MILWAUKEE – Thirty-one quick thoughts for the 31 minutes played by Shabazz Napier in Minnesota’s 106-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wedneday night at Fiserv Forum.
1. This was a game that was not supposed to be much of a game. The Wolves went into Milwaukee, against the team with the NBA’s best record – including an undefeated 21-0 mark against teams under .500 – while missing six rotational pieces. There was no Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Treveon Graham, or Jeff Teague, as they all missed the game with different injuries or illnesses. Our friends out in the desert, or your favorite offshore website, had the Wolves as 18.5-point underdogs entering the game.
2. While things didn’t go all the way crazy, they almost did.
3. The Wolves, at times, marched out lineups featuring four different rookies and a second-year player. The Bucks, for 31 minutes, were able to deploy the NBA’s reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. There was a wide gap in available talent between these two teams on Wednesday night, and there’s no debate about that.
4. That’s what makes Wednesday night, even in a loss, a very impressive outing for Ryan Saunders and the Wolves.
5. “Yeah, there’s a lot of heart in that locker room. There’s a lot of potential in that locker room, too,” Saunders said. “Tonight, you can point to a lot of times when you look out there and you get excited about what can be with some of these guys. You have teenagers out there. You have rookies, guys that just got off the plane from Iowa once again, guys who haven’t been around much. Playing the fourth quarter against the best team in the league, arguably the best team in the league right now. Huge credit to our guys, for what they were able to do.”
6. Kelan Martin is on a two-way contract, splitting time between Iowa and Minnesota, Naz Reid has spent most of the season in the G League, as has Jaylen Nowell, and Keita Bates-Diop opened up the season with the G League version of the Wolves rather than the NBA squad. All of them were reasons as to why the Wolves almost opened up the 2020 calendar year with a bang.
7. Minnesota had a chance to tie the game or outright win it on its final possession of the game. After forcing a stop, the Wolves took a timeout with 13.9 seconds left in regulation to draw up a play.
8. “We were hoping to get Shabazz [Napier] on a quick catch and go, or we liked going for a win with [Robert Covington], getting the corner too,” Saunders said. “But there’s a reason they’re arguably the best defensive team in the league too.”
9. The Bucks were able to thwart the last chance for the Wolves, but that doesn’t make the night less impressive for a young team looking for reasons to be confident. Going toe-to-toe with one of the NBA’s best is something that can do just that.
10. “That’s what it does. It gives everybody confidence,” Shabazz Napier said after his team-high 22 points in the loss. “Sometimes, I think I mentioned this awhile back, sometimes you need your role players to have confidence so that when KAT and Wiggs need a big shot from somebody when they pass it up, G is gonna make the shot, or Noah is gonna make the shot. Whoever they pass the ball to. It’s all about being able to have confidence in your teammates and your teammates exploring themselves in opportunities when KAT and Wiggs are not playing, they’re exploring who they are, and they come up big. Like I said I thought Jaylen played a terrific game, I could go down the list. I thought we just did a great job of trying to make the best of our opportunities.”
11. When teams are young and growing, as the Wolves are, there are going to be plenty of tough nights. Look no further than the 11-game losing streak that captured much of the month of December.
12. There are also going to be times when the bright spots aren’t the easiest to find. It might require searching hard to find a reason to feel good. Wednesday wasn’t one of them. This is a team that, after a few nights where the effort hasn’t been as strong as it needed to be, has found a way to push through when things are difficult. Monday night’s win over Brooklyn was an example of that, and Wednesday night’s loss to Milwaukee was, too.
13. “We lost, but it’s a lot of things to learn from. I feel like tonight made us grow,” Culver said after the game. “At the end of the day with everybody out there, whenever it was your time on the court, you could tell everybody was playing as well as they can and that’s what it was.”
14. Culver did create the highlight of the night, and probably the season so far for the Wolves on Wednesday, too.
15. With 9:42 remaining in regulation, Culver navigated around a ball screen on Eric Bledsoe from Reid, and set his sights on the basket.
16. With 9:38 remaining in regulation, Culver took flight over Milwaukee’s Robin Lopez, throwing down a mammoth dunk over the 7-foot-1 Lopez twin.
Jarrett Culver slams all over Robin Lopez and talks some ish, Lopez takes exception pic.twitter.com/8w0KpGEeYt
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 2, 2020
18. Culver took a moment, flexed his muscle, uttered a few words in Lopez’s direction, and earned his first career technical foul.
19. “Insane, man. Insane,” Napier said of the dunk. “I guess you could say he earned that tech. He definitely earned that tech. It was amazing to see. Sometimes you earn your techs, I felt like he earned that one. He jumped so high on that one.”
20. “I think that dunk was nasty, you know?” Dieng said. “That dunk was nasty.”
21. “I think it was nasty,” Martin said. “It was a nasty dunk. I was crazy. I didn’t know what to do when he dunked.”
22. “Early on they had some blocked shots on me and I wasn’t getting a foul call so I just decided to go up stronger,” Culver said of the slam.
23. Culver’s personality tends to be quiet and seemingly shy, at times. That’s who he appears to be. But Wednesday wasn’t the first time he’s had a highlight reel slam. It probably was the first time he exhumed this much emotion after one of them.
24. “I just, even though I kinda taunted after I dunked it. I just play with emotion and passion, that’s just how I play. I’m not going to change, that’s just who I am. At the end of the day, I can’t control how people react.”
25. And it wasn’t just the flexing of muscles.
26. “I said a little something, something. Nothing bad, it was nothing bad.”
27. That play was the brightest spot from a night where the Wolves have plenty to be proud of, considering the things working against them. It’s not the be all, end all, but it’s a moment that will remind the young, injury-riddled Wolves of a night they showed what it takes to compete with the NBA’s best.
28. “I love it. Just love it,” Saunders said of the dunk. “Love it. That’s … I loved it.”
29. The follow up of whether or not the reaction and technical foul played into that was then asked.
30. “Everything. I loved it,” Saunders responded.
31. The Wolves are back in action on Thursday night against the Golden State Warriors at Target Center. Talk to you then.