Dirk Nowitzki didn’t play against the Wolves Wednesday night. Does it cheapen the road victory?
It’s easy to look at this game flippantly and just assume the Wolves got a road victory in Dallas because the Mavericks were missing their best player. And on many levels, that certainly helps the gameplan and execution of the Wolves on both ends of the court. It changes the game for both sides and gives the Mavericks fewer outs on broken possessions. However, to look at Dirk’s injury and then ignore the Wolves’ bevy of bang-ups is too much oversight and not enough credit for the Wolves’ gritty performance in Dallas.
No J.J. Barea, no Luke Ridnour, no Martell Webster, no Malcom Lee. That’s a lot of guards on one roster to be absent from a game. It left the Wolves with Ricky Rubio, Wayne Ellington and Wes Johnson as the only players familiar with the backcourt.
The kind of strain that can put on such a young backcourt is immeasurable. The Dallas Mavericks’ defensive system isn’t the title-clinching plastic bag that is not to be used as a toy we saw last year, but it’s also not the essence of benevolent resistance you would assume from a unit anchored by Brendan Haywood. Dallas was the third best defense in the NBA heading into this game, and despite missing their franchise’s best player and leader, they still had a very deep and difficult backcourt ready to battle two wing players and a
microphone rookie point guard.
The Mavs used their depth early to take control of the game in the second quarter. The second quarter used to be a jolt of adrenaline for this Wolves team. It was time for the Ricky Rubio show as he would come off the bench, looking to throw the revolution into syndication with a look-away bounce pass. Since he’s been starting and J.J. Barea has been injured, the second quarter has been a very inconsistent experience. The solution against the Mavs was to keep Ricky in for both quarters in the first half because what other choice did Rick Adelman have?
Dallas capitalized on the situation with a big run that allowed them to take a 14-point lead. Last year, this would have been the beginning of the end for the hopes of winning a road game for the Wolves. This year, it was just part of a normal ebb and flow of an NBA game for them. The Wolves responded by going on an 8-0 run of their own, fueled by Wayne Ellington and Nikola Pekovic. They finished the quarter with another 8-0 run, thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers by Rubio and Love.
The second half of the game wasn’t your typical upset road victory. There was no huge run that put the home team in their place. There wasn’t a surprise stretch of scoring that was so
hot mathematically trending upward that the other team just couldn’t do anything about it. The Wolves pulled up their boot straps, scoffed at the idea of exhaustion brought on by a rash of injuries depleting their depth, and ground out a slow and steady double-digit victory.
Wayne Ellington and Derrick Williams sparked the third quarter effort with a combined 15 points. The Wolves upped their defense and turned the typically ornate passing game of the Mavs into a slop fest. Love and Pekovic got physical inside and turned the fourth quarter interior into their own mortar and pestle. Love finished the game like he started it — by scoring double-digit points in the quarter. He lived at the free throw line with eight attempts and allowed Pekovic to have the spacing to get quick buckets inside.
The 29-point turnaround in this game didn’t happen in the blink of an eye like we’re so accustomed to in this game of runs. It was a slow and painful death for the Mavs that would have sparked a standing ovation from that Jigsaw guy in the Saw movies. Yes, the Mavericks didn’t have Dirk but the Wolves didn’t have options in the backcourt. Ricky Rubio played over 46 minutes, resting only for the final 1:32 of the third quarter. He fought off impending exhaustion to overcome a bad shooting night and end up with 17 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and four steals. He had seven turnovers, many of them coming late with some sloppy passing but the Wolves didn’t have another playmaker to help out. Wayne Ellington played 39 gutsy minutes as well, leaving the depth and rotations up to the interior positions on the Wolves.
And much like the Mavericks won the title with last season, the Wolves won this game with a total team effort. Love was his typically brilliant self with 31-10 and a brand of basketball that proved to be too physical for the Dirk subs of Lamar Odom, Brandan Wright, Yi Jianlin, and Brian Cardinal. Derrick Williams spent more of his time attacking the basket and being aggressive, rather than imitating a bubble on the perimeter. Darko Milicic was entirely competent and a force on defense. He rotated well, challenged shots and ended up with eight points, seven rebounds and seven blocked shots. Wes Johnson even helped close out this win with five points in the final six minutes of the game.
On the day of the Wolves receiving some long-term security (although not as long-term as the fans and player involved wished for) with the extension Kevin Love, we saw a glimpse into just what the future could hold. This team can be flashy and fun, or this team can be physical and abusive to their opponents. The important part is they are a team and learning how to rely on each other as they figure out the path to victories. They’re adapting in a way we never saw last season.
They’ve won four of their last six games. Not bad for a team battling their own set of significant injuries.