Timberwolves 111, Rockets 98: The bear speaks
I do not understand the sentence “Nikola Pekovic scored 30 points in one game.” The Scientologists would probably urge me to exhaustively research the etymologies of each individual word, but that probably wouldn’t help much (although you never know–there are so many levels of consciousness I’ve yet to attain…). I mean, I just watched the actual game in question with my own eyes and it’s still beyond me. Part of the mystification centers on the sight of Pekovic casually dropping in gentle layup upon uncontested dunk upon easy bankshot. Professional basketball is complicated. Dribbling or shooting a basketball while some of the tallest, quickest men on the planet attempt to prevent you from doing same? Really hard to do. This is a player who struggled last season to wrest floor time away from Darko Milicic, who induced widespread stink-faces whenever he began to dribble the basketball, who just could not stop fouling. It is not supposed to look as simple and easy as Pek made it look on Friday.
But when you are feeling the game as intuitively as Big Pek is right now, when you are as in touch with your own abilities and weaknesses–and when you are made of 300 pounds of goulash and beer and boulder heaving–sometimes the game just flows. He was ducking into the lane with exquisite timing, mirroring the movement of the ball by sliding easily from block to block, using that massive body (and those curiously nimble feet) to seal his man. He was cutting to the rim and running the floor and crashing the glass with energy and force (to the tune of, dude, nine lusty offensive rebounds). And every time that body made contact with Sam Dalembert’s or Jordan Hill’s chest, the impact registered somewhere inside my ribs with a dull, nauseating thud. The spirit gasps, grimaces, pulls on its own shorts.
But Pekovic’s state of flow would not have been possible without the rest of the team playing with commensurate intuition and skill. Save for a discomfiting stretch of play at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Wolves moved the ball more decisively and fluidly than they have all season. The ball seemed to instantly find Pek the moment he established position on the block or in front of the rim. And the Wolves’ sharp side-to-side ball movement wrong-footed the Rockets all game. Houston’s rotations were consistently one step behind the ball, arriving too late to deny the Wolves good looks at the rim.
Because when you see that the Wolves notched no fewer than 64 points in the paint and grabbed 44 of 70 available rebounds in the game, you will realize that Pekovic wasn’t the only Wolves’ big man that got his on Friday. Kevin Love has been playing out of his effing mind since he returned from his face-stomping suspension (in maybe a not-so-subtle demonstration of how much better he actually is than Blake Griffin right now?) and this win against the Rockets was perhaps his most authoritative beatdown yet. He scored 33 points on 20 true shots. He pulled down 17 hard-earned rebounds. After being beaten by Luis Scola a few times in the first quarter, Love put an early end to that confrontation by essentially fouling Scola out of the game. He nearly single-handedly ended that aforementioned run of sloppy play, as well as Houston’s chances of winning the game, by scoring 14 fourth-quarter points, including two threes and two massive putbacks off the offensive glass (plus that little excerpt from my dreams that was Rubio’s behind the back area pass). Not bad.
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Although I’ve been a little puzzled by a few things that Rick Adelman has done this year (like shortening his bench in the middle of this hellish schedule), Friday was the first time that I found myself genuinely disagreeing with an Adelman call. As Jim Petersen pointed out during the telecast, the Rockets had been hurting the Wolves with their mid-pick-and-roll game. Kyle Lowry’s combination of strength and quickness in turning the corner was giving Rubio fits; almost everything Houston got in the half-court came out of Lowry’s penetration. Still, it seemed to me that the Wolves were rotating sharply enough and defending the rim with enough energy to compensate. After all, that same defense had helped earn them a 16-point fourth-quarter lead. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the fourth, Adelman went with the same 2-3 zone that had successfully gummed up the Rockets offense in their January 30th meeting.
But it was clear that the Rockets had prepared for it this time. The Houston’s ball movement successfully moved the Wolves’ zone from side to side; where the Wolves had previously done a fair job of contesting three-point shooters, the Rockets were now finding open three after open three. It was clear almost immediately both that the Wolves were not going to be able challenge Houston’s shooters and that the Rockets–particularly Courtney Lee, who hit all four of his threes–were feeling it from deep. Making matters worse, the Wolves zone wasn’t particularly good at preventing Lowry’s penetration either; much of Houston’s sharp ball movement was generated by Lowry drawing defenders into the paint. And yet, Adelman stuck with it until the Rockets had cut Minnesota’s lead down to one point and appeared on the verge of sweeping past them. Luckily, Adelman abandoned the zone in time; the Wolves mustered some stops; Love cast some daggers; we all breathed easier.