Timberwolves return to reality, fall to Hawks

Benjamin Polk —  November 15, 2010 — 5 Comments

Lost in the the euphoria over Kevin Love’s 31-31 game and the Wolves’ recent two-game winning streak, plus the carnival of horrors that preceded all of this has been the fact that the Wolves have been fairly well carved up by injuries. Because of mostly solid work by Sebastian Telfair, Luke Ridnour and Wesley Johnson, the absence of folks like Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster hasn’t had had an obvious impact. (Although, two things: first, this team is 30th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency so it’s not like things have been humming along without a hitch. Second, I suspect we’ll only understand the full importance of Webster’s loss after he returns.) But the real impact of these injuries hasn’t been on the starting lineup; its been a huge loss of depth on the bench.

Deep Tracks

To wit: earlier in the year I speculated about this hypothetical second unit: Ridnour, Johnson, Corey Brewer, Anthony Tolliver and Nikola Pekovic. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But because of the aforementioned injuries, plus bumps suffered by Ridnour, Pekovic and Wayne Ellington, the Wolves sported this illustrious fivesome in the first half of Sunday’s game in Atlanta: Brewer and Tolliver with Lazar Hayward, Sundiata Gaines and Kosta Koufos. Now, that would be a pretty wicked D-League starting five but it seemed like maybe not a coincidence that the Hawks managed a 21-8 run in the first half, while the Wolves’ starters rested.

The Wolves played energetic, competitive basketball for the rest of the game–they shot 47.4% and played committed defense–but  never really recovered from that first half swoon. And there’s a pretty solid reason why. A short while back I commented that when things were going well, the Wolves offense had a certain wild charm. But ok, to be honest, this wildness–a tendency to mishandle the ball, to make passes to nowhere–is mostly not charming at all. Mostly its just really aggravating. Telfair, Love and Michael Beasley had 15 turnovers between them and this carelessness repeatedly prevented the Wolves from making inroads into the Hawks’ lead.

Dark Night of the Soul

You know what else prevented that? The fact that Darko Milicic is still totally lost in the wilderness. It seems hardly possible that a 25-year-old athlete in perfect health could actually look haggard, but Darko does. His dreadful lack of confidence, his “disgust” with himself (his words), is written all over his wan face and embodied in his slumped shoulders and timid play. Darko’s line on Sunday is pretty bleak: 1-7 shooting for two points; two boards; three blocks; two assists; two turnovers.

Even the lone bright spot–those three blocks–belie the reality of the situation. Darko couldn’t stay with Al Horford who scored the majority of his 28 points (on 9-14 from the field, 10-10 from the line) against the big Serb. Darko couldn’t keep Horford away from the hoop when he faced the basket; he couldn’t recover quickly enough on pick-and-rolls to deter easy layups; he couldn’t keep Horford off of the glass or challenge Horford’s jumper.  Horford is the shorter guy by at least four inches but he got his shot pretty much whenever he wanted.

Even so, as those stats show, Darko’s real damage was on the offensive end. The profile for this 1-7 nightmare is pretty familiar. Darko performs epic low-post contortions in the service of terrible, awkward shots–an off-balance twelve-foot skyhook and a ginger baseline reverse (one bricked, the other rejected) are pretty typical–and then blows the easy looks he does get.

But this isn’t even the worst of it. Because the center is generally the fulcrum of the triangle, the offense tends to flow through Darko when he is on the floor. Entering the ball into the post is meant to ignite a flurry of passes and cuts, to set the offense in motion. But Darko’s play has been so labored and so indecisive that the Wolves’ offense seems to stagnate whenever he touches the ball, those two assists notwithstanding.

Kurt Rambis appears to recognize this. So in the third quarter he began running the offense through Kevin Love (who finished with only 22 points and 17 boards–weak) on the weakside post, leaving Darko to languish  out of the play. Finally, with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter he replaced Darko entirely, bringing in Anthony Tolliver and moving Love over to center, as he did against the Knicks on Friday. Love is certainly no natural “5”, but the offense suddenly began to hum and the defensive energy increased palpably. The Wolves put together their best stretch of play, outscoring the Hawks 39-30 the rest of the way.

Things could get better for Darko Milicic. His shot could start falling. And this could energize the rest of his game, give him the heart to pursue the ball and defend with some guts. But when, in his NBA career, has this ever happened? We have to begin wondering, 11 games into his four year deal, if these disastrous crises of confidence are not a definitive element of Darko’s on-court self.

Benjamin Polk

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5 responses to Timberwolves return to reality, fall to Hawks

  1. re: “We have to begin wondering, 11 games into his four year deal, if these disastrous crises of confidence are not a definitive element of Darko’s on-court self.”

    Perhaps, or perhaps Rambis (and all of us) is (are?) learning what the real issue with Darko is. It’s nothing to do with skill, with athleticism, with understanding an offense or a defense – it’s hardly anything basketball related. With Darko it’s all mental. Now perhaps it is valid to question the wisdom of giving him such a huge deal if that’s truly his issue – we all remember what happened with Chuck Knoblauch and throwing to first base – but to me the more interesting question is whether or not this team, with it’s newfound commitment to player development, can work Darko through this now that we know it’s not about simply getting him more reps. If there is a legacy of Phil Jackson it is his mastery at managing the mental aspect of the game for his players. Can Kurt do this? Can the sports psychologist the team has on staff/retainer make a difference?

    I also think that 11 games is too quick to make judgments on any of these guys. Just because Beasley looks like he’s finding his Alpha Dog as a scorer doesn’t mean that he’s any less inconsistent. This whole team is so young, so inexperienced, that I think it’s really difficult to affirmatively ‘know’ much conclusively about who these guys are. For example, is Love really going to average 18+ boards in 40 minutes a night, or are we simply seeing a string of great games by him in extended minutes and eventually the NBA will figure out how to slow him down? Or will Love slow himself down by getting too tired and worn out over time? Or will Love finally make an All-Star team as the NBA greatest rebounder since Rodman?

    Point for me is – Darko’s struggles are frustrating, but this is precisely the point in his career where he’s been tossed aside and made an after thought by his team. We can afford, quite honestly, to let Darko play his way through it. The dude, if you believe at all in what he can become, needs to keep getting 20-25 minutes a game. He needs to learn how to play through it and help his team. And he needs to learn how dunk with authority.

  2. “It’s nothing to do with skill, with athleticism, with understanding an offense or a defense – it’s hardly anything basketball related. With Darko it’s all mental.”

    I think you’re absolutely right about this (although I do wonder if his lack of energy on the court has as much to do with simple poor conditioning). And I think you’re also right that since the Wolves invested so much in Darko, its worthwhile for them to try and see him through this thing, to see if they can help get his mind right.

    You’re right that Phil Jackson is a master at the psychological aspects of the game, but there is a crucial difference here. The most inexperienced teams that Jackson has ever coached are probably that first Bulls’ team, which had already played in the Easter Conference Finals and that first Lakers team, which had Shaq. He’s never had to deal with the sheer youth that Rambis has here. He never had to nurture an entire group of players, to literally teach them how to be pros. Instead, it was more like allowing them to release their inner expert, or whatever. Sometimes I feel like Rambis is trying to emulate this technique with players who have no inner expert (Darko, for instance, and even sometimes Love). Leaving Darko alone to figure out how to be a pro is just going to make the problem worse. Dude needs some serious hand-holding.

  3. Ya, I think you’re right, although the casual cynic in me thinks that most NBA players need/want some serious hand holding. ;)

    But to the point about Rambis and Jackson, I think Rambis knew what the gig was (teaching young guys to be pros) before taking over the team. For the most part, outside of the Lakers, any team Rambis was going to get a shot at coaching was going to be a rebuilding project. Helping out guys like Darko and Jonny, and even guys like Love and Beasley, reach their potential and discover some consistency is what Rambis has to do, and my guess is that he knew that going in. It’s the only way any team of his will improve, whether it be here or in Sacto or elsewhere (short of staying in LA, of course).

    It certainly will be fun to watch how this particular storyline of ‘mental managing’ plays out over this season. I feel like we’re already seeing positive developments with Love and Beasley, even if they are small.

    Kind of an unrelated question – do you know what Theus’ role with the players is? Laimbeer is obviously one of the guys working hard with Darko, I would imagine. Does Theus work with specific players at all?

  4. But knowing the gig and knowing the techniques and methods for the gig are two very different things. Right now I get the sense that Rambis is still kind of feeling his way through the part of the job that includes developing and managing an entire team young players.

    Good question about Theus. I’ve actually been meaning to find that out–my guess is that he would work specifically with wings like Wes and Beasley, but I don’t know for sure.

  5. Jackson and Rambis have singularly and collectively worked with plenty of young players over their long careers (regardless of championship trappings). I think the issues here are pretty straightforward. You have a team that’s been a cellar dweller for a while now, new management, new head coach and wholesale player turnover. Add to the mix, a hybrid version of a notoriously challenging system and the fact that a number of the aforementioned (and young) players are more than a little quirky. Also add a guy who just bumper-carred his way to 31&31. People are starting to pay attention again – could be a glorious trainwreck or the start of something good.

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