Stars in the NBA can be incredible, stat-accumulating displays of effort, skill and whatever that extra special something is that makes them the elite 1% of NBA players. We marvel at their touch, power, speed, agility, and hand-eye coordination throughout a basketball game. We want to buy their jerseys and show everybody which star we back on a nightly basis.
Stars are only as good as the role players around them. Many people feel like it is the duty and mission of NBA stars to make those around them better, and to a certain extent it certainly seems to be a recipe for success. However, the top players in the NBA can’t necessarily give the role players on their team the confidence to make big shots, or the wherewithal to know when to step up to close out a team.
We can talk about how Kevin Love was stellar last night. He started off slow against a big and physical interior from the Sacramento Kings. DeMarcus Cousins is a load inside and JJ Hickson’s athleticism and activity on the boards make him a tough cover when he’s into the game. The Kings also bring Jason Thompson off the bench and he may be one of the better role playing big men in the NBA when the Kings figure out how to use him properly. When the second half started, Kevin Love took his game to another level. He scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds just in the second half. He finished with 33 and 11 overall, which actually doesn’t seem like anything special for him these days. That’s just how good he’s been over the last 80 games.
We can also wax on about how intangible Ricky Rubio’s game has become and how he affects the game on both ends of the court already. He made some poor passing decisions and I thought he forced a lot of bad shots while trying to draw fouls instead of just looking to make the right play. And yet, he played incredible defense on one of the toughest covers in the league, Tyreke Evans, and orchestrated the offense like it was holiday season for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Both of those guys were extremely important. But the Wolves don’t close out this game in impressive fashion without Luke Ridnour, Wayne Ellington and Nikola Pekovic playing essential minutes in this game. The role players lately for the Wolves have been as good as the stars, and that’s saying something. Coming into this season, both Luke and Wayne seemed completely expendable. The Wolves were hoping for big improvements and contributions from Wes Johnson at the 2, and the signing of J.J. Barea seemed to signal the end of Ridnour’s days here in Minneapolis.
All they’ve done in response is play themselves into a bigger role with this team than we could have imagined. After the game when Rick Adelman was asked if he knew about preseason rumors that Luke wouldn’t be with this team after the Barea signing, he talked about how he always planned to play two point guards together and that Luke was going to be one of them. We should have seen this coming too. When Ridnour was in Milwaukee, he played next to Brandon Jennings on some nights and he excelled at it.
As good as he’s been shooting the ball this season, and especially over the last week, Luke’s defense is actually his biggest contribution. People don’t think of him as a solid defender because of the way he looks. Maybe there’s a certain element of race and stigma glued to that presumption or maybe people are size-ist and see his relatively small stature on the court as a detriment to his ability to keep someone in front of him. Whatever the reason is, he proves it to be incorrect night after night. Derrick Rose abused him in the first quarter a few games ago, but that’s not exactly a knock on anybody’s defensive ability. That’s just kind of what Rose does to people. Other than that, he slides his feet and plays the pick-and-roll as well as anybody in the NBA this year. His drop down help defense has also been remarkable. He’s helped down in the post from the weak side extremely well.
Last night, Ridnour took his assignment of checking Marcus Thornton and stepping up to make big shots, and he performed it to near perfection. 25 points and nine assists for the other guard on the team isn’t bad and as good as Ricky and Kevin were last night, the Wolves don’t win without everything Luke gave them in support.
Wayne Ellington has also been an integral part of this team over the past week and his scoring over the last two games has been a much-needed boost off the bench. With Ricky and Luke starting together and Barea still out, the balance needed in guys coming off the bench to keep things moving for this team is dire. Rubio was that spark plug for the first 10 games of the season and considering how he’s played since his first start, he’s probably not returning to the bench any time soon. That means someone has to step up to provide that balance. The last two games, that’s been Wayne.
As much as I’d love to praise his defense lately, that’s probably best tabled for another time. Wayne’s offense has been everything we yearn for Wes’ offense to be. He’s coming in and not hesitating to take shots. When you have a stroke like his, it’s unfathomable that anybody would want to hesitate pulling the trigger. He’s catching the ball, making sure he has an inch of space to get the shot off and burying it. He’s 12 of his last 19 from the floor and has made four of his last nine 3-point attempts. Eight of his 15 points came in the fourth quarter last night and he played every minute of it.
His shooting last night was as needed as the size Nikola Pekovic gave the Wolves during his 16 minutes on the floor. Aside from the occasional drop-step for a hook shot inside, there isn’t much Pek does on the floor that can be classified as pretty or smooth. He’s in there to throw his body around and match mass with mass. Against the Kings, his body was needed to lean on Cousins and Thompson and keep them off the boards. That’s exactly what he did.
This effort and production from Pek doesn’t really show up in the box score… or maybe it does. Providing the assistance inside for Love allows Love to be fresher than usual at the end of games. He doesn’t have to lean on big bodies the entire night and tire himself out. Thanks to Pek’s assistance, Love was efficient in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points on just five shots. It’s not always going end up being a match-up like the Wolves faced last night in which they need to keep Love off of the bigger bodies in the league, but knowing that Pek can help accomplish that makes sure he’s on the court for extended minutes and that the Godfather music is playing a couple of times per game.
This is how we want to see the Wolves close out games. We don’t want to see second half leads given away and poor execution down the stretch like we witnessed in Atlanta. We want to see the lead grow in the final minutes and for the other team to give up because there is no answer for what Rubio, Love and the role players stepping up for Minnesota are hitting them with.
The two Wolves’ stars were really good last night and the other guys on the team matched that play.