When you’re surrounded, as I am at Wolves games, by two deadly smart, upper-echelon talkers, conversation tends to wander. At issue during Thursday night’s languid first half was the Cosby Show and it’s depiction of the African-American experience. Were Cliff and his brood a triumph of aspirational representation, a giant step forward from J.J. Walker’s grinning minstrelsy? Or were they a simple reflection of a naively “post-racial” liberal imagination, whistling around the complicated truths of blackness in America? Or both? And anyway why is it the job of every black cultural product to portray the full, complicated spectrum of the African-American experience? And isn’t this asking an awful lot of a sitcom?
Now I love those Huxtables dearly, but what has always gotten under my skin about the show is its eagerness to conform with the sterile, bourgeois fantasies of American success: appropriately upper-middle class professions; kids so charming they’ll hurt your teeth; serious property ownership; more late Louis Armstrong than Ornette Coleman. Again, asking a lot of a sitcom.
It’s just that I happen to prefer Ornette Coleman. And when it comes to the NBA, we can find the Huxtables’ ethos of vanilla success in the competent, businesslike way that the most powerful teams conduct their affairs–and the way the less powerful, but generally more interesting teams tend to aspire to that same bland ethos.
You can’t blame the Spurs for their energy-efficient approach, or anyone else for emulating them–it does, after all, win titles. But there is something wild and wonderful about teams like the Wolves and the Wizards, who haven’t yet learned this kind of square, professional sensibility. Their games are often weird and unstable. They are prone to colossal losses of composure, to periods of illogical, credulity-defying play.
Just for instance: the Wizards’ dreadful fourth-quarter collapse (one observer commented: “Flip Saunders is rolling over in his grave. Even though he’s not dead”). Two separate, equally baffling instances of Wizards casually lolling the ball inbounds into the long arms of the lurking Corey Brewer. Brewer attempting any layup. Andray Blatche and Javale McGee doing the mystifiying, but wildly athletic things they do. Darko Milicic tipping the ball in his own basket off a jump-ball (yup, that happened).
But these oddities make the moments of quirky beauty shine even more brightly–John Wall’s hard-to-emotionally-process speed, for instance, or Kevin Love’s sublime flurries of rebounding effort. There was that same seven-foot Darko, during the incredible 18-3 Wolves run that close the game, shaking his defender with a shockingly smooth and gentle behind-the-back dribble, spin and layup. There was Love nailing a contested 25-ft three and executing a dorky shimmying, chest-beating celebration dance. Even better was the previous possession, that began with Love zipping a deft high-low pass into Darko, involved all five Wolves touching–and quickly moving–the ball, and culminated in a Wayne Ellington corner three.
Kurt Rambis rightly commended the beauty and selflessness of that sequence (he even admitted to a rare in-game smile). But what I found especially winning was the fact that four of the five players involved in that lovely sequence of passes actually declined an open shot in favor of furthering the magically fluid ball movement that had somehow taken hold. Most of the time, deferring to a teammate when you have an open look is tantamount to taking a bad shot. But here, as with Darko’s silky crossover, as with Love’s deep heat check, the Wolves were reveling in their own sudden ability to simply play the game. It was as if they realized that, for these few minutes at least, they were touched with something special–something sort of similar to Spurs-ian competence, but wilder and more ineffable–and they wanted to wring every last possible drop of ease and exhilaration out of the moment. None of these plays were necessarily advisable, but with their giddy, celebratory excess they were hysterically fun to watch.
That those last splendid minutes came against the Wizards–who have yet to win a road game and are even more backward and hapless than our Wolves–and salvaged a win from what was beginning to look like another catastrophic, demoralizing loss, puts things in their proper perspective. As should the fact that Jonny Flynn contributed minutes so dismal that Luke Ridnour was greeted with a cheer of exasperated relief when he reentered the ballgame (for us Minnesotans, this is tantamount to a mild booing). As should the fact that for the majority of the game the Wolves had their typical troubles containing guard penetration on both isolations and pick-and-roll. (For all of the recent examples of questionable late-game decision-making, Rambis should be commended here for two key late defensive adjustments. The first was assigning Luke Ridnour to guard Hinrich, and Wayne Ellington to check Wall. The second was changing the defensive rotation patterns to allow Kevin Love to stay home on the hot-shooting Rashard Lewis. Both of these contributed to the Wizards scoring just three points in the final five minutes.)
I realize that most of us Wolves fans would gladly trade the Wolves’ haphazard flailings for the Spurs’ workmanlike consistency (to be fair, though, there’s nothing at all banal about what Manu Ginobili does). After all, most of the time, the T-Wolves’ youth and inexperience translates into not much more than frustration and disappointment. But on Thursday at least, this moment of exuberant newness was a real sight to behold. There’s life on the margins.