The Timberwolves and the Lakers are both NBA basketball teams. Both contain verifiable NBA players with the curiously long limbs, ridiculous skills and endless supplies of spray-on deoderant to prove it (trust me). But there are some fundamental differences here that go beyond even the obvious (the murderer’s row of seven-footers (which we’ll get to), the handfuls of rings, the certifiable superstar).
The Wolves approach NBA basketball with the anxious energy of a group of people about to do something really difficult that they don’t quite understand. They make the game look fast and chaotic and complicated. They achieve competence in mysterious, unpredictable bursts and then just as unpredictably regress back to their natural state of frenzied searching.
But for the Lakers, this competence, is the default setting. This is not to say that they always play well; they did, after all, recently lose to the Magic, Bobcats and Cavs in quick succession. But they play with a fluidity and simplicity that only talent, experience and a finely functioning group mind can produce. Above all, one gets the feeling that they have control over their level of play, that, given the right cocktail of motivation and attention, they could achieve a kind of transcendence at any moment of any game.
Of course, talent, size and athleticism have a lot to do with this too. Very few teams match up well against the Lakers unspeakable front line of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom. But the Wolves–with Kevin Love and Anthony Tolliver undersized for their positions, and with Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic falling over one another to foul out of the game–were in an especially tough spot. It’s really not fair that Kevin Love should ever have to try and guard Pau Gasol.
In contrast to every other player on the Wolves roster, Darko actually has the size and athletic ability to compete with Bynum and Gasol; and so, as Myles pointed out in our chat with ESPN Los Angeles, the Wolves’ success really was incumbent upon Darko’s ability to really give it a go against LA’s front line. But I think we all knew deep down (or maybe not so deep down) that when it comes to energy, competitiveness and even sheer skill, Darko is at a serious disadvantage.
And so: Bynum, Gasol and Odom gathered 14 offensive rebounds between them; the Lakers scored 28 second chance points; Wolves’ big men shot a combined 6-23; both Darko and Pek found themselves fouling in a desperate effort to keep up. This set the stage for probably the most obscene mismatch of the night. In both halves, with both of the Wolves Serbian speakers gently nursing their fouls on the bench, Anthony Randolph was forced to check the very large, very good Bynum. The results were Shaq-ian: displays of quick, economical footwork and nonchalant power that left Randolph stumbling away with a rather vacant expression on his face. Andrew Bynum spinning baseline is a problem that Anthony Randolph cannot solve.
In fact, this mismatch was at the heart of the fourth-quarter run that gave the Lakers–who had up to that point been humoring the Wolves with some bemused, unhurried play–the only margin they would ever need. Not only was Randolph doing his thing against Bynum, but Anthony Tolliver was caught in a mismatch of his own against Odom and Jonny Flynn was playing his customarily inattentive D. So the problem was twofold. Not only were the Wolves ill-equipped to guard the Lakers but, with Wayne Ellington and Lazar Hayward on the floor, they lacked a real shot creator.
So as the Lakers were picking the Wolves apart–Bynum calmly demolishing Randolph, Shannon Brown hitting threes and ducking in to the rim, everybody cleaning the offensive glass–the Wolves were busy hoisting long, contested jumpers on their end. Kurt Rambis grasped the problem early on, but by the time he had called timeout and reinserted his starters, the Lakers had their run and the game was essentially over.
There was a bright spot here, though, and that was the play of Wes Johnson. Wes played one of the most well-rounded offensive games of his season, using his dribble to create space, cutting to the hoop without the ball, passing fluidly, and shooting his long jumper with patience and balance. Most importantly, he did his best work to step into the yawning gap left by Corey Brewer by playing some noble D on one Kobe Bryant. Johnson used his long arms and quick leaping ability to frustrate Kobe and disrupt his rhythm. He forced Kobe to move from his favorite spots and take contested shots; he expertly funneled him toward help defenders. Kobe still got his looks, of course, and Wes did foul out in the process, but in the few moments when someone other than Johnson was guarding Kobe Bean, we got a better sense of what Wes had managed to accomplish.
To wit: in the third quarter, Kobe found himself facing down Michael Beasley at the elbow. Probably sensing that he’d found his sucker at last, Kobe utterly dropped Beaz with his photogenic crossover/jab-step/jackknifing fadeaway jumper that is so essentially impossible to defend and looks so very, very pretty. It did not touch the rim. But the ease with which Bryant bounced into the move and the shooting space it created, told a story. Kobe was never able to shoot this easily or rhythmically with Johnson guarding him; lets hope this is a prophetic story for our rookie.