Timberwolves 105, Bobcats 108: Night Falls
Well this game was just a hot mess. On display here were two bad basketball teams playing some unintuitive, unlovely, awfully bad basketball. The Wolves missed more than a third of their free throws. They turned the ball over in crucial situations. Their first half was a listless fiasco. I’ll allow Kurt Rambis to continue: “their bench killed us, our defense was sub-par tonight and our effort was…nonexistent for the vast majority of the ballgame.” All true.
And yet, thanks to the fact that the Bobcast are a decimated wreck of a club, the Wolves by all rights should still have won this game. The entirety of the third quarter was a 30-14 Wolves run. They were up by eight points with just under three minutes remaining and up five points at the 1:48 mark. How did this come to such a depressing end? Well, that’s actually a hard question to answer. There’s no focal point of blame for this game; things went wrong in diffuse, ever-shifting waves. Let me try to catch a few:
The observers who note that Luke Ridnour has been hurting his team with contested jumpers early in the shot clock are right; the man does take some truly perplexing shots. But I would like to point out that, against Charlotte, Ridnour finished the game +11, compared with the alarming -14 posted by Jonny Flynn.
Single game plus/minus doesn’t always tell you anything important, but on Wenesday it was indicative of the fact that, unlike Jonny, Ridnour appeared at least moderately capable of guarding D.J. Augustine off of the pick-and-roll. On two straight plays late in the fourth quarter, Flynn took such a wayward path underneath screens that he was unable challenge Augustin’s suddenly wide open three-pointers in any meaningful way. (And I realize that Augustin had only hit one of his previous 12 shots–but that was largely because those shots were rushed and contested. The decisive threes that D.J., a career 41% three-point shooter, hit over Flynn were both open and in comfortable rhythm.) On the subsequent possession, Flynn ran over the screen–although not aggressively enough to deter Augustin from shooting–and heedlessly fouled the Bobcats point guard in the act of rising for a three. When Ridnour was reinserted for overtime, Augustin magically cooled off.
Land of Silence and Darko
Playing without both Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson, the Bobcats served up what was probably the lamest starting lineup the Wolves have faced all year. That Augustin and Boris Diaw were vying all night for first-option status–or rather, highest volume shooter with the lowest shooting percentage status–tells you almost everything you need to know. And the fact that two of the most serious draft boondoggles of the past decade, Kwame Brown and Darko, faced off for the opening tip tells you everything else.
So how did Kwame fare against our guy? Looking fit and trim, Brown abused Mr. Milicic in the first half to the tune of 12 rebounds to four. Thanks to foul trouble, Darko went on to play only three more minutes of regulation. But, after watching Kosta Koufos and Kevin Love put forth serious effort on defense and on the glass for nearly two full quarters and looking relaxed and contented on the bench for nearly the entire time, Darko was reinserted for the overtime. Said overtime was remarkable for two impressively vacant plays.
With the Wolves trailing by two, Darko tossed an exceptionally casual no-look, over-the-shoulder pass somewhere not very close to Michael Beasley. Then, trailing the ensuing Bobcats fast-break, he planted a gentle touch foul on Tyrus Thomas as Thomas crushed home an alley-oop. Suddenly, the Wolves were down by five; Darko had made his mark.
Coach Taught Me to Sing, He Couldn’t Teach Me to Love
Speaking of Darko and strange substitution patterns. I can understand why Rambis would want to see what Darko could bring to the overtime, even after sitting for nearly the entire second half. It’s much harder to see why Rambis would leave the big fellow in the game for the crucial final possession of overtime. The Wolves were down by three with only thirteen seconds left; what could Darko possibly accomplish on the floor at that stage in the game? Wouldn’t the Wolves have been better served using Martell Webster to spread the floor and provide another three point option?
Well, you might say, Darko could set a screen for a three-point shooter. Or he could set a back screen for a possible quick backdoor alley-oop. But he didn’t do that, he just hung out on the block doing not much of anything. In fact, there was no action at all on that play, just a simple inbounds to Michael Beasley and the mandate that he (Beasley) create an open three for himself while being guarded by the very long, very athletic Tyrus Thomas.
Rambis was obviously annoyed at being asked about Darko’s presence on that final play. His response was an icy silence followed by: “They were switching. They even switched off of Darko, they inverted that, so…they knew who we were going to.” Which doesn’t really make sense: if they “knew who we were going to,” wouldn’t it be advantageous to put more viable options on the floor, to create at least a bit of uncertainty and misdirection for the defense? And, down by three, how was Darko in any position to take advantage of a mismatch caused by Charlotte’s switches anywa
Without a doubt, the Wolves’ young, inexperienced players deserve blame for their lack of poise late in games. But it should be said that their young, inexperienced coach has been guilty of that same lack of end-game poise. Whatever Rambis’ strengths as a head coach (and I do believe there are many), it appears that in-game management is not yet one of them. There are now a nice handful of examples–not fouling down by two with 25 seconds left in Denver, very poor clock management against Utah are some recent ones, but there are more–of Rambis mishandling crucial moments late in games. Let’s see if this improves as the season goes on.