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Minnesota Is Rising: Six Takeaways From Magic-Wolves

It was a battle between two young teams whose seasons have not gone according to plan. And while one team has been surging, the other remains stuck in the mire.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Monday’s game between the Magic and the Wolves featured two of the most disappointing teams in the NBA, both of whom expected to have more than 19 wins by this point in the season. Minnesota was supposed to take a dramatic step forward under new coach Tom Thibodeau, and Orlando was expecting a similar boost from the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Neither team has made the leap, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where the Magic and the Wolves are both ranked in the bottom third of the league.

However, despite having near identical records, the two teams are headed in opposite directions. The Wolves have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA over the past few weeks, winning eight of their past 11 games, and the Magic have been one of the coldest, losing 11 of their past 14. Minnesota has turned a corner since the start of the New Year, while Orlando has turned one over a cliff. With the trade deadline only a few weeks away, the recent play of both teams could have huge ramifications on their respective futures.

A lost season could spiral into something much bigger for the Magic, especially with trade rumors swirling around Ibaka, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. They can’t afford to turn the two former lottery picks they gave up for him (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) into nothing in the span of nine months. The Wolves, on the other hand, are suddenly only three games out of the no. 8 seed out West. If they make the playoffs, they would be much more attractive to potential free agents, putting them in position to make a big splash in the market before possible extensions for their young core start to kick in.

Minnesota’s dramatic 111–105 overtime win over Orlando continued the recent trends for both teams. Here are six takeaways from a wild game that could have even bigger implications down the road.

Minnesota’s Young Stars Give and Take Away

Less than a week after Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against the Suns, he continued his clutch highlight reel on Monday by tying the game in the final seconds of regulation with this step-back jumper over two Magic defenders:

But the game should never have been that close to begin with. The Wolves were firmly in control, up nine with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, when the folly of their youth kicked in at the worst time. Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns combined for four turnovers, and Zach LaVine had an inexcusable reach-in foul when Minnesota was already in the penalty in the final minute of the game.

It all started with Wiggins getting caught trying to make a jump pass and throwing the ball directly to C.J. Watson when he had nowhere to go with it. Watson promptly took the ball down the court and dribbled into a transition 3-pointer, prompting an exasperated Thibodeau to call a timeout.

As you would expect from such a young team, the Wolves have had trouble closing out games. They have a net rating of minus-0.5 over the course of the whole season and a net rating of minus-7.3 in clutch situations, which NBA.com defines as games within five points with less than five minutes to go. The Wolves have a better point differential (minus-0.5) than the next four teams ahead of them in the West, so if they can just clean up some of their late-game miscues, they’ll continue moving up the standings.

Orlando Really Misses a Healthy Evan Fournier

Compare and contrast the Wolves’ final play of regulation with what Frank Vogel drew up for the Magic:

It’s hard to imagine an Elfrid Payton step-back 3 was the best shot the Magic could get coming out of a timeout, but in Vogel’s defense, he didn’t have many other options. Orlando’s recent slide has coincided with an extended stint on the injury list for Fournier, who has played in only six of their past 15 games dealing with a heel problem. The Wolves matchup was his first game back in almost three weeks, and he was a shell of himself, scoring only nine points on 4-of-11 shooting in 23 minutes off the bench.

Fournier does a little bit of everything for the Magic. He’s their leading scorer, averaging 17 points a game on 44.1 percent shooting; their most prolific 3-point shooter, with almost five attempts from beyond the arc a game; and one of their better playmakers, averaging 3.3 assists on 2.1 turnovers a game. Without Fournier, the Magic have had a hard time scoring enough to remain competitive. But he isn’t a cure-all for Orlando, either: The team has the 29th-rated offense in the NBA; its lack of firepower is apparent, even with everyone healthy.

The Magic Beat Up Towns

The biggest difference for the Wolves over the past few weeks has been Towns, who is starting to play like the superstar everyone expected him to be at the start of the season. He entered the matchup with Orlando averaging 27.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and two blocks a game on 58.6 percent shooting in Minnesota’s past 10 games, and he was coming off a 37-point, 13-rebound, and four-block performance against the Nets on Saturday.

The Magic had a clear plan to slow down Towns: Beat him up and send a lot of traffic his way. Orlando is a big and physical team with a lot of experienced frontcourt players who know how to wrestle in the block without drawing fouls. Ibaka, in particular, went at Towns right away, hoping to goad him into a pushing-and-shoving match and get him out of his game. This sequence, when Towns becomes so intent on scoring on Ibaka that he doesn’t realize the shot clock is set to expire, is exactly how Orlando wanted things to play out:

For the most part, the Magic’s plan was successful. They held Towns to 23 points on 8-of-18 shooting, and, while all the extra defensive attention received allowed him to hand out seven assists, he also committed five turnovers in the process. There’s just no way to completely hold down a 7-footer with his skill set, particularly one who is so aggressive when it comes to looking for his own shot. Here’s my favorite play of his from Monday’s game:

Serge Ibaka Should Probably Be a Center

Ibaka apparently heard all of the chatter surrounding his trade status because he responded with one of his better games of the season, notching 17 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, two assists, and one steal on 7-of-16 shooting. His combination of length and athleticism bothered Towns defensively, and he provided some badly needed floor spacing for the Magic by knocking down 3-of-7 from behind the arc.

For any of the teams sniffing around Ibaka, he also showed why he’d make more of an impact at center than at power forward at this stage in his career. Given the increasingly perimeter-oriented nature of the power forward position, Ibaka’s shot-blocking ability is mostly neutralized when being forced to guard 25-plus feet from the basket, and he is struggling to contain quicker players on the perimeter more than he has in the past. The ease with which Nemanja Bjelica got around him on this closeout is not a good sign:

Many people around the NBA believe that Ibaka is older than his listed age of 27, and that discrepancy would explain why his game has plateaued over the past few years, during what should be the prime of his career. If he is slowing down, he would be far more valuable closer to the basket on defense, and he’s big and strong enough to bang with 7-footers like Towns on the block. On offense, his 3-point shooting would make him a much more difficult cover for centers than power forwards, and it would create more problems for the opposing defense. He hasn’t been able to help Orlando as much as the team would have hoped, but that may be because its crowded frontcourt hasn’t allowed it to use him in a way that would maximize his abilities.

Elfrid Payton and Ricky Rubio: Splash Brothers?

Payton has drawn comparisons to Rubio since coming into the NBA, as a fellow pass-first guard whose inability to shoot has hamstrung his career. The Magic and the Wolves were each eager to make the opposing point guard a scorer, and there’s no way either team saw these stat lines coming:

Payton: 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting, 2-of-5 from 3

Rubio: 22 points on 7-of-16 shooting, 6-of-9 from 3

Payton came out aggressive, pushing the ball in transition in order to create easier looks for himself at the front of the rim before the defense got set. Rubio is considered one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA, but he had trouble staying in front of Payton, who repeatedly turned on the jets and left him in the dust Monday.

The story of the game, though, was Rubio, who knocked down a career-high six 3-pointers, many of them off passes from Towns. The Magic dared him to beat them from the perimeter, and he did. Does it mean anything long-term? Probably not. However, for one night, at least, it was fun to imagine what a dangerous player Rubio could be with a functional jumper.

Andrew Wiggins Had One of the Dunks of the Year

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least mention this:

Plays like this are also why I question whether Nikola Vucevic will ever play enough defense to be the starting center on a good team. Wiggins is a phenomenal athlete, but I need my big man to do more than this at the end of a close game. If you aren’t going to protect the rim, just foul him or something. Don’t get embarrassed.