Ok, so the thing about being the darlings of the NBA, the “League Pass team of the year,” is that everybody is watching when you serve up an uninspired, low-energy stinker to Cleveland, at home, on Friday night. Everybody sees the gaping suck of confidence that is the Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson wing tandem and the slightly embarrassing fact that if Luke Ridnour has an off shooting night (2-11) your perimeter offense becomes an inefficient, unlovely slog.
Everyone gets to see Darko perform one of his signature moves: the inspired, kinetic first quarter followed by a gentle, balmy three-quarter drift back to mediocrity. Everybody watches as your power forwards get twisted into gummy little knots by Antawn Jamison’s old man craft. The nation looks on in horror as Wayne Ellington airballs a wide-open corner three, squandering a brilliant Ricky Rubio skip pass. The basketball world gets treated to a vintage Samardo Samuels/Nikola Pekovic garbage-time wrestling match.
And especially: we all get treated to that trademark Timberwolves second-half malaise, when balls are pitched out of bounds (worth noting here that the Wolves currently have the Association’s worst turnover rate), foolish fouls are committed, the opponent runs the floor at will, heads hang. Remember that familiar, depressing feeling? I do too, which is why I’d like to focus on a few of the positives from this one, to try and recapture some of that midweek glow.
Although Williams is, at this point, far less beloved than the Wolves other Important Rookie (not Malcolm Lee), I’m still encouraged by his play so far. We’ve made comparisons between Williams and Michael Beasley before, which aren’t off the mark. Both are athletic, scoring, tweener forwards who represent matchup dilemmas on both ends of the floor. And indeed, Williams so far shares Beasley’s predilection for the off-the-dribble midrange jumper (a taste I’d love to see him weaned off of). But he has been more dynamic than Beasley as a ball-handler, more willing and able explode into the lane and draw contact. And I’ve also been impressed with his willingness and ability to scuffle for easy baskets on the glass and in transition when the offense is not flowing through him (which it usually isn’t). In Williams, I think we’ve seen the inklings of a fairly uncommon virtue: fearlessness and skill with the ball coupled with patience.
The Wolves’ Defense
No, the Wolves’ defense wasn’t particularly great against Cleveland. They had difficulty containing Ramon Sessions and Kyrie Irving on the perimeter. They were not crisp in performing that rhythmic discipline of rotating to the basket and then recovering to outside shooters. And their transition defense isn’t what it could have been (although, in fairness, much of Cleveland’s transition success was a result of the Wolves’ offensive futility). But, even in a relatively lackluster game like this one, one can see that things have improved. The Wolves are more disciplined in executing their assignments; they are more conscientious in their weakside help; they are more committed to protecting the rim and challenging shooters. Last year, the Wolves had the 27th-best defensive efficiency in the league, giving up 108.3 points/100 possessions. This year, they are tied for 13th, allowing 99.3. This is getting better.
Darko’s First Quarter
During Darko’s early outburst, Jim Petersen offered that “Darko is playing like he has something to prove.” Which, yes, he does. That thing being, of course, the possibility of ever being taken seriously as an NBA player again. I’m kidding, by the way; that first quarter was not a particular positive. It was just another episode in Darko’s eternal cycle: expressions of tantalizing quickness and energy and skill, followed by long periods of malaise.
Kevin Love is Awesome
Kevin Love is awesome. It’s stunning that this kind of game has become routine. 29 points on 25 “true” shots (which is even a little below his average). 14 hard-won rebounds, many of them rescued from a tangle of Cavs. Even signs of some clever footwork and soft touch in the post. But then there was that old scene again: Love alone on the bench at game’s end, covering his head in a towel, stewing in readily apparent anti-social frustration at having fought so tirelessly in yet another dispiriting loss. See, this was supposed to be a list of positives and I just couldn’t unambiguously muster it. Folks, we’re not in paradise yet, not even close.