MINNEAPOLIS Dante Cunningham is not among the league leaders in steals. Not steals per minute, either. Steals per clutch moment, though if that were a stat, you have to know the forward would be up there.
With 15 seconds remaining in the Timberwolves' 108-103 win over Atlanta on Tuesday, Cunningham lurched the ball away from Josh Smith, ensuring a foul, two free throws, and a Minnesota win. Oh, and that was just a split second after he'd planted himself in his sweet spot, a hair to the left of the basket and a smidge inside the 3-point line, and iced a mid-range jumper to give the Timberwolves a three-point lead.
So let's do the math: Cunningham misses that shot, and it's still 104-103, with the game completely in Atlanta's control. Cunningham doesn't nab that steal, and the Hawks have a chance to make any shot and win it. Any shot, any swish through that net, however ugly, and the game would have been blown.
The shots hadn't been falling for Cunningham all night before that last, deciding jumper. He was 2-of-8 when he planted his feet, 2-of-8 when he was wide open, 2-of-8 when there was really no way not to take the shot. And somehow, it just didn't matter.
"The shot was great," Cunningham said. "That was actually the only shot tonight that felt good coming out of my hands. But again, defense is kind of where I put my staple."
That's why scoring seemed almost like an afterthought. When asked which was better, the shot or the steal, Cunningham didn't pause. The steal, he said, by far. The steal was what sucked the life out of the Hawks and the mystery out of the Target Center, erasing any question of whose game it was. The resulting foul and free throws were formalities, and Cunningham is the kind of guy who thrives off utterly deflating an opponent like he did on Tuesday.
"I pride myself on defensively getting it done, regardless of who it is, and making it just that much more hectic for them to get their shots off."
Listen to him talk through the mechanics of the steal, and it sounds like the thing took at least 30 seconds to execute. He's figuring in the fact that Horford had scored on him the possession before, so they might go to his man again. He's talking about calculating lengths and angles, catching a glimpse of Andrei Kirilenko out of the corner of his eye, gambling on where the ball might go and when it might go there. Gambling correctly, a jumble of decisions compressed into a nanosecond. It's almost exhausting to hear him explain the process in the kind of basketball gibberish that's comprehensible to so few.
Cunningham has started the past two games with Kevin Love sidelined again with that broken right hand. In his start Saturday, he logged 42 minutes, the second-most in a game in his career, shooting 5-of-13 with 8 rebounds and 2 steals. That's a lot for a player who's been a reserve for the majority of his time in the NBA, but Cunningham hardly minded. When asked before Tuesday's game whether the forward's minutes were something he'd have to watch, assistant coach Terry Porter, who was filling in for coach Rick Adelman, brushed off the notion.
"He didn't complain," Porter said, laughing. "He didn't complain. It wasn't something where he felt tired at the end. He's still a young man. He's young. Young legs."
So far, those young legs have brought the Timberwolves five crucial steals this season in the final minutes of games in which the outcome was up for grabs. Three of those five games, Minnesota has gone on to win. There was one in Brooklyn, in the team's early-season comeback, when he snared the ball with 5:03 left in the game and his team down by two points and then ran down the court and scored to tie it. Another came against Houston on Dec. 26, when he grabbed the ball with his team down a point in the final four minutes. And now, in the team's past three home games, Cunningham has had a crucial steal apiece, with this most recent one undoubtedly the most decisive of the bunch.
Cunningham is proof that even when shots aren't falling a problem the Timberwolves have faced all too often this season there are ways to compensate. It didn't get to him on Tuesday, obviously, and he more than made up for any shakiness offensively with that last series of plays. It was as if the rest of the game could be forgotten, as Cunningham kept the tempo fast, how the Timberwolves wanted it, and the game completely within their control.
With Love out and the Timberwolves sorely in need of production at power forward, they've found something in Cunningham, something quite the opposite of star power but almost as good. It's gritty, a little shy of the spotlight, unconcerned, really, if anyone notices. It's selfless, more than anything, and it's beginning to color the team's approach to the game, especially after all the injuries.
So now, after 850 words of Dante Cunningham this and Dante Cunningham that, of steals and energy sprinkled with a taste of underdog, take heed of Ricky Rubio's perspective on the matter. Ricky Rubio, the point guard who's programmed to be in there at the end of games, to make the deciding play and leave his fingerprints all over the thing. Ricky Rubio, who sat on the bench in a state of mental torture because his night was over and watched Cunningham do exactly what he was hoping to see.
"DC," Rubio said, "no words for him."
And that might be just as good a way to sum it all up.
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