Timberwolves 112, Rockets 108: the highways are colored black
At the moment that Kevin Love scored his 10th and 11th points of this game, notching his 38th consecutive double-double, breaking records held by folks like Kevin Garnett and John Stockton, I thought to myself: boy a double-double isn’t really much of a stat is it? After all, Love has shown us more than once that it’s possible to get one (more than one) without actually playing that well.
I was thinking this because up to that point Love looked like the physically un-well man that he apparently was. He was pale, haggard and listless. Despite his rebounding numbers, he was not pursuing the ball off of the glass with his customary anticipation and abandon. He was struggling to shoot the ball with any balance and rhythm against the massively strong, thick-legged Chuck Hayes (everybody does). He was passive and slow on defense, getting smoked both by Luis Scola, the beautifully dissolute-seeming Argentine (understandable) and by Hayes himself (not so much). (By the way, I love that these two are on a team together. If Scola and Hayes were buildings, Scola would be some boozy, debauched 4AM tapas bar while Hayes would be the last remaining rock factory in Gary, Indiana.)
But then Mr. Numb#rs himself woke up. Most days, Love gets his best looks from off-the-ball action: setting screens and then fading to the three point line or rolling to the hoop; clearing the weakside glass; floating to open space to receive the ball from a penetrating guard. And this is how he and the Wolves responded to Hayes’ rugged defense in Houston. In the game’s final minutes, Love freed himself for a dunk and two threes and showed admirable effort on the defensive end, drawing a charge on Kevin Martin and pulling down some crucial rebounds.
The Wolves certainly needed Love’s late-game contributions, but it was awfully encouraging that playing without Luke Ridnour, Martell Webster, Michael Beasley and Darko (who else? Doug West, Chuck Person, Wally Szczerbiack and Ricky Davis were also out of commission) the Wolves weren’t forced to rely solely on whatever K-Love could provide.
I wrote on Sunday about the how achily the Wolves miss Beasley’s one-on-one skills when he’s out of the lineup, and about their unhealthy dependence on the closely guarded jumper. So, in Beasley’s absence they desperately need Sebastian Telfair and Jonny Flynn to do two things: 1) initiate crisp, decisive ball-movement. And 2) break down the defense off the dribble. Against the Raptors these two were a disaster, but in Houston they seemed attuned both to their own skills and to the flow of the Wolves’ offense as a whole. Although Flynn remains astonishingly cavalier with the ball, he has been (very) incrementally improving his ability to find open cutters and shooters. Against the Rockets, despite his five turnovers, he ran the offense with some poise and flair; for brief splashes of time he actually looked like a real point guard.
Even with that improved ball movement, a team lacking it’s only pure scorer is going to end up taking some inefficient, contested jumpers. So it really helps when you can make some of them. Both Telfair and Wayne Ellington were vivid with confidence, taking and hitting some fairly unbelievable (you could say un-advisable if you wanted) shots. There was Telfair in the second quarter allowing the ball to roll nearly the length of the court, as if conserving every precious moment of shot-clock, and then picking it up and immediately jacking a pure 25-footer. There was Ellington, with 2:27 remaining in the game and the Wolves down a point, dribbling behind a screen and launching a pristine j over the arms of the switching Hayes. Bassie and Wayne taking contested threes off the bounce is probably not a winning long-term formula but I’ll tell you, it really does it feel sweet when they go in.
But the most curious, and possibly troubling, aspect of this great win was the plainly visible surplus of energy and effort brought to the floor by the Wolves one-time reserves. Anthony Tolliver flew around the floor, tipping balls, cutting off drives and challenging shots. Pekovic and Ellington and Koufos all played with supreme zest. On its face, this is an obviously happy phenomenon. The T-Wolves would need this effort to play credible D against essentially any NBA team and it was a real relief to see evidence of it on Tuesday. Troubling though, because it made the contrast to the mellow lineups graced by Darko and Beasley all the greater.