Just what is going on with the Minnesota Timberwolves? The team is losing; nothing new to report there. But these recent bummers are unlike those December close calls, in which only late game meltdowns born of inexperience prevented the team from knocking off superior squads. No, these recent games are much less encouraging, much more reminiscent of grim years gone by, years whose hallmarks were uninspired effort and a deep lack of imagination.
The most obvious place this shows up, of course, is on defense. The Wolves opened this game with one of the least impressive three minutes of defense you will ever hope to see. Memphis’ guards easily broke down the Wolves’ D; shots went practically uncontested; cutters roamed free. It wasn’t simply a lack of enthusiasm or intensity although this was certainly evident tonight; the Wolves are just terribly imprecise and unintuitive defensively.
Thanks in a large part to their difficulty preventing drivers from penetrating the paint, the Wolves weakside defenders tend to shade too far off of their own assignments in an effort to provide help. The irony of this is that their rotations are still late; the Wolves both over-rotate and rotate too slowly. As a result, any sustained ball movement by their opponent generally leads to, at least, an open jumper, with the Wolves scrambling to recover.
“It’s definitely not effort. We’re not completely in the wrong position,” said Anthony Tolliver after the game. “It’s just one step too far away from a man or too far in or not exactly where we need to be. It’s just being more precise on the defensive end.” Here, I’m afraid Tolliver was being charitable to his bros in the starting lineup. Because the most disturbing recent Wolves development is the marked increase in defensive energy and attention when the reserves take the floor.
This was true on Tuesday in Milwaukee and it was true again on Wednesday against the Griz. The Wolves’ best stretch of play in this game was a 20-8 run spanning the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarters. The team ran the floor; they challenged shots; they disrupted Memphis’ offense with hard ball pressure. The unit on the floor for the majority of this run? Tolliver, Sebastian Telfair, Wayne Ellington, Nikola Pekovic and Lazar Hayward. When the Wolves starters finally returned, down by five with nine minutes left, they proceeded to: allow an open O.J. Mayo three; listlessly while away a possession culminating in a long, contested jumper; allow a three-on-one fast break; immediately suck all the energy out of the building.
It’s a bit hard for me to understand. Kevin Love was supposed to be rejuvenated by his All-Star experience. So why did he bring so little passion and energy to the task of guarding Zach Randolph? Michael Beasley had an amazing blooming halo of hair encircling his face. Why did he seem so detached and uninspired? Why did he settle for so many off-balance mid-range jumpers? Why were they so predictable and uncreative in performing their offense? And why–this may be the least answerable of all of these questions–do they persist in missing so many layups? Why?
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Speaking of dark, dense enigmas (not to mention blown layups), Darko appears to be regressing to early season form, in which his every action on the court seems marked by some awful existential crisis. This hurts a little. Its awfully unpleasant for me to criticize anybody who suffers from as much emotional pain as Darko seems to. Obviously, we can’t know what psychological currents flow through the man’s mind and it would be presumptuous to guess. But still, I sympathize. It must be awful to be so blessed by nature and luck and yet be so evidently terrified of making good on those blessings.
The fact is, though, that right now he’s killing the Wolves when he’s on the floor. The Bucks understood this when they forced Rambis to reinsert his big man late in Tuesday’s game–and in blowing two point blank jump-hooks late in that one, he certainly didn’t upend their expectations. Things only got worse against Memphis. There were dropped passes. There were meek attempted tip-ins. There were turnovers in the post (over and over he holds the ball out there at his waist, just begging somebody to strip him).
But the most compelling and painful play of all came late in the fourth, with the Wolves desperately needing a basket. Luke Ridnour executed a neat spin move and dished the ball to Darko at the doorstep. There was literally nobody around. Somebody who revels in the feeling of their own athletic, seven-foot body, who actually enjoys playing basketball, might have risen up and crushed the ball through the hoop, maybe hanging on the rim and letting fly some macho, atavistic bellow. But Darko literally did everything in his power to make himself smaller. He slumped his shoulders and sort of angled his body away from the rim; he softly ladled the ball toward the rim with his off hand; it might have been the least confident one-foot layup I’ve ever seen anybody miss.