The first half of Saturday night’s game was among the best that the Wolves have played all season. They hit open jumpers. They forced Dwight Howard to put in real work for his points. Luke Ridnour found open space in the paint, hitting Darko Milicic with two sweet pick-and-roll passes for wide open dunks. Corey Brewer drove Hedo Turkoglu to distraction with his relentless, ball-denying defense and burned the aging Turk with two back door alley-oops. Kevin Love reeled in 11 hard-earned boards.
But if you paid attention, the bad omens were in the air. Stan van Gundy made a series of moves to match Ryan Anderson, the three-point gunning power forward, with Love. This forced Love to chase Anderson around the perimeter, to fight his way around screens, to recover from inside help to contest Anderson’s long-range shots. And although Love himself presents this same problem to many opposing fours, perimeter defense is perhaps his weakest defensive skill (which is certainly saying something). What’s more, all of this perimeter work pulled Love away from the basket, neutralizing some of his rebounding fervor.
Another dark sign: although, as I mentioned, both Darko and Nikola Pekovic played pretty admirable defense against D-Hova, and although Darko showed that he is currently in one of his confident phases, blocking shots and decisively taking the ball to the basket, both of these big gents picked up two first-half fouls in the process.
Most importantly, it was clear that in the first half the Magic, still one of the Association’s most terrifying defensive teams, were simply not operating at the highest pitch of defensive intensity. The Wolves found open looks; they carved up Orlando’s pick-and-roll defense. You just had to know that Howard, a transcendent defensive player, and van Gundy, the author of the densest, and most manically, esoterically thorough pre-game white boards in NBA history, would not let this aggression stand.
And they didn’t. In the third quarter, the Wolves hit only six of their 17 shots and turned the ball over nine times. Kurt Rambis attributed this largely to the Wolves’ own lack of execution. “If you think back to the turnovers,” he said, “they were our fault. It was nothing that they really did. We were just trying to make ill-advised passes, homerun passes, difficult passes, rather than just trying to keep things simple.”
This was true, but the Wolves frantic imprecision on offense had a lot more to do with Orlando’s newfound defensive vigor than Rambis admitted. The Magic pressured the pick and roll, harrying ball handlers and prevented the roll man from attacking the basket. They aggressively denied passing lanes, causing chaos whenever the Wolves attempted to move the ball through the interior. When Ridnour did find room to roam in the paint, the Magic help defenders–mainly Howard, but also Brandon Bass and others–managed both to deny passing lanes and force him into hurried, off-balance shots. Suddenly playing faster than they were comfortable, the Wolves stopped hitting shots and, in the ways that Rambis described, started making some poor decisions.
Sure enough, the rest of those dark portents also turned out to be prophetic. In the second half Love was frustrated and off-balance. He grabbed four rebounds–for him, a pretty modest total–and struggled defensively. And he played with the slightly self-pitying “why me?” grimace that has marked some of his least effective games.
As for those big men…well they gave it a shot. To his credit, Darko put real effort into the task of pushing Howard away from the rim and contesting his shots. For his part, Pekovic engaged Howard in a grinning, bone-crushing wrestling match that injected serious energy into the game and was a lot of fun to watch. Nevertheless, those ultimately futile battles to deny Dwight (and his tremendous shoulders) position underneath the basket came at a price; Darko and Pek combined for eight fouls and just under 19 minutes of second half playing time. Howard didn’t dominate the game the way he often does, but his sheer physical force ended up severely constraining Rambis’ ability to craft effective lineups. It’s tough to put a coherent group of five players on the floor when two of your big men have fouled out and the other one is running laps around the three-point line.
Players and coaches are not fond of the “good loss” theory. But let’s take note that Saturday night’s game was the Wolves’ 41st, the halfway point of the regular season, and that just over two months ago our Wolves hobbled out of Orlando having just absorbed consecutive 30-plus point kicks in the crotch from the Heat and these Magic. Back then (and there were 20-point losses to Memphis and Houston to deal with around that time too), it seemed like the Wolves would be hard-pressed to be play remotely competitive basketball against even marginally competent NBA teams.
The fact is, the Wolves have gotten better. All of the troubling signs are still there it be seen: the Wolves are still the league’s fifth-worst defensive team (though this is an improvement!); Jonny Flynn is possibly at the low point of his career; Darko is still a mercurial riddle; Corey Brewer still can’t shoot. But to me–and this may sound bold, I don’t know–the Wolves’ fourth quarter fireworks against Washington and their wins against New Orleans and New Jersey, plus their well-played, hard fought losses to San Antonio, Boston and here to Orlando tell us that there are some reasons to be optimistic. The sky is not falling.