Timberwolves 122, Blazers 110: wings of desire
Timberwolves’ fans should be glad that Saturday’s game against the Blazers was not decided on the basis of a head-to-head matchup between Wes Johnson or Michael Beasley and Gerald Wallace. Wallace’s game is a study in the contrast between the immense, relentless energy he expends and the languid, loose-limbed way he physically expresses that energy. Watching him attack the basket, scramble for rebounds, streak into passing lanes–well its a really a thing of beauty.
All of which made it a little bit hard for me to watch Wes and Beaz saunter through their time on the floor. That Beasley would be slow to loose balls or would fail to match the energy of one of the league’s most inspiring wing defenders is not a terrible shock and, at this point, doesn’t seem to be worth lamenting (although there are moments…). But Wes Johnson really mystifies me at the moment. I know that he is still a novice when it comes to NBA team defense and that he currently lacks the instinct for negotiating screens and defending the myriad articulations of the pick-and-roll. Ok, fine.
But, given his startling athletic gifts and the fact that he seems to genuinely, strongly want to be a good NBA player, its hard for me to understand why he doesn’t devote a bit more zest to the task. Why does he attack screens and close out on shooters so passively? Why doesn’t he use his length and quickness to deny passing lanes more aggressively? And despite his improved shooting recently (which really is a welcome sight), things have just gotten worse. Wes has shown the ability to be a solid one-on-one defender, but over the past two games he’s been eaten alive. On three of Portland’s first five offensive possessions, Wallace blew past Johnson off the dribble and at no point did Wes seem in any particular hurry to recover.
This was especially hard to swallow on Saturday; considering the intense energy that Wallace was expending and the dreadful individual matchups that the Wolves faced (as they always do against the Blazers) it would have behooved their wings to play with a little urgency. Luke Ridnour guarding Metta W. Peace was probably (hopefully) the most absurd thing you’ll see in a Wolves game this year. But although Ridnour’s attempts to check the extraordinarily long and tall Nic Batum lacked some of the former matchup’s visceral strangeness, it was even less advantageous. Johnson is probably the only Wolf physically capable of guarding Batum, but we already know how he fared. Nik Pekovic on Marcus Camby or Joel Pryzbilla? Kevin Love on Lamarcus Aldridge. I hate it all.
So given that Wallace and Batum were shredding and that Portland presents the kind of frontcourt length that usually gives the Wolves shingles, how did they win the game so handily? We’ve discussed before how the Wolves’ inability to consistently hit outside shot has muddled their offensive spacing and flow, how it allows opponents to disrupt the Wolves’ pick-and-roll game and collapse on Love and Pekovic inside. Well, this is what it looks like when they actually hit those shots. It looks really good.
Early in the game, Ricky Rubio made a habit of finding spot-up shooters in mid-transition, before the Blazers could set themselves and disrupt his passing lanes. Unlike in previous games, the Wolves, and Wes Johnson and Martell Webster in particular, actually hit those wide-open threes. (Rubio has no doubt been struggling lately, but his recent assist numbers would look a whole lot better if the Wolves had been able to hit even a fraction of the pristine looks that he’s served up.)
And although Kevin Love is Your 2012 Three-Point Shooting Champion, the Blazers were more concerned with preventing him from rolling to the hoop and Minnesota’s guards from penetrating the paint than with challenging Love’s outside shots. Considering his recent shooting malaise, you can hardly blame them. But Love punished them for it. After more than a week of fatigue and illness and the rough shooting numbers that came with it, the Wolves were in dire need of a great game by Love. And although he is still not pursuing the ball with the furious determination that we’re used to, he certainly provided that tonight. For the first time since the last Houston game, Love looked completely comfortable in the offense, hitting rhythmic jumpers, moving easily without the ball and finishing with force at the rim.
Efficient, high-volume scoring nights from Kevin Love are wonders to behold, phenomena whose regularity would have shocked us three seasons ago. Still, its pretty stunning how much better the Wolves offense looks–how much more smoothly it flows, how much space is created inside–when Martell Webster and Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams hit their shots. It would be lovely to think that this is something we could grow to depend on.