Watching two mediocre, undermanned teams grind their way to a combined 36.25% shooting, 52-foul masterpiece is probably no one’s idea of edifying basketball. But if you are a Wolves fan, it’s pretty encouraging that a game so raggedly played, so obviously stricken by the painful reality of playing five times in eight nights (with more to come!), could actually end up in the win column. In the fourth quarter, facing fatigue and surging opponent, the Wolves managed to make enough plays to steal the game. This isn’t something we’re used to.
The Wolves played with great effort against New Orleans (both teams did, in fact, play hard) but they did not show great energy and they didn’t play particularly well, especially in the first half. They turned the ball over (the Hornets managed 10 steals, seven of them in the first half) and missed open shots. Thanks to a combination of all of those missed shots, poor floor balance and inattentive and languid transition D, they surrendered 19 fast break points, most of them in the first quarter. They allowed the Hornets 19 offensive rebounds, seven of them cobbled together by Emeka Okafor (who seems to have mastered the art of the backtap), and a significant few of them (those O boards) coming late in the fourth quarter.
Broadly speaking, the Wolves managed to win this thing for three reasons. The first was that, despite however enervated they might be by this torturous schedule, they played, for the most part, some gutsy, NBA-caliber defense. If you have followed this team for more than two months you will know just how pleasant a notion that is. They defended the pick-and-roll well enough–with good effort on the ball, and solid rotations off of it–to force the Hornets into uncomfortable jumpers. (54 of the Hornets 90 shots came from outside of 10 feet.) They contested shots and did it without fouling. And after their rough first quarter, they swarmed the ball around the basket.
Second reason: Ricky Rubio. 12 points on 10 “true” shots; three steals; two turnovers; let’s call it 10 assists (would’ve been more if the Wolves had been even semi-competent at hitting open shots); +9 on the game. He disrupted passing lanes. Despite having his ankles dissolved by a Jarrett Jack crossover, he mostly kept the ball in front of him; he was solid on pick-and-roll. From your 21-year-old rookie in his first career start, in a game as ragged as this one, that’s awfully nice. Most importantly, in keeping with what we’ve been seeing so far this year, the Wolves offense was much smoother and more able to generate easy shots, when Rubio was running the point. The recipe is pretty transparent: Ricky attacks the defense with the dribble and then finds an open shooter. Sounds simple, but its the essence of NBA point guard play and Rubio is already pretty advanced in the nuances of spacing, timing and anticipation that make the formula effective.
Third and final reason: your friend Kevin Love. Love, thankfully, seemed to free himself from that nasty little shooting slump he’s been mired in over the past two games. And faced, for a rare game, with a cover neither bigger nor quicker than himself (Carl Landry), he had a real defensive impact around the basket. Most significantly, though, Love is showing a rare skill and one that may answer some questions about his value to a team. In this game, as he did against Oklahoma City, Love managed to take over a game with his body positioning and rebounding. He was so strong on the block, such an active threat on the glass, that he single-handedly forced the Hornets into foul trouble. Love’s 15-point third quarter was highlighted by a few pure jumpers and a nice sweep-through drive on Jason Smith, but the real heart of the thing was at the line. Love’s activity forced the Hornets into the penalty early in both the third and fourth quarters. The Wolves shot 38 free throws in the game, compared to New Orleans’ 16; this disparity was decisive and it was mostly thanks to Love.