Weekly EssentialsThe Timberwolves beat everyone to three wins this season, which is a piece of trivia you can surprise your friends with a few weeks from now to enjoy a hearty laugh.
Andrew Wiggins hit clutch shots – three 3-pointers in succession – to help derail a Heat squad that looks awfully competitive despite missing Jimmy Butler due to the birth of his daughter. That could be a real knee-slapper if Wiggins regresses to what we’ve seen from 2014’s No. 1 pick thus far in his career.
The Canadian has teased with promise since bursting on the scene and left us wanting more time after time, topping out in 2017 with an impressive 23.6 points-per-game average bolstered by a 35 percent shooting clip from beyond the arc that remains his career-best. Those who forecasted that he’d lead the league in scoring have grown frustrated by him solely it in questionable shots as his efficiency has tanked over the past few years.
So, sure, Minnesota is 3-0. Wiggins played hero and scored 25 points, finishing 4-for-10 from 3-point range after knocking down the last four he took. He’d started the season 0-for-13. That’s amazing, but can also be described as simply being basketball, especially when you’re as gifted as the 24-year-old wing can be. The Timberwolves didn’t hand him a max contract for charity’s sake. We might be talking about the end of that win over the Heat as the beginning of Wiggins figuring something out, but that would be a naïve take given what we’ve seen thus far.
Karl-Anthony Towns playing like there’s no tomorrow after opening last season a little listless due to all the Butler drama is far more predictable than Wiggins’ streaky swings and is the No. 1 reason they’ve fared so well out of the gate. Although beating the Nets and Hornets on the road isn’t walking on water, just navigating opposing arenas early on does deserve credit, especially after surviving Kyrie Irving’s 50-point Brooklyn debut in a game he desperately wanted to win. Towns enters the week averaging 32 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, so if he gets sufficient help from Wiggins, the Timberwolves can return to the playoffs for just the second time since Kevin Garnett left in ’05.
Hearing Towns say that Wiggins knows when “he has to kick it up” sounds like one of those things you say in the moment, because if he’d truly have time to think about it enough to offer an honest take, that hasn’t been the case. The Timberwolves have a healthy Robert Covington back and glue guys like Jeff Teague, Josh Okogie and Treveon Graham to put in work, but Towns needs Wiggins to take a superstar turn right alongside him or Minnesota is going nowhere in the loaded Western Conference.
The Wolves continue on the road this week in games at the 76ers on Wednesday and Wizards on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see what their record is when the Bucks come through Target Center for the team’s next home game on Nov. 4. Which Wiggins will show up in Philly and D.C.? That matchup with the Wizards is one in which they’ll likely enter as a road favorite, a role they handled nicely in a 121-99 rout in Charlotte.
Who’s Kendrick Nunn?That question sounds absurd to me, but if you’re new to this column you probably don’t know that I consume college basketball the way koalas roll with eucalyptus, so I recognize why many are asking this and have probably never heard of the 24-year-old rookie leading the Heat in scoring (22.3 ppg).
Nunn dominated at Oakland the way a few players have over the past few decades, thriving in an up-tempo system that thrives on conditioning and scoring in spurts. He’s a high-school legend in Chicago, having played ball alongside Jabari Parker at Simeon, the same school where Derrick Rose and Benji Wilson once walked the halls. Things didn’t work out at Illinois after he caught a misdemeanor battery charge, so he ended up playing for the aforementioned Golden Grizzlies, lighting up the Horizon League.
Nunn led the nation in 3-pointers per made and was second only to Trae Young in scoring as a senior, but he went undrafted. He got himself a G-League gig with the Warriors and seemed like a natural fit but ended up getting scooped up by the Heat this past Spring and they’ve sprung him on the league with a bit of a “look what we found” feel, starting him ahead of Goran Dragic.
Butler hasn’t played yet but should return this week and the Heat have gotten off to slow starts that required them to rally from 21 points down to post a 131-126 upset in Milwaukee and put them in an early bind in Minnesota, so Erik Spoelstra may ultimately have a decision to make as far as keeping Dunn in the starting lineup, but his early success is no fluke. He can play, is a natural scorer and fearless shooter and upgrades the talent level on the wing alongside rookie Tyler Herro, who has blended in nicely in his own right. Miami looks to be much improved after entering the season as a co-favorite in the Southeast alongside last season’s surprise winner, Orlando.
What’s going on with…?Markelle Fultz: The 2017 No. 1 pick who forgot how to shoot is off to a productive start in Orlando despite opening 2-for-9 from beyond the arc over his first two games. He scored 12 points in each and showed a willingness to get to the basket that the Magic badly need, so it’s only a matter of time before he replaces D.J. Augustin in the starting lineup.
Orlando needs to develop him into being its closer because attempting to win games on Nikola Vucevic fadeaways or whatever Evan Fournier comes up with isn’t going to consistently deliver games in a division that has closers like Atlanta’s Young, Miami’s Butler and Washington’s Bradley Beal. The Magic squandered a huge lead and failed to cover in their opener against Cleveland and then came up short down the stretch because no one could be relied upon to score in the latter stages against the Hawks, who picked up a valuable early 103-99 win on Saturday night.
Keep an eye on Fultz’s development as the x-factor in whether Orlando is able to defend its division title and make some noise. Former lottery picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba also have to make strides, but Fultz can most impact this group if he gains Steve Clifford’s trust. After visiting Toronto on Monday, the Magic settle in for home games against the Knicks, Bucks and Nuggets this week, thrusting them into the spotlight.
The Warriors: After trailing by 31 points at the break in Oklahoma City on Sunday, Golden State fell behind by 42 in a game it never led, falling to 0-2 on the young season. They entered Monday’s visit to New Orleans looking for not just their first win of the season, but their first lead. The 141 points the Clippers scored to christen the brand-new Chase Center were the most ever surrendered under Steve Kerr.
Stephen Curry has struggled, but it’s the defense that has really brought about Golden State’s downfall. Namely, outside of Draymond Green, no one is doing it well. Kevon Looney is dealing with a hamstring issue and Willie Cauley-Stein sprained a foot and will likely be sidelined another week, so the team has been forced to throw Marquese Criss and a pair of undersized power forwards who won championships with Villanova, Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman, out there alongside Green to try and defend NBA bigs. It’s not going well.
The market hasn’t corrected itself enough, so there may be opportunities to fade Golden State as it returns home this week to face Phoenix, San Antonio and Charlotte. Who would have though the Dubs would be such an abomination this early? I saw a bounce-back coming against the Thunder after such an embarrassing first effort against the Clippers, but just watching this new concoction attempt to gel proved grueling to watch and it really looks like everyone is grinding their teeth attempting to find a comfort zone with one another. Things will probably gel at some point, but the fact the Warriors will play 13 of 17 on the road from Nov. 6- Dec. 6 isn’t going to aid their cause. Those who felt they wouldn’t make the playoffs and bet it at Westgate for a return of +250 are puffing those chests out for all to see.
Jrue Holiday: New team president David Griffin raised eyebrows when he tried taking pressure off Zion Williamson by saying that he expected Holiday to be the leader and step his game up to an MVP level. So far, Holiday has let him down, shooting 31 percent and 1-for-9 from 3-point range, but a knee issue is likely to blame and will hopefully not derail him long-term. He sat over the weekend against a Houston and is considered day-to-day entering the week, so we’re likely not going to see what the Pelicans are truly capable of until 2020. It remains to be seen whether Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart can keep the team afloat until then, but all are off to strong starts.
Games to watchMonday - Thunder at Rockets: Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul cross paths early, but this won’t at all match the intensity of Westbrook’s return to Oklahoma City, which happens only once this season (Jan. 9). Houston is trying to get Harden and Eric Gordon going but Mike D’Antoni is already using Westbrook to push tempo in a throwback to his “seven seconds or less” days with the Suns. Paul has struggled early, doing his trade value no favors, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has hit the ground running in endearing himself to OKC fans as the prize in the deal for Paul George.
Tuesday - Mavs at Nuggets: Kristaps Porzingis looks to be in midseason form despite missing over a year of action, so Dallas has every right to be encouraged considering no sophomore slump is coming for Luka Doncic. This will be a fun one since Denver will be looking to send a message at home. The Mavs’ ability to hang around should hinge on Porzingis and Maxi Kleber holding their own in the paint since Dwight Powell remains sidelined.
Wednesday - Bucks at Celtics: An early clash of East heavyweights allows Boston to test its nucleus at home after an impressive comeback win over Toronto, but hanging around on the boards will require a team effort since Enes Kanter is just coming back from a bone bruise. Daniel Theis and Robert Williams have been playing extended minutes since 7-foot-6 rookie Tacko Fall was also unable to start the season until the past weekend due to a concussion. Will Kanter return to help his new teammates with Greek Freak duty?
Thursday - Heat at Hawks: Atlanta can stick around in the Southeast race if its able to protect its home floor. Young looks quite comfortable there and has helped unlock John Collins’ game with his lobs and command of the offense. Both should be All-Stars this season, but that’s easier said than done. With Butler expected to be back for this one, it will be fun to see him introduce himself to rookie wings DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish.
Friday - Pistons at Bulls: It’s unlikely that Blake Griffin is going to play since he’s taking his time coming back from knee and hamstring issues, so this will be an opportunity for the Baby Bulls to pick up a Central Division win as they try to mesh a year earlier than expected in overtaking the likes of Indiana and Detroit in the pecking order behind Milwaukee. Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine have each already had games where they’ve scored 35 or more points, but the key for this group lies in getting both going in the same contest.
Saturday - 76ers at Blazers: After missing the start of the season with an ankle injury, it looks like Joel Embiid should be in the mix all week barring a setback. He’ll be reunited with old friend Hassan Whiteside, who he loved to terrorize when he was with the Heat. Their beef often spilled over to social media, so it’s a shame they’ll only face off twice a season going forward. Whiteside helped swing a weekend win over the Kings with a big second-half spurt.
Sunday - Jazz at Clippers: These teams will have already squared off on Wednesday and should have some bad blood built up. Bojan Bogdanovic debuted with a strong outing, while Mike Conley has struggled to find a comfort zone in his new digs. Patrick Beverley will be heavily invested in keeping that from happening.
Free WinnerFriday - Spurs at Warriors: San Antonio has seen Dejounte Murray look like his old self and have Derrick White and Bryn Forbes back willing to play glue guy next to DeMar DeRozan. LaMarcus Aldridge is likely to feast in the paint, so expect San Antonio to win outright and don’t blink even if you have to lay points on the road.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA
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