Friends we have a lot to discuss. I’ve only been going to NBA games for a few years now, but Friday night’s 112-103 Wolves’ win was probably the most amazing basketball thing I’ve seen in person. It’s startling to ponder that the Wolves came back from 21 points down in the third quarter, put together a 49-19 second-half run, and no one is really even mentioning it. Its just an ancillary tidbit to the stupefying exhibition put on by Mike Beasley and, of course, Kevin Love. (It’s also startling to ponder the fact that this game wasn’t on local TV. Oops)
Standing on Shoulders
There are lots of ways to parse this thing: the first 30-rebound game since Black Moses (this video has swears, fyi) in ’82; a 15-board third quarter (one quarter!), only three shy of Nate Thurmond’s 35-year-old NBA record; a 25-point, 22-rebound second half. As Kurt Rambis remarked, “those numbers are just stupid numbers”. (By the way, you’ll notice that all of the top 100 or so rebounding games in NBA history came in the ’50′s and ’60′s and were all pretty much notched by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. In terms of pace of play, sheer number of misses and the disparity between the great players and the field, this era is essentially impossible to compare with our own. When you consider this, Love’s feat is even more remarkable.)
But those are just facts and figures. And the farther away we get from a moment like this, the more the intensity and thrill get diluted and compressed, diffused into the ether of factuality. What was really stunning for me was watching Love in the third quarter as his heavy energy began to surge and his reddening face assumed a certain fixed, manic glow. He was on such a different plane of desire and purpose than anyone else (especially any Knick) that he almost seemed to be all alone on the floor, bathed in some strange light. Look at the highlights. Watch him hold off three Knicks at once and pull the ball down with one hand; watch him ferociously pursue every carom and tip; watch him out-jump Amar’e Stoudemire; watch him grab every single rebound.
There were lots of stranger elements to this too. Love’s career-high 31 points was a mess of errant jump-hooks and blown layups. Even in his 9-18 second half (plus 6-8 from the line), the epic focus required to chase down all of those balls didn’t seem to extend to his touch around the rim. Even though he confessed to the strategy of “throw it up there and get the rebound like Moses Malone,” (he then added that it “always worked in high school”) he also admitted to rushing his shots at the hoop.
Love also found himself checking Stoudemire, probably the most fearsome face-the-basket big man in the league, and a player so explosive and quick and with such supple touch that it would seem like a nightmare matchup for the undersized, heavy footed Love. But there was Love all fourth quarter, getting into Stoudemire’s body, forcing him into the swarming help defense, even spiking one of his jump hooks 30 feet down the floor. It defies credulity: how could Amar’e possibly miss five of eight shots while being guarded by Kevin Love?
Speaking of defense, the Wolves’ defensive turnaround in this game was pretty remarkable. In the first half, the Wolves learned some hard lessons about three-point shooters. Their pick-and-roll coverage was a little imprecise, their closeouts and rotations a little slow. Ray Felton and Danilo Gallinari took advantage of the extra space and hit seven of their 11 threes. Rambis explained: “Whenever a team collapses your defense and they also have outside shooters, everybody’s gotta do the right thing at the right time and be ready to fire out to get to shooters…we explained to them, however close you are, that’s not close enough.”
Surprisingly though, the Wolves actually managed to learn this lesson within the course of the game. If the enduring image of the first half was Gallinari hitting one of his buttery threes over a desperately outstretched hand, Corey Brewer provided the second half counterpoint. As Felton drove into the paint, Gallinari had floated over to the left wing and readied himself to receive the kickout; but by the time Gallo received the ball (and not a moment later), Brewer had already invaded his shooting space. Corey was balanced, under control and sitting on the young Italian’s right hand. Forced to go left, Gallinari awkwardly pushed off of Brewer’s chest and took an offensive foul.
The Wolves did their part on Friday to expose what looks to be a weakness of the Mike D’Antoni offensive system. D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams of Steve Nash, Amar’e and a host of cold-eyed three-point shooters presented opponents with an impossible task: protect the rim from Stoudemire’s terrifying finishes, pressure Nash enough to deter him from shooting and close out on the outside shooters. But, in Felton, the Knicks don’t a magical, unreasonably beautiful playmaker and scorer at the helm, just an average one. And it turns out that accomplishing two of those three things–collapsing on Stoudemire inside and also protecting the three-point line–while not easy is certainly doable. And in the third quarter, when the Wolves were finally able to prevent the machine from humming smoothly along, the Knicks totally lost it (Amar’e's foul trouble certainly didn’t help), missing a staggering 31 of their 43 second half shots. That, combined with their callow effort on the boards, is gonna lose you some ballgames.
It’s So Eazy
Finally, Michael Beasley. Given his intemperate emotions and distractible mind, I would never have predicted that he would put together a second consecutive game of such poise and judgment. But there he was again on Friday, sizing up the defense, reading the space on the floor, moving the ball. It must be said that Beasley has been doing this prolific scoring (he’s hit 33 of 60 in the past two games) against some fairly lame defenses (the Knicks have the 14th best defensive efficiency in the league; the Kings have the worst).
For his part, Gallinari looks pretty quick with the ball in his hands but in the first half he accomplished the impressive feat of giving Beasley space to shoot his jumper while also being unable to prevent him from getting into the paint. Although they were less apt to be utterly torched off the dribble, both Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields also curiously gave Beasley room to shoot, just as the Kings did on Wednesday. (B-Eazy himself was unmoved by the big-numbers-against-soft-defenders argument. “I’m a monster and every day is Halloween,” was his only reply. That’s cool.)
Even so, its interesting to note the changes in Beasley’s demeanor and carriage over the past two games. Its been nice to see him ecstatic and smiling but even nicer to observe the calm that he’s shown with the ball. Before this week, his jumper had been erratic in both form and result. He was impatient; his feet were jittery and unbalanced; his body position was wildly inconsistent. But recently, each time he’s risen to shoot, he’s shown the same, compact, unhurried stroke. Is this going to be a consistent thing? Wouldn’t that be amazing?