If you never watched any NBA basketball games besides those played by the Minnesota Timberwolves, this is what you would think: LaMarcus Aldridge is the tallest man in the world; LaMarcus Aldridge is more like a physical force than a human–like gravity, like radiation; LaMarcus Aldridge is a genius at basketball. (You might also wonder if there was some kind of new rule prohibiting you from guarding three-point shooters. But we’ll get to that.)
Now it’s true that Aldridge looks like a giant but moves with rare grace and quickness. And that he’s uncommonly skilled for such a tall, long-limbed guy. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t smash his way to 15-22 for 36 points and 10 boards every night. In fact I’m always shocked to find, after a Wolves/Blazers game, that Aldridge’s cumulative numbers are decidedly human.
The fact is, the man gets a lot of help from our boys. In past years, the Wolves were so undersized on the front line that Aldridge’s performances were a simple product of reaching over people and placing the ball in the basket. That’s shouldn’t be the problem it once was; with his long reach and finesse game, Darko Milicic would have seemed to be an intriguing matchup for LaMarcus. But Darko stubbed his face (sprained his ankle actually, but whatever) on the opening tipoff and was thus up for a grand total of 57 seconds of playing time on Friday. His replacement Nikola Pekovic also managed to hurt himself almost immediately. “Tragically entertaining?” Yeah, I guess.
So the job of sparring with Aldridge fell to Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Kosta Koufos. Well, Love and Beasley were challenged by those obvious size disadvantages. And while Koufos is nice and big and managed to scrap for 11 rebounds, he just wasn’t up to the task of keeping the springy Aldridge away from the rim. There were deeper problems than just deficits in size or skill, though. First of all, no Wolf was able to put a body on Aldridge in transition. When the Wolves missed or turned the ball over, he was able to freely sprint to the front of the rim where he often found a ball helpfully lofted his way.
There’s more. As Steve Nash and Channing Fry made brutally apparent on Wednesday, the Wolves have struggled in defending the pick and roll since Kevin G. sailed on and found his bliss. On Friday, the recipe was typical: neither the Wolves’ bigs nor their guards were able to prevent Portland’s ballhandlers–usually Patty Mills, but also Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez–from turning the corner. And once they did, the recoveries and weakside rotations were just a little too slow to prevent the rolling Aldridge from demolishing the rim.
It’s all in gruesome detail here. See how Kevin Love can’t move laterally quickly enough to prevent Fernandez from getting into the paint? And see how slowly and tentatively Beasley reacts to the unfolding situation? And how Aldridge utterly crushes?
This was not the end of the Wolves’ defensive problems, unfortunately. Fernandez, with his crazy legs and sculpted, 8th-grade-circa-’91 haircut, was in the flow. The crossover stepback jumper he nailed in the second quarter that sent Corey Brewer careening away like he’d been punched in the stomach was a work of beauty; and his post-shot moonings and theatrical foul-drawing contortions were pure Ginobili-esque, Euro-diva performance art. Fernandez’s attacking spirit and quick release devastated the Wolves all game. By the way, I’m not sure how Rudy’s ‘cut effects his release (more research needed), but I do know that middle school in the early ’90’s was a hard time to be a boy with hair.
But the problem was not just Fernandez’s performative zest. Given the Wolves’ aforementioned shortcomings–difficulty negotiating screens; slow recognition of the unfolding offensive set–Rudy and the Blazers pose two particular challenges. First, when he is as full of vitality as he was on Friday, Fernandez is relentless in running off of screens, both on and off the ball. The Timberwolves were simply not able to prevent him from getting clear looks at the basket.
Second, Portland’s offense is both creative and uncommonly patient. Their artful ball movement carves out space on the floor by methodically exposing their opponent’s weaknesses and mistakes. For the Wolves, the weaknesses are painfully obvious and the mistakes are inevitable. And so on Friday, their defense regularly devolved into an elaborate game of chase; they were constantly scrambling to recover, frantically pursuing the ball around the perimeter. This is not a very good way to play.
The return of Martell Webster has been a welcome sight indeed. We like the three-point shooting; we like the willingness to attack the rim; we like the maturity and off-the-ball awareness. I was particularly enthused by that second-quarter play in which Kevin Love faced the basket in the low block and Webster, seeing that his defender’s head was turned, dove to the basket for an easy two. But it seems pretty clear that Martell is still not moving as fluidly or athletically as he was before his back surgery. There’s an awkward stiffness about his movements that aren’t evident when he rises for his jumper, but are pretty clear when he cuts or attempts to move laterally. As you might imagine, this is hampering Webster’s ability to defend and, at the moment, makes the contrast between him and Corey Brewer pretty stark.