It would be tempting to blame this somewhat discouraging loss on the fact that the Timberwolves hit only three of their 22 second quarter shots. And, ok, that definitely had something to do with it. But at no point should we believe that things would have all turned sunny if the Wolves had simply managed to get some shots to fall.
Because at almost no point in this game did the Wolves defend with the energy, intelligence and decisiveness needed to play competitive NBA basketball. Last Friday in Minneapolis, the Jazz were stagnant and very easy to guard; they looked nothing like the razor-sharp operator’s of Jerry Sloan’s offense that we’ve come to expect over the past 20-odd years. But in this game, Utah was cutting and setting screens and moving the ball with their classic combination of energy and patience. In some ways similarly to the Blazers offense under Nate McMillan, Utah’s offense is, at its best, able to sustain its action throughout the duration of the shot clock, providing counters to every defensive reaction, just waiting for the defense to make a mistake. Most of the time against the Wolves, they didn’t have to wait long.
The list of problems is pretty long. First and foremost, the Wolves were unable to run around Utah’s ever-shifting nest of off-the-ball screens with any precision or intensity. This resulted, most directly, in a fairly endless run of open jumpers throughout the first half in particular. C.J. Miles, for instance, began his 40-point night by using curl screens to toss in easy, open jumpers and get to the hoop. By the time the Wolves decided to contest his shots, he was in some ludicrous, post-heat checking land of fadeaway threes.
But then, see, the Wolves’ bigs began their beloved dance of helping too late, but also too aggressively, setting off a chain reaction of slow reads and indecisive rotations, and allowing Utah’s cutters to have free reign to the basket. On a repeatedly successful play, the Jazz wing player (often Miles) would come off a screen and curl into the paint as the big man who set the screen (usually Al Jefferson or Derrick Favors) cut to the hoop. Most often this resulted in an open jumper for the wing, but if the Wolves big decided to leave his man to deter the shot, the rolling Jazz player would end up wide open at the rim. This baffled the Wolves over and over. (The Derrick Favors dunk here is a prime example of the latter option).
Compounding the defensive problem was the fact that, in a hilarious irony, no Wolf was close to being able to handle Al Jefferson one-on-one. Darko was at least able to bother Big Al, though it landed him in foul trouble. Nikola Pekovic was too slow. And Anthony Randolph? Anthony Randolph had literally no chance. It was vintage Big Al: the spins, the sweep throughs, the baseline drives, the up-fakes, the inside-pivot up and unders. Remember how pretty that all was?
So defense was a problem. On the other hand, it wasn’t like that second-quarter offensive debacle was just an unsightly spell of cold shooting, a case of randomness and probability unleashing their cruel magic. Sure, the Wolves missed their share of open jumpers, but under Jonny Flynn’s direction their offense also became incredibly stagnant and predictable. Because Kevin Love was out of the game, because Darko and Pek were struggling with their offense and because Flynn does not enter the ball crisply into the post, the Wolves were unable to generate significant inside-out action in the second quarter. Ball and player movement slowed. The Wolves guards began to overdribble and play from the outside in. The result was a series of arrhythmic, contested jumpers. So 3-22 was no act of chaotic chance; it’s what happens when you play really poor offensive basketball.