“Obviously,” said Kurt Rambis after this harsh game, “what plagues us as a ballclub is our composure in late game situations.” That it is indeed obvious makes the point no less salient and no less worth repeating. The Wolves are glaringly young and inexperienced; this resonates through nearly every game that the team has played this year. In past seasons, the Wolves were defined by a simple, bitter fact: they were much less talented than nearly every other team. Watching those teams play, one was rarely tempted into false optimism; the crushing runs just seemed inevitable.
But that’s not quite the case this year. I’m guessing no one would look at this team’s roster and confuse them with the Miami Heat, but this season the Wolves are able to do many of the things that actual basketball teams do: they build leads; they make runs; they pose matchup problems; they manage to entertainingly compete with other basketball teams. What aggravates is the way the small but glaring mistakes accrue throughout a game, taking on a sinister collective weight as the Wolves inch closer to another single digit loss.
After Wednesday’s painful loss to the Jazz, Rambis recited a litany of these killing mistakes: useless fouls; possessions given away; hasty, panicked shots; appalling and-ones.
Here’s an example. There are two minutes and fifty seconds left in the game. The Wolves are up by seven points and have just forced a Deron Williams miss. Michael Beasley grabs the rebound and fires it ahead to Luke Ridnour who is already leading a three-on-two break with Martell Webster and Wes Johnson on the wings. Ridnour has Webster open early on his left, but instead of delivering the ball early, he waits a critical beat and then attempts to lob it over Paul Millsap’s head to Wes Johnson on the right side.
It doesn’t work. Millsap knocks the ball away and fires the ball down to Williams who is all alone under the basket. But rather than conceding the wide open two, Johnson flails at Williams from behind. Basket good, and-one. What was an imminent nine point lead has been cut to four. Rambis punches the scorers table.
Here’s another one. There are 21.5 seconds left and the Wolves have the ball, now down by one. Paul Millsap has been unable to guard Michael Beasley, who has created points for his team on three straight possessions. But the play goes to Martell Webster who runs his man off of a double screen to get momentarily open at the top of the key. The shot is a quick, off-balance three and it does not go in. (In fairness to Rambis: the Jazz were likely to load up on Beasley, banking on his unwillingness/inability to move the ball out of double-teams. What’s more, Webster had been shooting the ball pretty well.)
The Jazz grab the rebound and the Wolves are not able to foul. Here comes that counter-attack. The Jazz whip the ball down the floor until it lands in the hands of fresh-faced Gordon Hayward, waiting behind the Wolves’ defense. Hayward dunks it. Webster fouls him anyway. The Jazz grab a four point lead with 13 seconds left. And that was pretty much it.
To be truthful, though, simple mistakes aren’t the only hallmarks of the Wolves’ inexperience. Try this on: the Jazz hit 10 of their 16 fourth-quarter shots, and 13 of their 17 free throws. The Wolves couldn’t guard anybody, particularly our old friend Al Jefferson, with his silken low-post feints and pivots and instantly recognizable one-handed push-shot. Utah’s seeming chaos of cutting and ball movement puts enormous pressure on a defense to communicate and make quick, difficult decisions. The Wolves are simply not yet up to this task. Says Rambis, “we’re just not connected that way as a team. It’s just the overriding fact that we’re young and we don’t have the experience to get it done yet.”
So the Wolves’ losing, and their torturous fourth quarters, continue. The team is 6-24 and whispers of doom, disaster and impending reckonings abound. What strikes me though, is that hopelessness has most definitely not descended on this team. Serious late-game competitiveness is a new thing for the Wolves and it’s brought with it a measure of hope for the coaches and players. There is a certain conviction to Rambis’s professions of optimism. “Eventually they’re all gonna figure it out and we’re gonna get all the pieces that we need to win these ballgames,” he said with some force. “But right now it’s excruciatingly painful.” True enough