Andrei Kirilenko is really a strange looking dude. He wears his baggy shorts very high on an already high waist. His long hair is about as thin and whispy as human hair can be. Its lighter than air; it seems to just float around his long face. And that face! That face is like a caricature of a face.
Most importantly for our purposes are the arms. AK’s preposterously long arms appear to have been grafted onto his body, an ill-fitting gift from the robot/aliens hovering above us. For a man like this, with this kind of willowy, yet angular, almost synthetic body, and with his great instinct for the ball, playing the Timberwolves must seem like the greatest gift of all.
Because saying that the Wolves are “loose with the ball,” as coaches and commentator’s like to, is a gross understatement. The Wolves dribble lazily high and wide. They hold the ball unprotected, as Michael Beasley did on one terribly damaging lost crunch time possession. They are careless and indecisive on the break (another Beasley special). They send dreamy skip passes lolling through passing lanes, just begging to be stolen (Kevin Love had a good one of these at a crucial moment in the fourth); or they fire excessively ambitious balls to cutters in traffic (thank you, Luke Ridnour).
The Wolves have kicked games away before (and I think we can be certain that they will again), but never quite as decisively as they did on Friday against Kirilenko and his ball-hawking crew (AK and Paul Millsap collected 11 steals (!) between the two of them). The Wolves outshot the Jazz (46.8%-44.1%), they made more threes, they were even on free-throws. But they turned it over 24 times to Utah’s 10. That is just death.
Interestingly, the Wolves problems encompassed not just turnovers, but rebounding and loose balls as well. The Wolves out-rebounded the Jazz but surrendered 16 offensive boards; Utah seemed to be in position to grab every important free ball. That disastrous possession at the end of the fourth quarter typified it all. With the Wolves down by three, Kirlenko missed two free throws, opening the door for the Wolves to finally tie the game. Instead, they indecisively bobbled the ball until it ended up in the Jazz’s hands. The Wolves then forced Millsap into a deep, fading baseline jumper that caromed off the side of the backboard. Again the Wolves groped for the rebound. Again the Jazz retained possession, this time converting on a jumper to extend the lead to five.
This wasn’t necessarily a matter of effort; in fact, the Wolves have brought a certain fervent desperation to their recent fourth quarters that is pretty encouraging. But somehow it seemed like that effort was permeated by some grave insecurity, an almost adolescent lack of confidence over their right to the ball that the Jazz just do not share.
If any one Wolf typified this insecurity, it had to be Jonny Flynn. Tom Hanneman was right to note a renewed enthusiasm to Flynn’s stride and demeanor. In handing out his six assists, Flynn certainly seemed to bring a renewed confidence and energy, particularly on his two fine dishes to Wes Johnson in transition.
But no sooner had Hanneman paid Flynn this compliment than Flynn began to look skittish all over again. He hits a dynamic step-through left-handed scoop, but moments later dribbles into trouble, jumps to pass, throws the ball to nowhere, looks ridiculous. He hits a confident pull-up three (albeit very early in the shot clock and before any other Wolves had touched the ball) only to dribble the ball off his foot the next time down the floor. He sets up Wes for an open look on one possession and inexplicably wanders into a Jazz triple-team on another. He had six assists, yes, but he also committed a full quarter of the Wolves’ 24 turnovers during his 18 schizophrenic minutes on the floor.
David Kahn has suggested that Flynn has yet to fully physically recover from his hip surgery, and this may be so. It does seem as if Flynn is not quite as limber and explosive as he was last year. But to me, more striking even than his athletic diminishment is the arrhythmic, unbalanced quality to his play. It’s as if he’s lost confidence in what he’s always trusted, his kinetic athleticism and one-on-one skills, and that this loss has starkly revealed his lack of savvy and game awareness. Whatever the reason, be it the hip or the simple fact that he played no basketball from July until December, Flynn looks deeply lost on the court.
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For me, the most fascinating moment of this game came in the third quarter, when Paul Millsap blew past Anthony Tolliver and prepared for a massive one-handed flush. But, see, Darko had other ideas. Darko’s effort in all phases of the game is mercurial; he just seems conflicted about giving himself fully to the game. Given that, one of his strangest attributes–and the one that tends to land him in foul trouble–is his willingness to put in at least a token effort on every last lost cause defensive rotation. You know the one: some T-Wolf gets beaten on the perimeter, or loses his man in the wash. The help defense is late in reacting and the opponent prepares for an uncontested layup; there’s essentially no preventing this guy from scoring. Well, Darko will almost always–sometimes hesitantly, sometimes with force–try to prevent it, oftentimes against all better judgment.
And that’s what he did on this occasion, too. Except this time, he managed to get there on time, managed to move to the front of the rim, leap vertically and force Millsap’s dunk off the iron. But here’s the amazing part. Looking at the replay, even as Darko was making this strong defensive effort, he was squinting timidly and even turning his head down and away in an almost childlike display of cringing self-protection. On this one play, Darko seemed reveal his deep ambivalence about the game. It’s almost as if he wants very badly to be what his team wants him to be, to be a full participant in the NBA’s manly ways. But when reality of a given situation intervenes, the full intensity, the full potential for pain or humiliation, the big guy just seems a little overwhelmed.