Our Wolves are still a team with enough recognizable strengths to compete with anyone. Voracious rebounding, accurate shooting and a blistering pace have been the theme in several quarters of basketball brimming with potential. However this is also a team marred with glaring weaknesses, visible to even the most inept opponents. The lack of a dependable scorer, a propensity for carelessness and porous defense have left us scratching what hair we haven’t pulled out on many a night. One step forward, two turnovers and a failure to get back.
And so it began in Target Center this evening; another contender presumably content to delay the inevitable for forty minutes before sapping us of our will.
Michael Beasley continued to struggle. Gone was the ball stopping irreverence of games past, but the inattentiveness and inefficiency remained. Shots were rushed, entry passes were practically rolled into the post and an inability to do much of anything else rendered him useless. Since Beas is still the only player capable of creating a shot, sheer necessity will afford him several more opportunities, but a lack of productivity won’t be tolerated as tonight’s box score reflects: 2-6 FG, 3 REB, 1 AST, 2 TO, 4 PF (the last two courtesy of an unnecessary over the back and a shameless tugging on Bron’s jersey), 22 MIN (none in the fourth quarter).
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that to call Wes Johnson’s performances a struggle is to leave the false impression we should expect more of him. 2-6 FG, 2-6 3FG, 2 REB, 1 AST, 3 TO. This wasn’t a deviation, it’s become the norm. No matter how wide the lane, nor how cold his stroke, Wes continues to treat the three point line as though they’re the only points that count, or worse yet, the only points he’s capable of scoring. Johnson opened the game with a flurry of uncontested misses which only seemed to hasten his anxiety and he never found a rhythm. His lone attempt to drive after a much needed pump fake was interrupted by a travel. Like most others, this just wasn’t his night.
Though he’s relatively more expendable, again, due to necessity, Wes will also receive several chances to fool us with his potential. You see, he’s only afforded these long range dalliances since there was a time when he made them and on those increasingly rarer trips to the paint, we do recognize his explosiveness and expect him to finish. There’s even a faint resemblance of that old defensive friend we’d love to see again. But Wes knows as well as we do: We’re not going to fool ourselves for too long and he’s never more than a phone call away from finding himself in a new uniform. So stop treading lightly and get to the fucking rim, please.
Of course there were also several signs of encouragement in this contest; Kevin Love casually deposited another 25 & 12, Anthony Randolph awoke from his slumber long enough to contribute 14 crucial points and Anthony Tolliver was a defensive delight. But the credit for tonight’s almost-win belongs to our backup backcourt.
Wayne Ellington is undersized for his position and not exactly fleet afoot. Now this is generally a death knell for most shooting guard’s careers, since the league is already teeming with athletic wingmen and several more lay in wait. Smaller guards must be that much craftier in creating their shots and religiously attentive on defense in order to demand any attention, much less consistent minutes. But Wayne did just that for much of four quarters tonight, sinking timely buckets and putting forth an admirable effort to contain a man his senior in practically every way, Dwyane Wade. The final minutes weren’t as kind to Wayne; would be makes rimmed out and hubris led him to miss a few more, however the intent was still promising (+9 on the night). Given Wes’ recent ‘struggles’ an J.J. Barea’s recent injury, Wayne will likely see more chances to prove himself. Stay sharp, young man.
Then there was the main attraction, Ricky Effing Rubio.
As our buddy Zach explained in detail, the Heat defense is a cloud of black smoke, seeping through both passing and driving lanes alike to suffocate any who dare enter. Swift rotations, aggressive switches and a unified purpose all served to fluster our wunderkind early, resulting in a few ghastly turnovers. Furthermore, he appeared to want no parts of the paint, preferring blind tosses over penetration. We were all ready for a long night, excuses in hand. Yet it wouldn’t be long before the flash belying Rubio’s substantive game returned, thrilling fans and teammates alike.
As was noted during this contest on the ‘ol twitter, Rubio’s ability to find the weak side shooter is so impressive, the Wolves should receive a point regardless of whether a basket is converted. Whether the defense traps or staggers itself, Ricky escapes or eschews the expected rotation and skips to the open man, which invariably leaves the defense vulnerable. Yes, even one as good as the Heat. Suddenly driving lanes are cleared and shooters have a panoramic view. Five of his dozen assists on the evening resulted in three point baskets and given that our pups remain one of the league’s best from three, this is a trend opponents should get used to.
Unfortunately, we were a bit too eager to exhibit such prowess in the game’s waning moments rather than exercise control. Nursing a 4 point lead with less than two minutes remaining, Rubio gathered a rebound and blitzed up court, rifling a pass to Wayne Ellington, who missed from three. The ensuing possession didn’t even produce a shot, as Ricky hastily whipped another pass Wayne’s way after escaping a double team. The ball flew out of bounds, along with any chances to waste some clock and protect a lead. I didn’t want to second guess our savant, but I did ask him about his thought process regarding that sequence post game.
“I felt comfortable, but in the last minutes, we were up and didn’t take control. We made two or three stupid turnovers and then we missed some free throws that if you want to win the game you can’t miss. [Wayne] was playing great today. I tried to hit him in the corner because I know he had the opportunity to shoot. It doesn’t go in, but next time it’s gonna be there. That’s what a team needs that everybody has to feel inside during the game.”
These are earnest mistakes we should be willing to live with. Dwyane Wade agrees.
“This is a different team and obviously a better team than last year. They’re more confident. I’m glad we played them early in the year, because I think later in the season they’re going to be a very good team. If they stick with their game plans. It can be frustrating losing games, but they can’t get away from what they do. They’ve got a very bright future ahead of them and that Rubio kid is everything as advertised.”
“He’s a risk taker. A lot of the passes he makes are home run kinda passes and he hits a lot of home runs. Every now and then he’s gonna make some mistakes. A lot of risk takers are that way. He’s not a calculated kind of point guard and won’t try to make the perfect pass every time. He’s going to make the risky pass and sometimes a teammate will be ready for it and sometimes they won’t. I think as they continue to play with him, they’ll get more comfortable with him and know he’s going to make those kind of passes. So I just look at him as a risk taker, but that’s what makes him special.”
Well, that settles that. For now.