Still gasping: More on Wolves and Thunder

Benjamin Polk —  March 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

The Timberwolves are professional basketball players; moving on from tough losses is part of the job. The Wolves have four games in the next five days, two of them on the road, three of them against probable playoff teams. They’ll just have to figure it out. Still, its hard for me to imagine how they’ll manage to put this one behind them.

There is the obvious heartbreak of losing despite Kevin Love’s touched performance. There is the reality that four players played at least 44 minutes in a draining, fiercely competitive double-overtime game. And then there is the rather nauseating thought that if the Wolves had made a single play in the last 46 seconds of overtime, they would have won. If they could have rebounded James Harden’s three point miss; if they could have prevented Russ Westbrook from hitting that impossible midrange floater; if Love had not been called for that travel (which call, given the game’s intensity, the paucity of whistles in its last minutes and the relative insignificance of the little foot-shuffle, seems a little petty to me); if Love had switched harder onto Kevin Durant on that tying three; if J.J. Barea had hit that pristinely wide-open jumper at the buzzer…I don’t even want to get into Anthony Tolliver missing that uncontested doorstep layin, down by three with three minutes left in the second overtime. Anybody feel like playing another basketball game against another good team on Sunday?

But regrets like these neglect a broader issue: the Wolves could not stop the Thunder from scoring. Minny gave up 149 points (!), an ungodly 1.12 points per possession.  The main reason for this was the Wolves abject inability to prevent the Thunder perimeter players from penetrating the lane. OKC’s incredible 74 points in the paint were not a function of some kind of interior dominance (far from it, actually), but rather the fact that Westbrook, Harden and Durant sailed to the rim all night long.

I mentioned last night how Harden spun Wayne Ellington in circles. But Westbrook was the nastiest. In the first half, Wolves guards went under screens, attempting to force Westbrook to pull up for jumpers. But Westbrook–who is just so fast–still beat Ridnour and Barea to the spot. And if they did manage to meet him as he turned the corner, his size and strength allowed him to finish tough shots in traffic.

The Wolves comebacks in the second and third quarters were fueled by their essentially committing the entire defense to stopping Westbrook. Not only would the guards go under  screens, but the man guarding the screener (usually Love or Tolliver) would also slide into the driving lane until Westbrook’s defender could catch up. In essence, they were tasking both pick-and-roll defenders with keeping Westbrook outside.  And when Westbrook attempted to take his man one-on-one, all of the Wolves interior help defenders collapsed into the lane. The goal was to force the Thunder into outside shots at any cost and pray that they missed. Luckily for the Wolves, the Thunder did that just enough for the Wolves to crawl back into the game.

You might have inferred that the Wolves were beset with some pretty grave matchup problems: Harden on Ellington or Webster, Westbrook on Ridnour or Barea, Durant on anybody. Worse, the Thunder’s length inside, with Kendrick Perkins and  Serge Ibaka, would seem to negate any interior offense that the Wolves might have hoped to generate. But Oklahoma City had a matchup problem of its own. That is: with Love playing all of his minutes at center in the absence of Nikola Pekovic, the very large Perkins was forced to guard Love on the perimeter. And this, he could not do. Five times in the first half Love faded off of a pick-and-pop. Five times, Perkins was unable to close the gap and contest Love’s shot. Perkins’ inability to prevent Love from draining threes forced Thunder coach Scott Brooks to go with a small lineup for almost the entirety of the fourth quarter and overtime. OKC, then, was forced to play on the undermanned and undersized Wolves’ terms; this nearly saved the game for Minnesota.

The other thing that nearly saved the game was the fact that Love went utterly bananas. I seem to recall that Myles and I, many times over the past year, have written things like: “Kevin Love is clearly not a go-to scorer…” or something similar that now looks equally stupid.  Love’s scoring game has long been based upon two disparate skills: the ability to hit threes and the ability to draw fouls using his strength, leverage and energy inside. He obviously did both of those things on Friday night. But other elements of his game have flourished in ways that we couldn’t possibly have expected.

Thanks largely to his Ricky Rubio tutorial, he has greatly improved his ability to cut to the basket off of the pick-and-roll. (The Thunder’s anticipation of this action, their ability to rotate and meet Love at the rim as he rolled, was their signature defensive move of the overtime periods.)  He has developed a solid, well-balanced post game. He is hitting face-up jumpers. And, amazingly, he has been able to translate the respect that his outside shot has granted him into an ability to use up-fakes, sweep-throughs and escape dribbles to drive to the basket. When you remember how awkward and slow he looked when attempting to post-up or put the ball on the floor earlier in his career, you will realize how astonishing all of this is. This patchwork of shooting, off-the-ball movement, a traditional back-to-the-basket-game and sheer, gritty role-player effort (see: all of those follows and fouls off of offensive rebounds), is a pretty unprecedented model of elite scoring. But look at that stat line again and there it is. Dude had 51 points.

There was another upper-echelon scorer in the house on Friday night, of course, one who, unlike our guy, really looks the part. Each time Durant sauntered across half-court with the Thunder needing a basket to tie or go ahead, Rick Adelman chose to single-cover him with Tolliver. And who can blame him: neither Martell Webster nor Wes Johnson were able to lay a glove on KD in their time on the floor. And as for not double-teaming: you know that if the Wolves had sent help at Durant, the ball would have ended up in the hands of Harden or Westbrook with a rotating defender racing to close the gap. Considering how cruelly efficient those two had been all game, I have a pretty clear picture in my mind of how that would have ended.

In the event, Tolliver chose to give Durant space and attempt to force him right, into the help defense. Durant took one good look at that space, unleashed his silvery crossover and found himself wide open, AT comfortably out of his line of vision, free to gently feather the ball into the hoop. Even more central than Westbrook’s epic shredding, or the game’s playoff intensity, the Wolves protracted comeback and the nauseating, occasionally sudden, ebbs and flows in momentum, was the duel between Love and Durant. Love answers KD’s stick with his own icy, game-tying three to end regulation. Durant calmly hits from the corner to tie the game in the first OT. Finally, in the second overtime, with the Wolves running out of gas, unable to hit shots or run with the Thunder in transition, Durant drove the nail: a gentle baseline fade, balanced and effortless despite inclining his body nearly parallel with the ground. This really was an amazing game.

Benjamin Polk

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One response to Still gasping: More on Wolves and Thunder

  1. Bob McFlallergy March 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Gutting gutting loss. I’m still not over it, and i like your point on that travel. There was two possible calls that could have been made- 1) They call durant’s shove, or 2) They call Love’s travel. In my opinion, neither warranted being called, but both were transgressions of the games rules. Maybe if the refs weren’t so inconsistent from night to night then we wouldn’t be surprised when they make that travel call. Also, add in the fact that the refs blew a call earlier (Love’s block on durant) and you’re looking at potentially a four point swing in the thunder’s favour. Having said all that though, it was a fantastic spectacle, and I’m proud of the way our boys played.

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