SALT LAKE CITY – Timberwolves backup center Greg Stiemsma spent the summer of 2010 working out almost daily against teammate Al Jefferson at Target Center. You’d think he would have learned every trick in Big Al’s proverbial book after all those hours together.
Friday’s 107-100 loss at Utah proved otherwise.
Stiemsma had to go it alone in more ways than one against the NBA’s most inventive low-post scorer: With starting center Nikola Pekovic a late scratch because of a bruised calf, Stiemsma started and played more than 40 minutes because coach Rick Adelman had few options. And for much of the first three quarters, Adelman asked Stiemsma to play Jefferson straight up.
The result: Jefferson willed his team to a must-win in their pursuit of the Los Angeles Lakers and West’s final playoff spot with a 40-point, 13-rebound, six-assist night.
Wolves fans have seen that kind of performance before. Jefferson tied a career scoring high Friday set twice before, in a three-month span with the Wolves during the 2007-08 season when he scored 40 in a January game against New Jersey and did it again at Charlotte in April.
“I worked out with him that summer,” Stiemsma said, “so I kind of knew what to expect.”
But he couldn’t stop him all by himself and for so long.
Jefferson scored 19 points in the third quarter alone and then made the clinching shot — an improvised, leaning, one-handed jumper just as the shot clock expired — that gave the Jazz a 101-98 lead with 39 seconds left that they never surrendered.
“He went for a couple ball fakes,” Jefferson said afterward. “I was like, ‘Man, you should know better, of all people.’ He just said it really looked like I was going to shoot it. I guess it don’t matter.”
Stiemsma remembers well Jefferson’s signature move.
“I’ve seen the pump fake,” he said. “I fell for it once. That’s one too many for me, but he does it to everybody.”
The Wolves won’t make the playoffs, but they sampled a taste for it Friday in a fourth-quarter that turned contentious when Jazz fans got loud and mercilessly booed guard J.J. Barea for his effective, instigating play (23 points off the bench) that drew a flagrant foul from Utah forward Derrick Favors when Favors knocked Barea to the floor with a forearm strike in the fourth quarter.
The ensuing two free throws helped the Wolves turn a 97-90 deficit with 5:19 remaining into a very brief 98-97 lead with 3:52 left.
If one didn’t know better, you’d swear Barea was playing like he doesn’t want the Lakers to make the playoffs. There’s a bunch of instant Wolves fans in Los Angeles these days now that the Wolves play the Jazz twice in four days while the Lakers try to hold on to that final playoff spot.
“I’m just trying to win a game,” said Barea, who played some fierce playoff games against the Lakers when he was with Dallas. “I don’t care who makes the playoffs. I’m just trying to win a game.”
Adelman implored his players before Friday’s game not to give in to complacency with the season finale only five days away. They apparently listened well.
“It was a great effort,” he said. “Our guys competed.”