NEW YORK — Don’t plan on a Minnesota Timberwolves–Philadelphia 76ers NBA Finals just yet, but those two teams are unlikely co-leaders in their respective conferences with perfect 3-0 starts that include some impressive victories over consensus NBA Finals contenders.
One game after shutting down superstar Kevin Durant in a blowout victory at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Timberwolves took their show to the NBA’s biggest market and twice built 23-point leads before holding on for a 109-100 over the New York Knicks (1-2) at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
Taking 14 fewer combined shots (41 versus 55), forward Kevin Love (34 points on 10-of-19 shooting) and guard Kevin Martin (30 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 5-for-5 from 3-point range) nearly matched the 66 points scored by Knicks’ starting five, which was led by forward Carmelo Anthony’s 22 points and 17 rebounds.
Love, who also pulled down a team-high 15 boards, singlehandedly outshot (15-13) and outscored (12-11) New York at the free throw line, where Minnesota, playing its road opener, held a huge advantage while going 29-for-38.
Although the Timberwolves took a lot of threes (27, while making 10), they shot almost nine percentage points higher than the Knicks, who made just nine of 32 shots from behind the arc, with rookie first-round draft pick Tim Hardaway, Jr. (six points) misfiring on all seven of his treys in almost 25 minutes off the bench.
“There were times we settled for the jumper,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “The free throw differential was the big difference in the game tonight. We’ve got to put the ball on the floor and try to get to the hole. We got three-point happy after making one or two and cutting the lead, and then we settled.”
After a 3-pointer by guard Iman Shumpert (12 points on 5-of-8 shooting; six rebounds) got New York out to a 7-2 lead, Minnesota took advantage of six New York turnovers and went on separate streaks of nine, seven and 11 points (to finish the opening quarter) while closing the first period on a dominating 38-12 surge.
“You just can’t come out and dig a hole like we did tonight,” Woodson said.
“The first quarter got us,” Anthony added. “Giving up 40 points in one quarter, not taking care of the basketball… that came back to haunt us.”
The Timberwolves’ lead ballooned to 42-19, when backup point guard Jose Juan Barea (seven points, five assists, no turnovers in almost 18 minutes) — who won an NBA title in 2011 with Knicks starting center Tyson Chandler (10 points, nine rebounds) in Dallas — scored on a layup to start the second quarter, before New York pulled to within 49-36 on a 3-pointer by forward Andrea Bargnani (14 points) and stayed within 64-49 by halftime.
Despite being the first Knick to score in double figures while recording a dozen points at halftime, on 5-of-9 shooting, Bargnani only took one shot (and made it) while seeing less than five minutes of action in the second half.
Bargnani chose the politically correct approach when asked about his lack of playing time after intermission.
“My job is to be ready every single second I step on the floor and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Bargnani said.
Traded to New York over the summer, the former 2006 overall first-round draft pick of the Toronto Raptors, missed his first four shots as a Knick and immediately heard boos during his team’s season-opening win over Milwaukee at the Garden last Wednesday night.
Since then, the seven-footer has shot 59 percent (13-for-22), but is far more concerned with New York’s team results.
“I really cannot take something good about tonight [for myself], because I’m very upset for the loss,” Bargnani admitted.
Another key offseason addition, reserve forward Metta World Peace (17 points), joined Bargnani in leading the Knicks with 12 points at halftime (on 5-of-10 shooting), but he only took three shots thereafter (making two) in just under 11 second-half minutes.
A jumper by forward Corey Brewer (10 points) capped a 12-2 third-quarter spurt that pushed Minnesota’s lead back up to 23 points, 76-53, but New York closed to within 93-78 going into the fourth period, despite Martin draining consecutive 3-pointers late in the third quarter.
Another Shumpert 3-pointer capped a 20-7 spurt to start the final period as well as a larger 45-24 run that trimmed the Knicks’ deficit to just 100-98, with 4:49 remaining, but the Timberwolves put the game away with their two Kevins fittingly making a couple of very tough shots from the left wing, to put the game away.
Following a Martin technical free throw, Martin made a contested 3-pointer that was sort of pushed from his left side rather than being made in the traditional over-the-head style.
Shumpert then missed a three, which led to Love losing his balance before recovering, and while still closely guarded, banking in a wild-13-footer off of the wrong foot, to push Minnesota’s lead to 106-98, with 3:19 left.
An alley-oop dunk by Chandler, from point guard Raymond Felton (eight points, game-high 12 assists, three turnovers) made it 106-100, but New York failed to score again.
“Offensively, we’re kind of a little behind, off beat a little bit,” said Anthony, who missed 7 of his first 9 shots before making 6 of his next 9, and then missing his last three. “We’ve got to get in sync offensively. I’ve got to get in sync offensively, as well… that time will come… we’ll learn from this and move on.”
The Knicks ended up slightly outshooting the Timberwolves (44.9-44.3 percent), even though Minnesota made two-thirds of their 21 first-quarter field goal attempts while New York shot just 30.4 percent (7-for-23) in the period.
“It’s a terrific win for us,” said head coach Rick Adelman. “The Knicks made their run and we responded… I would’ve rather we won by 20, but I still think we learned a lot from tonight’s game.”
New York will try to get back on the better side of .500 this week in home-and-home meetings with the Charlotte Bobcats (1-2), first at MSG on Tuesday night, then in Charlotte, on Thursday night.
Notes: The Knicks have yet to win in their alternate new orange uniforms after debuting them in a road loss in Chicago last Thursday night and donning them for the first time at home, against Minnesota… Former Knick and NBA Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy, who died on Saturday, at age 74, was honored on the new Garden scoreboard and by a moment of silence prior to the national anthem.