1. The Jazz Just Played the JV, with Predictable Results
Utah won by 20, dominating the Timberwolves offensively and defensively – despite not playing that well. Yeah, it was a good game, but certainly not remarkable. Gordon Hayward played a complete and efficient game. Gobert was bigger and more intimating and theatrical than anyone else on the court. Trey Burke took the most shots on the team and produced the second most points. It was a good, thorough victory completely in character with this season’s post All-Star Game1Jazz. The only remarkable thing about it was how unremarkable a 20-point victory can be.
The Jazz didn’t win this game because they played great. They won because they were obviously, sometimes painfully, better. The Jazz won tonight on talent.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of this is Trevor Booker, who made his case for player of the game with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocked shots. It’s an excellent line by any measure, but it does lose a little of its shine when taken in context of Minnesota’s assortment of bigs for the night: starters Adreian Payne and Justin Hamilton and backups Chase Budinger and Robbie Hummel. Booker, he of the 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds on the season, is a clearly superior player to any big Flip Saunders could put on the court.
The Jazz certainly haven’t faced a less potent roster all season, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Jazz dominated a game simply on talent. How long has it been since they could say that?
2. Dante Exum Is Fortunate to Have Patient Teammates
Exum is done. Finished. Spent. He’s got little to nothing left, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. It’s more apparent every passing game. More and more shots fall short. The bouts of indecision that began to thin somewhat in the second half of the season are back, the product of compromised confidence and clouded thinking. Even the quicksilver speed that so excited fans has stalled. The young man continues to give what he’s got, which says a lot when he sometimes appears ready to collapse from absolute exhaustion. But what he’s got isn’t much.
Importantly, his more mature teammates aren’t punishing him for it.
Exum slogged through another game, going one of six from the field for three points, three turnovers, and little else. His lone bright spot, a glimmer in what must now feel like a perpetual shroud of exhaustion, was his lone made three point shot of the night, only his fourth of his last 35 attempts (16%). When the ball slipped through the net, Exum appeared visibly relieved – perhaps even a little surprised given his recent struggles.
Play stopped right after, and his teammates’ gestures of support were impossible to miss. Every other player on the court found his way to Exum to offer a nudge of encouragement or, in Gobert’s case, palm the back of Exum’s head. It was a combination of celebration and teasing, making the nineteen year old perfectly aware his teammates recognize his struggles. But of vital importance to Exum’s development, they aren’t condemning him for them.
Even Quin Snyder is going easy on the played-out teenager. The intense one-on-one lessons are a little less frequent now. Rarely is Exum yanked out of the game for a lashing of sharp-tongued accountability by his coach only to be thrown right back in the pool to swim or sink. Everyone recognizes the best Exum can manage right now is to struggle, and they’re okay with that.
Eight more games, Dante. You’ll make it. Somehow.
3. The Timberwolves Will Soon Become League Pass Musts
Minnesota has lost 58 games on the year and, between its combination of youth, minimal talent, and, well, limited bodies, just trotted out an NBA squad as poor as any seen in the league this season.2 But there are diamonds in that rough.
The crown jewel is Andrew Wiggins. Seven years from now, he may be the one jousting with Anthony Davis for the title of best player on the planet. Every second of his college career I thought he would be great, and he’s better than I expected, faster than I expected. One day soon, he’ll be unreal.
Within a single game he put Rudy Gobert on more posters than the frightening Frenchman has suffered all year long. Wiggins stuffed one right over the Stiffle Tower in the first quarter, which predictably motivated Gobert for a rematch. Round two came with 4:52 seconds left in the second quarter. Wiggins went up, Gobert followed, and the dunk came down again, this time stamping a dimpled ball pattern on Gobert’s forehead.3
While the dunks were dramatic, its other aspects of Wiggins game that have me so impressed. While he’s still no Kyrie Irving handling the ball, he can navigate his way around the offensive interior far better than when he began the season. He flashed a high-arcing teardrop this game and is fighting through contact with more determination, though he still needs to get stronger. He also contested Hayward’s patented lunge-back jump shot, using his elite-even-by-NBA-standards vertical and impressive length to erase a mile of space on what looked to be an open jumper. The great Canadian hope is every bit as impressive as his predecessor Anthony Bennett4 is disappointing.
Add to the mix Zach LaVine’s unreal athleticism, Nikola Pekovic’s hulking interior presence, Ricky Rubio’s slick showmanship, and a probable top three pick turned Jahlil Okafor or Karl Towns, and the Wolves appear to be firmly in the queue behind the Jazz and Pelicans as young risers in the West. The three most promising youth movements in the league are all in the Western Conference, so hopefully the playoff imbalance made so clear this season will be rectified soon. If not, the problem looks likely to persist for the next decade.