Watching the Wolves over the past week, I’ve been struck over and over both by the team’ curiously shaped, oddly angled roster, as well as the crafty ways in which Rick Adelman has managed to patch it all together. In recent games we’ve been treated to such curiosities as: Kevin Love guarding Pau Gasol; Luke Ridnour checking Metta W. Peace (and Paul George and Anthony Morrow and Deron Williams); Martell Webster doing his honest best on Kevin Martin. These are not exactly dream matchups; the fact that the Wolves have managed to win two of those games speaks highly both of the team’s level of investment and their coach’s ingenuity.
Friday night’s game in Newark offered more for Adelman to puzzle over. Inserting Ridnour into the starting lineup at the off guard has, at the very least, allowed Wesley Johnson to slide over to his natural wing position, where he plays his best defense and is saddled with significantly less ball-handling responsibility (a good thing). But, drawbacks. As we’ve discussed/lamented many times over, the lineup of Rubio, Ridnour, Johnson, Love and Darko/Pekovic is conspicuously lacking in a bona-fide NBA shot creator and scorer. Enter Michael Beasley and Jose Barea who, theoretically at least, ought to be able to inject energetic one-on-one scoring into the mix.
But that theory runs into problems, see, when Barea, still rusty after many games on the shelf, can’t seem to find himself a makeable shot. And when Beasley, after a first-half spent torching Anthony Morrow, enters the game late in the third quarter and promptly helps the Nets to a run with: a series of offensive possessions in which his game could somehow be described as both tentative and forced; distracted defense; lackadaisical rebounding. (There are certain players who use defensive energy to revive a lagging offensive game. Beasley is the inverse: he allows his offensive struggles to interfere with his focus and intensity in all the other areas of the game.)
Attentive defense on the wing was of genuine importance for the Wolves, too, considering Morrow’s paint-pealing three-point performance. Ridnour, Johnson, Beasley, Anthony Tolliver, Derrick Williams and Martell Webster had all tried their hands at solving Morrow’s off-the-ball movement and quick-unto-invisibility release; except for Johnson, none had been able to do anything short of fouling to deter him. So with Beasley in his screw-faced funk, Adelman was forced to return to Wes in the fourth quarter.
And yet, Morrow continued to scorch. Johnson has had moments of real defensive effectiveness, particularly when given the task of stopping a one-on-one wing scorer. But, to my eyes, for a player who is so long and so athletic and who struggling as mightily as he is offensively, Johnson is not nearly as energetic and disruptive defensively as he could be. My guess is that this is more a matter of savvy and anticipation than of poor effort (Syracuse sure likes to turn out guys without defensive instincts). But for whatever reason, three times in the fourth quarter Wes was unable to anticipate that the hottest player in the game (by, like, a lot), perhaps the best pure shooter in the league, would attempt to run off of screens in order to spot up outside.
The last of these displays came with 22 seconds left, the Wolves having scratched their way to a five point lead. Though a spot-up three from Morrow was clearly the Nets’ first option on the play, Johnson still made no effort to deny him the ball and inexplicably went under Shelden Williams’ screen, giving Morrow miles of open space to catch, shoot and hit. Realizing very late how screwed he was, Johnson flailed at Morrow and, of course, fouled him.
So, to recap: the Wolves lacked elite scoring on the floor for most of the game. They were finding it impossible to prevent Morrow from raining threes. Add to this the fact that world famous Minnesotan Kris Humphries was pounding Kevin Love into a miserable shooting night and one begins to wonder how they ever managed to pull this thing out.
For me, the most important reason is that, unlike on Wednesday against the Pacers, when they seemed a bit cowed by the Pacers’ aggression, the Wolves matched New Jersey’s spiny energy. This was a wild, frantic, physical game and the Wolves seemed to enjoy the moment. Despite their inability to put a body on Morrow, they showed some defensive sequences of real intensity and commitment. It wasn’t the team’s most consistent defensive performance–the Nets’ second quarter run was, in part, fueled by the Wolves’ undisciplined transition D–but there were moments when they rotated with purpose, swarmed the ball around the hoop and clawed their way to stops and extra possessions. Rubio and Ridnour were not always able to prevent Deron Williams from attacking the paint (no one is), but they were both tenacious in denying him the ball, in recovering to challenge shots and in disrupting passing lanes.
Speaking of Rubio, over and over the young fella seemed to create scoring chances out of nothing. He attacked the Nets’ defense aggressively enough to draw defenders but patiently enough to allow passing lanes to open–not that those lanes were always visible to the naked eye. Love and Pekovic were particularly adept at maneuvering themselves into open space, making themselves available for passes and a subsequent layup or foul, acting on the belief that, if they were open, Ricky would recognize it. It’s a bit unsettling to enter into the queasy moments of the game knowing that there’s no elite scorer to relieve the tension. Instead, the Wolves rely on their surplus of passers and playmakers, and Rubio in particular, to create looks for one another. Watching the Wolves is a bit like an act of faith: if Rubio probes the defense artfully enough and the ball moves with enough purpose, we just have to believe that an open shot will materialize.
For his part, Big Pek was a destroyer of worlds. All the things we’ve said about Pekovic over the past week were evident against the Nets. He played with serious force on the glass; he used his massive body to seal opponents under the basket; he showed surprisingly supple touch and footwork; he ran the floor with purpose and skill. He even made a sharp skip pass to Ridnour for the game’s pivotal three. And although his help defense was often a touch late–that’s just part of being massive and slow–his effort was beyond reproach. Is it wrong to wonder if Pekovic is maybe going to play like this forever?