Wolves Tuesday: Reserves standing strong

NEW YORK – There’s no Timberwolves practice today, so here are a few tidbits from Monday night, chief among them the success of the bench in the team’s 107-96 win over the Nets.

Probably the most telling stat of the past week was reinforced in Brooklyn, where the trio of Chase Budinger, J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham continued to be an incredibly effective unit off the bench. In 201 minutes together on the floor, Barea (plus-42), Budinger (plus-26) and Cunningham (plus-27) have combined for a plus-minus of plus-95 this season. That unit, along with Alexey Shved and Nikola Pekovic, was on the floor in the fourth quarter and secured the Minnesota win; coach Rick Adelman said he was so pleased with the group’s execution that despite wanting to put Andrei Kirilenko back in the game, he elected not to.

Most notable about the positive plus-minuses from these three players is the contrast to last year, when Ricky Rubio (plus-50) and Kevin Love (plus-26) were the only two players on the entire roster to finish the year with positive marks.

Just because these bench players are posting better plus-minuses (and better overall stats in some cases) than starters doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be inserted into the starting lineup, though. There’s a method to Adelman’s attack, and having some, if not all, of these players fresh for later in the game is key to his strategy. That said, don’t be shocked to see one of them, most likely Cunningham, get a start at some point in the near future.

Coming into his own:
Monday marked the best game yet of Shved’s young career. He scored 10 points and hit two 3-pointers, and his production came at the end of the game when his team needed it most. Maybe it was his new haircut, everyone joked – Shved waved goodbye to headbands and ponytails after a trip to the barber the morning of the game – but whatever the reason, he’s showing confidence.

“I know he can play like that,” Kirilenko said. “I’ve seen him play for the Russian team, for the international team. I’m not surprised he can make those shots in the crunch moment. He has those nerves to take that shot in the crunch moment when everybody is a little shaky. He did a great job.”

Shved began the regular season slowly, finishing Friday’s game against Sacramento, his first, with no points, no assists, a rebound and a blocked shot in 15 minutes. But since then, he’s been gaining momentum, to the point it’s realistic to think he could earn good minutes this season.

It’ll be smart, though, to keep the expectations in check. Shved is still a rookie, still a beanpole, still adjusting to the league. Barea said that throughout Monday’s game, he told Shved to be aggressive, to drive the ball, and he did. It was the most comfortable the veteran point guard had seen the rookie, but even he knows that every night won’t be like Monday.

No matter what, though, Shved seems to be gaining a level of confidence in the NBA.

“If you make two shots in a row, it starts feeling like you can make a third one,” he said.

How they stack up: Just a quick glance at league-wide team stats a week into the season reveals a few things about the Timberwolves in the early going:

— They need to work on their long-range shooting. The team is shooting a collective 28.3 percent from beyond the arc, good for 23rd in the league, but it has the personnel this season to do much better.

— Rebounding shouldn’t be too much of an issue if the team continues like this. Even without Love, the Timberwolves are tied for sixth in the league in total rebounds per game, averaging 45.0. When Love returns, that number should spike even higher, and thanks to players like Cunningham, one of the team’s primary concerns in Love’s absence might not be the problem it imagined it would be.

— Assists are improving. After a dismal 17 assists in their first game and 18 in their second, the Timberwolves have bumped their assists per game average up to 21.7. It’s a decidedly average mark, good for 16th in the league, and they can only hope it continues on the uptick until Rubio returns.

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