All things end. Suffering is impermanent. Pain passes away. And so game 82 of the Wolves 2010/2011 season floats on into the ether. We’re getting older and time moves pretty quickly, but I must confess that this season felt awfully long to me. Its literally been months since I felt real optimism, since watching the games brought anything more than very brief flashes of hope amid the drudgery. The season is finally over. This is a good thing.
Maybe it was spillover from David Kahn’s cryptic press conference earlier in the day, or the sense of irrelevance brought by two non-playoff teams playing out the string, or just the distraction of spring’s fitful arrival, but there was a strangely unruly, haphazard aura in the Target Center on Wednesday night. I saw a nebbishy 14-year-old nearly get into a fistfight with his sulking little brother. During the Wolves rotten second quarter, two fratty-seeming dudes bravely attempted (and failed, although they really kept at it) to incite a wave. A couple of guys wore bags on their heads and held up “Fire Kahn” and “Fire Taylor” signs. Game host Natalie cried into the camera.
The mood in the locker room after the game–a typically disheartening 19-point loss by the depleted Wolves–was one of muted resignation. The players were resigned to the fact that they would be watching the playoffs on TV (much less fun, it seems, for NBA players than for you or me); to the harsh disappointment of 65 losses; to the fact that their own efforts may well have lead to the firing of their coach.
There was certainly a sense, as there has been for the past few weeks, that, irrespective of coaching, this team is missing something essential. The culprits have been variously named: focus; maturity; veteran leadership; effort; health; even sheer talent. In any case, this game painfully demonstrated all of these yawning gaps in competence.
First there was the intermittent, unpredictable offensive cohesion. Sometimes the Wolves moved the ball intuitively and ran the floor with real purpose. Sometimes the ball movement died in the sludge of poor decisions and bad shots. Sometimes Michael Beasley decided to wild out, beating his chest, floating on his own cloud, essentially ignoring the confines of the offense. Sometimes this worked well, sometimes it didn’t.
But the real, red blood was shed on the defensive end. There was a moment in the third quarter when the Wolves were playing with a level of passion and intensity sufficient to disrupt the Rockets from their offensive designs. The Wolves were able to create turnovers and bad shots, to ignite their transition game and draw some energy from the distracted crowd. This was awesome and it lasted about five minutes.
But for the rest of the game, the Wolves were simply, absolutely, unable to prevent the Rockets from scoring. Rambis, who can be incredibly astute when he feels like it, pointed out that the Wolves defended, as they have all season, “reactively,” rather than “intuitively.” Instead of anticipating the flow of action, they react to it and, very briefly, think about it–by then its too late. They were unable to navigate screens or close gaps on shooters. They allowed Chase Budinger and Goran Dragic to penetrate the lane with impunity. They gave cutters free reign to the hoop. I have written almost these exact words before. Even without Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, these Rockets play offense beautifully. The ball snaps and flows; the players dribble and cut with purpose. As it does whenever the Wolves play a team that shoots and moves and passes this well, their (the Wolves’) defense tended to devolve into a confused, scrambling mess.
Simply put, the Wolves are an appalling defensive team and have been all season. Some of this comes down to individuals (Beasley and Anthony Randolph are particularly inattentive and mercurial) and some of it comes down to some mysterious cocktail of group effort, awareness and communication. But whatever the reason, their defense (particularly after the Corey Brewer trade) made it nearly impossible for them to compete and made this sad season what it ultimately turned out to be: one long, cold march.