It’s not so much that the Wolves have, for the first time in over a decade, beaten the Spurs twice in one year, or that they’ve done the same to the defending champs, or that they’ve won five out of their last seven. This is all great. But what’s really fascinated me is that they’ve managed to win in such routine fashion. This Spurs game, the wins over Sacramento and Detroit; these were just unremarkable mid-season NBA games, games that both teams had solid chances to win and that were resolved not by any miracle comeback or mythic displays of heroism, but simply by slight margins in effort and execution.
I’m aware that this is just what basketball teams do; these anonymous, unobserved wins happen all the time. It’s just slightly miraculous and bewildering that they are actually falling in the Wolves’ favor. (By the way, am I the only one bothered by the lingering anxiety that this could all come crashing suddenly down? Like that the Kevin Love/O.J. Mayo trade will be somehow rescinded, or that Ricky Rubio will be deported for committing identity fraud, or that Rick Adelman will suddenly decide that he needs to spend some time with his family?)
Here’s how this happens: the Spurs only manage to snare two offensive rebounds. Kevin Love grabs his routinely impressive 14 defensive boards. But Rubio, Wes Johnson, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley also haul in four defensive boards apiece. Luke Ridnour, slightly gimpy on a bad knee, pulls down two, as does Martell Webster, showing off a fabulously crimped mohawk in his return from back surgery. There is nothing remarkable about this in the particular, just the aggregate of many players taking conscientious responsibility for the defensive glass.
Here’s another way: Tony Parker and Gary Neal hit some shots, as does Richard Jefferson early on. But now that Tim Duncan is old and marginal and Manu Ginobili is hurt, the Spurs’ offense revolves around Parker’s slashes to the hoop. And, unlike in past years–remember that 55-point outburst in 2008?–the Wolves were mostly able to limit Parker’s impact. Rubio fought under screens and challenged Parker’s jumper; the Wolves’ bigs did their manful best to contain his drives once he turned the corner. And during the Wolves’ pivotal 9-0 fourth-quarter run, Rubio, Wayne Ellington and Wes Johnson denied passing lanes and applied feverish ball pressure, forcing turnovers and capitalizing on the transition opportunities they enabled. This thing? this tightening of the defensive screws in order to seal an undecided game? This is something the Spurs have made a chilling habit of over the past decade and something we haven’t seen from the Wolves in almost as long.
And another: I was/am an apologist for the Triangle offense long after others had written it off; even if it was never really appropriate for the young Wolves, the flow and group creativity it could engender was impossible for me to resist. That said, watching Ricky Rubio has reminded me of the generative virtues of the simple pick-and-roll (not that a fan of Chris Paul or Steve Nash should ever need that reminder). In this short, condensed season, Adelman’s ability to simplify his offense, to allow Rubio to create scoring chances out of the most basic sets, has been one of the Wolves’ great boons so far.
Not that Adelman has been sitting on his hands letting it all play out. Two third-quarter plays particularly illustrate Adelman’s craft. On the first, with three minutes left in the period, Rubio dribbles the ball upcourt while the other four Wolves spread out around the perimeter. As Love prepares to initiate the pick-and-roll on the left elbow extended, Wayne Ellington and Michael Beasley sit deep in the corners and Derrick Williams waits on the opposite wing, 30 feet from the basket. But instead of setting the screen, Love cuts hard to the hoop. Rubio hits him with a perfectly angled bounce pass; because Tiago Splitter was hedging the screen, attempting to impede Rubio’s drive, there was no way for him to recover to the cutting Love. And because of the Wolves’ floor spacing, no other Spur was in a position to rotate. It was a perfect play call, considering the Wolves’ personnel and the way in which the Spurs had been defending the Love-Rubio pick-and-roll.
The next wrinkle came just two possessions later. The initial player positioning is the same, except that this time Love sets up on the high left, strongside block. Beasley cuts across the baseline and Ellington curls around from beneath Love, decoying the pin-down jumper that he had scored on a few possessions earlier. Instead of screening for Ellington, Love steps up for a side pick and roll. As Rubio dribbles into the corner, Splitter and Corey Joseph attempt to trap–but because of spacing and the confusion caused by the Beasley and Ellington actions, once again no Spur is in position to rotate to the rolling Love. Rubio delivers an easy pass and Love ambles to the rim for an uncontested dunk.
It shouldn’t be astonishing for us to see a coach creating opportunities for his best players to thrive. That’s kind of a coach’s job. But Wolves’ coaches from Wittman to Rambis have struggled to do so; seeing Adelman tweak the permutations of the pick-and-roll to suit Rubio and Love is kind of a revelation. And it’s particularly rewarding when Rubio is able to hit some midrange jumpers, as he did on Friday, punishing defenders for going under screens. Subtle play-calls? Crafty, stylish execution? A pick-and-roll game that confounds defenses with multiple options? It’s almost like we’re playing basketball here.
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Two final things bear mentioning here. The first is that Big Pek is playing some heavy ball right now. Against the Spurs he battled for six offensive boards. He put that massive, swarthy body on Tim Duncan, forcing Timmy into a 2-12 shooting night, and did it without fouling. (Well, not “without fouling,” but five fouls in 33 minutes is actually a sign of real growth out of the big guy.) He ran the floor with energy, creating easy baskets by hustling to the front of the rim in transition. Most amazingly, the travel machine himself put on some nice displays of offensive footwork. Did you see that 720 degree pivot/finger roll he put on Duncan? Straight butter.
The second is more of a bummer. It’s not that Michael Beasley missed eight of his 11 shots; that much is to be expected after a long layoff. It’s more that, for all of Jim Petersen’s talk of Beaz learning something on the bench, watching the Wolves move the ball on offense, watching Rubio make the game easier for his teammates, Beasley was his old ball-stopping self. Really, expecting anything more was wishful thinking. It’s not that Michael Beasley is selfish. It’s that, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t know another way to play. For his entire pre-NBA life, his team’s best option has been to give the ball to B-Eazy and then dole out high-fives. Now that’s no longer the case and the young guy is lost.
Which would be ok, if Beasley played with any defensive presence-of-mind. But he doesn’t: there were at least two occasions on Friday in which you can actually see his mind wander on defense. His head turns, his body starts to slacken. His cover cuts somewhere and he doesn’t react; his teammates scream and gesture; Beaz wakes up lost.