Stiemsma embodies underdog Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS – In the final seconds of Wednesday’s game, Greg Stiemsma lunged toward the basket, all 260 pounds of him, just in time to block E’Twaun Moore’s layup. It was a desperate, last-ditch block, not thundering, hardly powerful, but it did the trick.

No, I won’t let you within 15, it said, at least not on this possession. No matter how tired I might be. No matter how close to over this game is right now.

And so Stiemsma blocked the shot and then lost all momentum. There were 31 irrelevant seconds remaining in the game, which the Timberwolves would go on to win, 90-75, and the backup center mistakenly believed there were far fewer. He paused before realizing that his teammates had shifted to offense, and he used his last energy to join them, trudging back down the court.

It was his “home run trot,” he said, and he earned every last trudge of it. On Wednesday, the Greg Stiemsma phenomenon went from nascent to very, very real.

“He’s no secret weapon right now,” Andrei Kirilenko said. “Everybody knows him.”

It took 12 points. It took two blocked shots, the first far more vigorous than the second, and five rebounds. It took 6-for-7 shooting, relentless defending and clutch scoring. All of that, and Stiemsma is the newest success story on this underdog team.

Despite the injuries, despite the history, despite everything, the Timberwolves are 3-1. It’s their best start since 2001, and it could be the beginning of the resurgence that’s been a year in the making. Moreover, perceptions of what this shorthanded team can accomplish are shifting. A week ago, the goal was to tread water, and now there’s cautious talk about stockpiling wins before Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love return.

With or without those injuries, though, Stiemsma was set to play a somewhat prominent role going into the season. He was slated upon signing to be Nikola Pekovic’s backup, but so far, he’s provided nearly as many big moments as the burly Montenegrin.

Lauding Stiemsma’s performance on Wednesday is best done with some perspective. For some players, 12 points would be nothing, the work of a half or even a particularly strong quarter. But for Stiemsma, 12 points is one short of his career high. He’s only ever logged double-digit points four times, and his seven shots were the second-most he’s ever taken. And not only were his shots accurate on Wednesday, but they were also timely; he scored eight of his 12 points in a 74-second period at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Timberwolves pulled away from the Magic once and for all.

“I knew he could shoot it, but… he’s skilled,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “He’s really skilled. He’s smart. He goes to the places he knows to go to.”

Obviously, though, Stiemsma has never been an offensive weapon. He’s known more for blocked shots and defensive rebounds, but given his role on these Timberwolves, he’s showing a new element to his game. Just don’t think he’s going to shift his focus.

“If I can be knocking down a couple of shots, that’s obviously going to help us out,” Stiemsma said. “Still, our main focus is going to be defense.”

Last Friday, when asked whether he’d ever been the center of such media attention, he admitted that in Boston, there was plenty for a time. But on Monday, the Stiemsma media posse record had to have been set. He was the postgame TV guest as his teammates left the court, and by the time he was released to the locker room, fans had congregated around the tunnel. They clapped and cheered, from the sides, from above, yelling his name or some clever variation of it.

Because now there are variations. There’s the Stiemer. The Stiemroller, the Stiem Engine. #TeamStiemsma is a popular Twitter tag. Maybe his name is just easy to turn into a pun, but regardless, Greg Stiemsma is quickly catching on as a cult phenomenon.

It’s been a long road to this point, with stops in Europe and the D-League for the 27-year-old. He wore cowboy boots to the arena on Wednesday, a carryover from his days in Sioux Falls. Those experiences, from going undrafted out of Wisconsin to finally breaking through with the Celtics last year (“Boston found him,” Adelman said, as if Stiemsma were some exquisite treasure.) have left their indelible mark on him, and for it all, Stiemsma is so much the better.

When he’s not on the court and a teammate scores in a particularly dramatic fashion, he’s the first one out of his seat to cheer, his right arm extended into the air. Same goes for a good block, a great rebound, anything that turns the momentum. You sometimes wonder if he’s not going to charge out to center court and hug somebody. It’s endearing and heartening and the opposite of this team last season, and though it’s only been a month, Stiemsma has already ingratiated himself as the best kind of teammate.

“I’ve been saying for the last couple years now, since college, that any chance I get to be on this stage, I’m going to love every minute of it,” Stiemsma said. “Part of that is just enjoying the game. last year was the same way. I feel like this is the highest level. This is where guys want to be. I know a million guys would kill to be in my position, so I’m going to do whatever I can to keep that and to enjoy it at the same time.”

And how could he not be enjoying this? How could the team? Look at this Stiemsma thing big picture: they got him for two years for a song, about $2.5 million a year. He established himself as a key role player in Boston, but he’s showing signs that he might be ready for a slightly larger role. His plantar fasciitis – gone, seemingly. Stiemsma is teachable, affable and willing to do whatever is best for the team. The kicker: the Celtics couldn’t pay him, and so with their limited cash, they settled for Darko Milicic.

There’s a poetic justice to it all.

So who will Stiemsma be for these Timberwolves? It’s going to take a lot more than four games to tell. The defense, you can bank on. Same with the enthusiasm and the attitude. The offense will remain to be seen, but really, it’s an added bonus. Stiemsma the serviceable backup might be a bit more serviceable than anyone imagined.

“In our league, a lot of times you get wrapped around the fact that you want Dwight Howard,” Adelman said. “Sometimes you need somebody who just does his job, and I think that’s what he does. He understands exactly who he is and how he can help the team.”

He’s no Dwight Howard, that’s for sure. And though empirically, rationally, of course these Timberwolves would love to have Howard, it’s so easy in these early days to be deluded into the myth that what they have is better. And why not? Feel-good stories and underdogs – Minnesota will take them, especially when the results look like this.

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