Timberwolves 117, Thunder 118: A thousand deaths

Benjamin Polk —  January 27, 2011 — 9 Comments

It’s hard to fault Corey Brewer for Kevin Durant’s utterly gonzo 47-point, 18-rebound spectacularium on Wednesday. Brewer ardently chased Durant all over the floor, worming his way around countless screens, recovering quickly to challenge every last shot. But Durant is a phenomenon. He plays a classic shooter’s game, running the baseline, curling off of screens, dropping subtle jab steps and hesitations, raising the ball above his head and calmly flicking his wrist with such miraculous economy that the movement itself is almost impossible to perceive. This would be an apt description of vintage Rip Hamilton except that Rip Hamilton is not 6’9″ with tentacles for arms (and he never was much of a three-point shooter). Brewer was the Wolves best defensive option against KD, and he never had a chance.

Corey’s admirable defensive effort was largely typical of the Wolves’ in this game, as was his solid shooting and tenacity on the boards. Unfortunately, Brewer’s game was typical in other ways too. Along with all of the great and surprising things the Wolves did came some devastating mistakes, some glaring and some subtle.

Brewer’s most obvious entry into the canon was missing the would-be game tying free-throw in overtime. But here’s less obvious one. With the game tied and 4.3 seconds remaining in regulation, Brewer prepared to inbound the ball from the sideline. It seemed that an isolation for Michael Beasley, who had been shooting well, was the Wolves’ best chance for a game-winner. And sure enough, Beasley flashed to the three point line with room to maneuver. But Brewer missed him. Instead, he entered the ball to Kevin Love in the post; and we saw why even teams with dynamic one-on-one post scorers (which Kevin Love is not) rarely go inside last-second situation. As the refs faded into the scenery, Serge Ibaka pushed Love far from the hoop and Russell Westbrook freely dug at the ball; Love’s jump hook was awkward and deep (although it nearly went in anyway).

Of course, this was by no means the most egregious error of the night–nor the Wolves’ starkest case of mercurial play. Wes Johnson shot the ball well for the second straight game and even managed to find himself at the basket a time or two–his dynamic overtime drive and finish may have been the night’s most welcome sight. (By the way, if the last two games are any indication, it seems like we know where Kurt Rambis stands on the Wolves’ wing surplus; Wes has played over 66 minutes in those two games combined, while Martell Webster has seen just 20.) But he also managed to lose Durant on a fourth quarter backdoor cut that ended in a dunk and a foul. And he showed off his still-awfully shaky floor game by twice dribbling into traffic and forcing passes in the OT.

Michael Beasley hit some courageous shots, but he also lofted a tepid pass to nowhere in the overtime and overran Jeff Green on the OKC’s final offensive possession of regulation, allowing the Thunder forward to calmly dribble into the paint and tie the game. For his part, Love played his now-customary passionate, smooth-shooting game. But: he was also conspicuously late rotating to impede both Westbrook’s late fourth-quarter drive and Green’s game tie-er.

And then there’s Luke Ridnour. Ridnour may well get the blame for this wrenching loss. He did after all miss a terrifically important free throw with 12.2 seconds remaining in the fourth, allowing the Thunder to tie the game on Green’s late runner. And he did, of course, launch that flailing, seemingly inexplicable final bomb with six seconds remaining when calling a time out or at least regrouping for a final shot would have seemed the wisest decision.

But, to me, that blame would be unjust for two reasons. The first is that, as Rambis explained after the game, when Ridnour caught the ball, the shot absolutely looked wide open–and it would have been if not for Westbrook’s terrifying speed and leaping ability. As the Wolves have proven over and over, there are very few last-second out-of-bounds plays that will generate a look much better than a guard taking a wide open three.

The second reason is simply all of the examples above; this game was lost not in one apocalyptic moment, but in the steady accrual of small, but decisive mistakes.  Even on their best night, whether because of inexperience or lack of talent or because of the aggregate emotional toll of all of that losing, the Wolves play is pockmarked with mental errors, losses of poise and lapses in judgment.  Winning close games in the NBA requires uncanny levels of attention and composure; there are just so many ways to make mistakes, so many wrong things to do. You could see it in the Wolves’ drawn faces as the Thunder took their modest overtime lead; after so many leads lost and last second heart-crushers, their hold on the confidence and focus required to win is extraordinarily tenuous.

So the problem is not that Luke Ridnour (or Corey Brewer or any one person really) choked. The problem is that the Wolves have deep, intimate knowledge of losing basketball games; the habits and sensations of losing have woven themselves into their emotional fabric.  This is the kind of knowledge that it takes years to forget.

Benjamin Polk

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9 responses to Timberwolves 117, Thunder 118: A thousand deaths

  1. I kind of thought the game was lost during about a 5 minute stretch in the third quarter that exposed youthful enthusiasm — sloppy play, gambling passes, turnover, Darko showing why he spent months on the end of the Knicks’ bench.

    BTW, do you realize how great a writer you are, Ben? You’re like the Kevin Durant of basketball writers.

  2. I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom about these losses to top tier teams. You would hope they could win a couple of these to make themselves feel like they are getting better. What we need to see is for them to win games against lower tier teams. To play as hard as they did last night every game. The one thing I take away from last night is that we have pieces to build around. And hopefully Scotty Brooks is right. Next year should be a much better year.

  3. Good post. Sums up the problem for most bad teams.
    Moral victories are for minor league coaches.

  4. Fine points. I’ll add that last night was truly a fun time at Target Center. The crowd was into the game. The entertainment crew did a great job reacting to the crowd. Congratulations to the event staff. In past years, they seemed to get in the way of fans having an enjoyable time. Last night, they added to the fun.

  5. I really wish I had gone to this game…I was going to but went to an optional grad school orientation instead. Bad decision.

    The last two paragraphs are great. I sometimes have a hard time believing the “once you start losing a lot, you expect yourself to lose” etc kind of rhetoric, but this team is really proving it to me this year. They play so hard, and are close in so many games, but always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot, either with total breakdowns of offensive execution in the second half, key defensive lapses at critical moments, or that seemingly inevitable bad Minnesota sports team luck.

  6. Also, I’d love to see a post from you about Love’s All-Star game chances. I’m already resigned to disappointed just in case he doesn’t get picked, which would be an absolute travesty but completely unsurprising considering the Wolves’ record.

  7. Matt,
    I think there will probably wind up being one slot left for a power forward and three candidates – Odom, Griffin and Love. Odom gets the body of work votes while Griffin’s become the new nightly highlight reel. Plus, they’re both there in L.A.. Love’s numbers speak for themselves, it just becomes a matter of what the coaches are looking for and how votes split.

  8. Wow, that’s very flattering, but I would definitely settle for being the Gerald Wallace of basketball writers.

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Matt, I think there’s definitely a Love/All Star post in the works.

  9. I woud give Ben a step ahead of Gerald Wallace for sure. He summed up the game perfectly. I was there and the thing for me to walk away with was that I got to see a crazy great performance by Durant. He is for real. The wolves just don’t know how to win. Flynn and Love also had some really terrible passes. I play myself still and I can feel for the wolves. I had that same feeling a few times that even when it felt like I was making the right pass, it just wasn’t working right and I think a lot of those times it was me over thinking or nervous about screwing up. When I play with confidence and just go with the flow of the game, good things happen more often. The wolves had that tight feeling at the end of the game. If you go back and watch the way Love and others hesitated on passes in general in the closing minutes of regulation and overtime, you’ll see how tentative they play. Maybe the rigid offense needs to be loosened up more as the season finishes? It can’t hurt. The triangle worked great for the Bulls and Lakers but they also had Kobe and Jordan at shooting guard. We have Wes, Corey and Martell. Case closed.

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