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Victory over Magic puts Timberwovles atop Northwest

The SportsXchange

MINNEAPOLIS -- Don't look now, but a week into the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves lead the Northwest Division -- even without injured stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.

Minnesota improved to 3-1 with a 90-75 victory over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday at Target Center.

The Timberwolves are off to their best start since Kevin Garnett pushed them to a 6-0 record a decade ago.

"We felt all along if we play hard and everybody contributes, we have a chance to beat people," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said, "and that's what we keep talking about, trying to get better."

On Monday in Brooklyn, the Wolves delivered an improbable second-half comeback from 22 points behind by riding largely a group of reserves to victory.

On Wednesday, their starters flourished, staking the Wolves to a 15-point, first-quarter lead that set the evening's tone even though that second unit couldn't make a shot for the second quarter's first six minutes.

That unit missed its first 11 shots and still the Wolves never lost the lead because of a newly discovered defense this season that limited the Nets to 10 fourth-quarter points on Monday and held the Magic to 12 in the first quarter Wednesday.

"It's all team defense," said Wolves starting point guard Luke Ridnour, who led his team with 19 points, "everybody helping each other. Until we get our offense clicking, our defense is going to have to carry us."

That defense kept the Magic away by at least five points since early in the third quarter.

When Orlando guard J.J. Redick tried to shoot his team back into the game, Wolves backup center Greg Stiemsma carried them the rest of the way by scoring the third quarter's final six points and by scoring four more early in the fourth quarter.

Signed away from Boston last summer to a contract with only one season guaranteed, Steimsma helped turn a 58-53 lead late in the third quarter into a 77-57 lead two minutes into the final quarter, thanks to a 19-4 run in which he scored 10 of his 12 points.

"Might have been a first," Stiemsma said of that scoring outburst after he made 6 of 7 shots Wednesday. "Never really been a scoring guy, but I feel confident in my offense right now. My jumper feels good."

Redick scored 12 of his 16 points in the third quarter after he went 0-for-6 from the field in the first half.

"I will take J.J. Redick shooting the ball any day of the way," said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, whose team is now 2-2 after losing Tuesday at Chicago and Wednesday in Minneapolis. "For him not to have a field goal at halftime speaks to sometimes the ball just doesn't go in for you. They did a good job contesting shots and making things hard. The ball just did not want to go in for us tonight."

The season's not even a week old for the Wolves, yet a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2004 is a game alone in first place ahead of 2-2 Portland and mighty Oklahoma City in the Northwest Division.

"It's awesome, I think it tells you how much talent we have and what we want to do with this team this year," Wolves backup point guard J.J. Barea said. "I'll take it any day. We can't wait to get Kevin and Ricky back, it will make us much better. But we have to get as many wins here early as we can."

Barea left the game in the fourth quarter with a sprain in his left foot after he chased a loose ball into the scorer's table while the Wolves led big.

He will be evaluated again Thursday, four days after he left a game in Toronto because of concussion-like symptoms from a hard hit in the head on a drive to the basket.

"Oh, I'm so mad at myself right now," he said. "I don't know, I guess it's my nature. I saw the ball and I just went after it. I regret it right now though. Bad luck, you have to live with it. Short-term, I'm hoping."

NOTES: Magic starting point guard Jameer Nelson missed his third consecutive game because of a strained hamstring and groin. He was again replaced in the starting lineup by E'Twaun Moore. Magic Coach Jacque Vaughn said Nelson is day-to-day. ... Vaughn inserted Josh McRoberts in his starting lineup at small forward at match up against Wolves forward Andrei Kirilenko. ... The Timberwolves averaged 3.8 blocked shots last season. They entered Wednesday's game averaging 8.67 a game, thanks in good part to newcomers Kirilenko and Stiemsma. Both were tied for fifth in the league in blocks at 2.67 a game, even though Stiemsma was playing just 14 minutes a game. ... Wednesday's center matchup featured dueling Montenegrins named Nikolas: Pekovic for the Wolves, Vucevic for the Magic. They're teammates on their national team. "We're good friends," Pekovic said. "We talk a lot." ... Teammates have given Russian rookie Alexey Shved a new nickname after he cut his hair and lost the headband: They're calling him Toni Kukoc because Rubio called him that on Twitter after tweeting a picture of the freshly shorn Shved sleeping on the team plane. "I don't know about that," Shved said. "Ask Ricky Rubio."
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