Everybody loves March Madness and you can hardly blame them. The frantic, frayed late-game possessions; the mad, ten-man scrambles for rebounds and loose balls; the blood-thinning, oxygen starved comebacks; kids holding hands; grown men shedding tears: this stuff is truly compelling. But I will tell you now that I’m perfectly content sticking with the NBA, even as the tournament rages on.
For one thing, the players are better at basketball and I really appreciate that. But for another, even your average NBA game carries a certain narrative richness, a structural depth that the college game really can’t match. Matchups evolve over the long course of the game. Players surge and regress. Momentum wavers and shifts many times over.
Take, for example, this game here between the Wolves and the Jazz. There were at least three moments in the game when it seemed that the Wolves were poised to overtake Utah and make a significant run. And there were at least as many when it seemed that the Jazz had the Wolves buried. Wes Johnson went cold and then got hot. Nik Pekovic smashed, disappeared and then returned to smash again. The Wolves went through phases worthy, in their brevity and extremity, of a hormone-addled 15-year-old boy. First they couldn’t seem to cross half-court; then they couldn’t miss a shot; then they couldn’t manage an entry pass, despite many tries at it. Effing madness.
Which would also be good words to describe what happens when Kevin Love and Paul Millsap face each other. Very few players drive Love to distraction like Millsap. This is probably because very few players are able to match Love in his furious clawing for loose balls or force him to expend such sustained doses of frenetic energy to perform simple tasks like posting up or boxing out. Like Love, Millsap skirts the boundaries of convention: he is a smooth-shooting, slick-passing wing defender in a power forward’s body; he is a stretch-four who can do things like rip you for eight steals in one game (as he did tonight).
He was able to do this, in part, because Utah made a point in the second half of extending its defense into the backcourt, aggressively trapping the Wolves’ guards off of pick-and-rolls and overplaying passing lanes. J.J. Barea had a particularly hard time handling the pressure; his fourth-quarter carnival of overdribbling and forced passes nearly sunk the Wolves. (I can’t imagine what this game would have looked like if the Wolves had traded Luke Ridnour yesterday.) Some healthy side-to-side ball movement could have solved some of these problems but, aside from Ridnour, the Wolves were too rattled by Utah’s relentless pressure to make them pay. With four minutes left in the game, the Jazz’s frenetic D had given them a 12-point lead and, seemingly, a license to coast home for the win.
But when Ridnour resumed his point guard duties, the Wolves managed to find a way to crawl back into the game. They preempted Utah’s pressure by attacking the defense early in the offense. Ridnour and Love hit a quick succession of mid-transition threes. Two possessions after Ridnour’s second three, the Wolves feigned a Pekovic/Ridnour angle pick-and-roll. Just as the Jazz prepared to trap, Love cut down the middle of the paint; Ridnour found him for a basket and a foul. Pekovic made his signature bruising early-offense rim runs and was rewarded with layups and free-throws.
The Wolves were not exactly locking down defensively during this stretch, (Martell Webster remained unable to negotiate screens well enough to challenge the curling Gordon Hayward–it was a pretty rough night all around for Martell) but they were able to trade enough threes for twos and, finally, force the Jazz into a series of contested jumpers to tie the game. And though it required a missed Hayward free-throw, an offensive rebound fortuitously falling into Pek’s lap with a second to go, and Millsap blowing a pristine buzzer-beating lay-up off a completely ingenious sideline out of bounds play, the Wolves survived into overtime.
Three important things happened in the OT period. First, the Wolves had two chances to go up by four points after forcing Utah into missed shots. But both times, Al Jefferson emerged from the scramble with offensive rebounds. This, unfortunately, was part of a larger pattern; the Jazz grabbed 17 o-boards as a team. Apart from Love and Derrick Williams, who managed 20 defensive boards between them, the Wolves were overmatched by Utah’s relentlessness on the glass. Pekovic is great and all, but Big Al worked him on the boards; five defensive boards in 37 minutes is not really enough.
Second, the Wolves finally figured out that if they could break Utah’s pressure with sharp passing and ball-reversals, they could find some wide-open shots. Down by two with 40 seconds left, Love found Webster standing all alone open in the corner. The Wolves shot a lot of rushed, contested threes in this game, but this was not one of them. Unfortunately, as I’ve already mentioned, Martell was lost at sea in almost every facet of his game on Thursday. He bricked the immaculately wide-open three and the Wolves never got that close again.
Third was Millsap. Twice in the overtime Kevin Love attempted to post-up and receive an entry pass. Twice Millsap disrupted Love’s timing and balance enough to deny Love his position and bat the ball away. On a night in which the Wolves struggled to find a consistent rhythm against the Jazz’s pressure, these two chaotic final plays sealed their fate. Millsap’s energy destroyed the Wolves’ offensive continuity and threw their best player off his game. He brought the chaos.