside at Denver on Saturday (1-7 from 3 and 6-18 on the night).
All signs point to an easy win tonight. If not, this stretch could be rather brutal and may quickly write ill fortunes for the rest of the month, and the standings.