Photo by Wright Reading
On Thursday, we discussed the coach’s role in ensuring that his players execute his game plan, and in creating a team culture of effort and accountability. I spend a lot of time around these Wolves but it remains unclear to me how well Kurt Rambis does this extraordinarily important part of his job. My guess is that, for the Wolves, the erratic ebb and flow of inspiration, focus and confidence remains as much a mystery to them, players and coaches alike, as it us to us. These Timberwolves are a strange beast; I’m not sure we’ll ever figure them out.
Because its really hard to understand how they could possibly be as lifeless as they were on Sunday against Sacramento or last week against Utah and Golden State and then be as energetic as inspired as they were on Thursday in Dallas. They certainly didn’t play a perfect game (they didn’t even win the game, realize). They were subject to their customary defensive errors–confusion on rotations and in transition were, as they often are, the prime culprits–and they handed the Mavericks their usual, generous helping of turnovers and poorly executed half-court sets. And despite their best efforts, they missed Kevin Love’s impossible rebounding against Dallas’ massive frontline.
But they also played with a passionate competitiveness that made this game, unlike so many in the past weeks, really rewarding to watch. Anthony Tolliver defended and attacked the basket with real fire; Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn radiated confidence as they pressured the Mavericks defense with their shooting and ballhandling. I’ll tell you, if they played this way every night, I’d have very few complaints–and they’d probably pick up a few extra wins in the process (ok, I’d probably still complain about the turnovers and the defense, but allow me to be generous, please). (Btw, you might have noticed that all of the aforementioned players are members of the Wolves bench mob. The real Mike Beasley was not amused.)
And then, speaking of inspired ballers, there was Anthony Randolph. We still don’t quite have a read on Anthony Randolph. Are his skills and ridiculous athletic gifts a force that he can actually harness, or are they as ineffably beyond his control, as subject to the movements of his emotional tides as those possessed by our old friends Gerald Green and Rashad McCants? Is that expressionless face as blank as it appears to be? or does it mask a hidden seriousness and focus? Should we expect more of the wildly scattered play that we saw in that aimless fourth quarter against Indiana? Or do we have more of Thursday night’s magic to look forward to?
Because against Dallas, Randolph looked like a pretty serious player. His offensive game was at once economical and athletically stunning. In the second quarter, he followed a nimble baseline drop-step with a gorgeous, leaning reverse layup. Later, he absolutely dusted Tyson Chandler with a face-up inside pivot and explosive baseline drive. He was active without the ball, filling passing lanes and crashing the boards. He hit his jumpers; he was patient and unselfish with the ball. Can this possibly be a sign of things to come?
Well, here are two slightly worrying signs. First, much of Randolph’s success against Dallas was dependent on his ability to hit wide open jump shots. Why were these shots wide open? Because the Mavericks were begging him to shoot them. In his first two seasons, Randolph hit just over 30% of his shots from over ten feet. Now, its possible that his jumper could really have improved this dramatically over the past year. But remember that back in December we were also wondering whether it was possible for Michael Beasley to continue hitting 60% of his 18-footers for the rest of his career (it wasn’t).
The next worry is defensive. With his quickness and length, Randolph presents a matchup problem for opposing defenses, but he is an equally puzzling problem for his own team’s defense. In the past weeks, we’ve seen him get punished by opposing big men like Andrew Bynum, who is much too thick and strong for the willowy Randolph to guard on the block. But we’ve also seen him left stranded by skilled, smaller players like Al Jefferson. Who is this guy going to guard, we ask?
A strange, partial answer to this question was provided by Kurt Rambis in the third quarter of this game when the coach put Darko Milicic on Dirk Nowitzki and Randolph on Tyson Chandler, who is not a threatening one-on-one offensive player. Considering how ill-equipped Darko was for the task of checking the skilled Deutscher, we have to wonder about how much worse Randolph would have been. In any case, given the possibility that Kevin Love could miss more than simply this little road trip, it looks like we’ll get plenty of chances to explore this riddle a little further.