We all have our criticisms of Kurt Rambis; many of them are well earned. But I swear, coaching these Minnesota Timberwolves really cannot be easy. We’ve questioned his ability to teach and prepare his team, the youngest in the league. But as the season wears on, we begin to get the feeling that their effort and focus is so unpredictably mercurial that it seems no human could ever really harness it. We’ve critiqued Rambis’ erratic deployment of lineups and allotment of playing time, and rightly so. But watching Friday’s game in Oklahoma City, we got a little taste of the fix he’s in. After all, it would be difficult to construct a consistent rotation when you literally have no idea which players–and which combinations of players–are going to play well on a given night. (Kevin Love’s absence certainly exacerbates this problem).
On Thursday, in Dallas, the Wolves reserves, led by Jonny Flynn, Martell Webster and Anthony Tolliver, led the second-half run that brought the Wolves to one of their only leads in the game. Against the Thunder, though, Flynn was a -10, Wayne Ellington a -13, Webster -11. So nothing doing there.
In the third quarter against the Thunder, Rambis deployed probably the biggest lineup he could possibly assemble to counter OKC’s newfound interior length. This group included some strange sights that ended up being pretty nice matchups: Anthony Tolliver playing the three, guarding Kevin Durant; Michael Beasley at the two, on Thabo Sefalosha.
This seemed like a pretty weird idea, but beginning at the 6:47 mark of the third, they led a 15-4 run that brought the Wolves back to within two points of the lead. They played frantic, helping defense (the way they really should be playing all the time). They moved the ball (five of their seven makes during this stretch were assisted). Michael Beasley hit jumpers, including a desperate 26-footer that salvaged a horrendously busted play as the shot clock expired. Anthony Randolph continued his run of active, yet poised, offensive play (check his plus/minus: +6 in 37 minutes of an eight point loss–not too bad). Darko, one of the league’s most pronounced frontrunners, rode the wave of emotion to a run of unusually competent play. Suddenly, instead of shyly fading away from the hoop, he was aggressively hitting jump hooks and follows. Things were going pretty good.
But then, two straight times down the floor as the quarter wound down, the Wolves failed to put a body on Kevin Durant, who is, you may know, a ridiculously good basketball player. KD hit two pure, relatively uncontested threes; the Wolves reserves (the very ones who had led the team the previous night) gave those starters a well-earned breather; everything fell apart (again).
But this game didn’t just slip away in those last moments of the third. Realize that the first half, a stretch of nearly 60% shooting for the Thunder, ranked up there with this team’s worst halves of defense this year. They struggled to contain Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the perimeter. They struggled to react quickly to the Thunder’s high level of offensive activity: they were unable to recover on screens and close gaps on shooters; their rotations, switches and weakside help were slow. Most glaringly, Darko, Randolph and Nikola Pekovic were just not able to guard OKC’s frontcourt one-on-one. Chew on this: In the first half, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed hit 14 of their combined 16 shots.
This game was another chapter of Anthony Randolph’s strange defensive story. As he has over the past few games, Randolph was active on the glass and provided energetic, aggressive weakside help. But once again, he was just not up the task of one-on-one defense. He struggled both to prevent Ibaka from blowing past him off the dribble and to contest the big Congolese’s smooth outside jumper. And in the brief moments that he was forced to guard Kendrick Perkins, Perk simply overpowered him. So, in brief: able to check neither quick, face-up fours (which I really don’t get) nor strong, back-to-the-basket fives. How is this going to work?
Finally, a brief follow-up to Friday’s bummer-y assessment of Michael Beasley. Hanny and Pete cited Beaz’s 20 points and greater offensive involvement as evidence that he had somehow turned it around in this game. But the sad reality is that this was more of the same. Those 20 points came on 18 shots, many of them contested, flat-footed, off-balance jumpers. Beasley coughed up seven turnovers and committed a handful of silly fouls, like those forced shots a product of the young guy’s continuously scattered attention and shaky decision-making. Time for a big sigh.