Ascending Budinger helps Wolves overcome the Heat
Maybe Minnesota’s California boy just needed some sun.
As winter begrudgingly gives way to spring in Minneapolis — despite what Thursday night’s snowfall might seem to indicate — sharpshooting wing Chase Budinger seems to finally be breaking out of his season-long cold spell.
And in perhaps the Timberwolves’ most entertaining, albeit meaningless, victory all season, the San Diego area native’s contributions kept the night rolling in South Beach.
Those with their eyes glued to Twin Cities TV sets Friday night will remember Kevin Love’s 3-pointer from behind the left elbow with 29.7 seconds left in the second overtime; he’d missed two potential game-winners from that side of the floor to close regulation and the initial extra session. They’ll recall Corey Brewer’s gumby-like drawn foul and go-ahead free throw in the actual closing seconds, Love closing on Ray Allen’s at-the-buzzer 3 try and Mario Chalmer’s 1-for-2 foul-stripe trips at the end of the fourth quarter and the first overtime that could’ve put the game away for the Heat.
But they ought to keep in mind Budinger’s 24 points on 7 of 9 shooting, including five 3s — his most productive night in a Timberwolves uniform.
"He shot it well tonight," coach Rick Adelman said, "and he played a long time. Everybody who played played well."
A 38.1-percent field-goal shooter coming in, Budinger didn’t just hit shots that had previously drawn nothing but iron. He was in tune with the game’s highly fluid flow, finishing with four assists and a pair of steals. Even more encouraging, he played a season-high 37 minutes, 44 seconds and didn’t appear too winded.
That’s a good sign for a guy who missed the first 36 games of the season following his second left-knee meniscus operation in a year’s time.
Including his breakout night Friday at American Airlines Arena, Budinger has scored 11 or more points in four of his past six outings. He’s shooting 53.5 percent from the floor and has made 10 of 23 3s during that span.
Budinger reinjured the knee that cost him 59 games last year during pre-training camp workouts. Renowned sports medicine specialist Dr. James Andrews performed both surgeries on the meniscus, and Budinger spent 2 ½ months in Pensacola, Fla., rehabbing before rejoining the Timberwolves this year.
His first return trip to the Sunshine State was considerably less painful.
Budinger’s biggest play came in the second overtime, when he stole a pass from a double-teamed LeBron James and raced the other way for a two-handed slam that cut Miami’s lead to one with 1 minute, 58 seconds left. In the first overtime, his triple from the left corner gave Minnesota a 107-106 lead — one of nine lead changes in a five-minute period that ended with a Love turnaround hook over Chris Bosh and a Chalmers free throw that knotted the score at 109.
Love missed long, contested jumpers at the final horns of both the first overtime and the fourth quarter.
Budinger’s night wasn’t perfect. A costly turnover in regulation’s final minute gave Chalmers his first chance to put the Timberwolves (38-37) away, but the 73.8 percent free-throw shooter suffered another 50-percent effort that kept the game alive.
On Minnesota’s ensuing possession, Love’s 3 try from the left wing went halfway down before popping back out.
"They stayed with it," Adelman said of his players, who retain virtually no playoff hopes with seven games left on the slate. "I thought we had it won a number of times, and finally got a stop at the end."
That stop came when Love stuck his hand in Allen’s face as he lobbed a desperation 3 from the left corner — a shot he’s made plenty of times, including in last year’s NBA Finals.
But it was Budinger — who signed a three-year, $16 million extension last summer with the team that traded for him ahead of the 2012-13 season — who scored big from distance Friday. His five 3s on seven attempts were the most he’s hit since April 15, 2012.
The Timberwolves’ attrition afforded him the opportunity.
Forward Dante Cunningham was arrested for domestic assault early Thursday morning and didn’t make the team’s trip to Florida. Kevin Martin was a late scratch due to a sore right foot. Shabazz Muhammad left in the second quarter with a knee injury the team said isn’t serious.
Nikola Pekovic missed his 21st game this season with soreness associated with right-ankle bursitis, but Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng mostly neutralized his absence. Dieng had 15 points and four rebounds, and Turiaf played 26 minutes and altered several Heat shots down the stretch.
J.J. Barea (13 points, three assists) started in place of Martin, but Budinger came off the bench quickly and chipped in right away. His 11 first-half points were the most he’s scored in the first two quarters all season and helped the Timberwolves forge a 52-all halftime tie.
Despite shooting 2-for-9 from beyond the arc, Love led six Minnesota scorers in double figures with 28 points and 11 rebounds. James had 34 for the Heat (52-23), who are currently in a neck-and-neck race for the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed.
Of course James was going to get his, Budinger said. But Brewer and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute took turns hounding him and making him earn it.
"It’s LeBron James," Budinger said. "Any time he’s on the floor, you’ve got to watch out for him."
But that couldn’t nullify the fact Minnesota outlasted King James and the two-time defending NBA champions in front of a spirited sellout crowd of 19,661. It was James’ first loss to Minnesota while wearing a Heat uniform.
"We did it with our defense," said Budinger, who went 3-for-5 from the floor with a pair of 3s in the first half. "They would always go on a little run against us, then we would lock down our defense and were able to get some stops and get back in the game."
For both Budinger and the franchise that re-upped with him primarily for his long-range shooting prowess, Friday night was a reminder of what could’ve been this season had things transpired differently, and what may be to come next year if Budinger’s knee can fully recover and the Timberwolves can find ways to gut out more close victories.
Adelman and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders have said Budinger needs until next season to get himself completely right. It’ll be at least that long before an organization that faces the possible departure of Love after 2014-15 and a salary cap-strapped offseason can try and end the league’s longest active playoff drought.
But that wasn’t on any minds in the postgame dressing room Friday.
"We said before the game ‘we’re all we’ve got,’" Love said. "They’ve got a great crowd, they’re getting ready for the playoffs. We just wanted to come in and have fun with it."
Said point guard Ricky Rubio, who had 14 assists to go with 13 points: "It means a lot. It means that we can do something here. We just have to build it and be more consistent next year."
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