On Monday, we wondered aloud about the consequences of losing Ricky Rubio for the season. We suggested that Rubio’s defensive skills–his “ability to create turnovers, disrupt the pick-and-roll game and conjure frenzied defensive energy”–might be even more keenly missed than his mystic passing. And, gracious, did that ever prove to be the case against the Suns.
Since the great Garnett-Stoudemire clashes of the mid-aughts, the Suns have had a knack for drawing the Wolves’ defense into a state of shambolic chaos. In those days, the looming nightmare was the choice between stopping Stoudemire’s rim assaults and staying home on Phoenix’s shooters. On Monday night, Suns’ big men Robin Lopez, Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris attempted only 19 shots between the three of them. But this had less to do with any concerted effort on the Wolves’ part and more to do with the fact that their perimeter defense was so unmercifully rotten that the Suns’ guards had little reason to ever dump the ball inside.
As they did when they last visited Phoenix 11 days ago, the Wolves’ guards and wings, almost without exception, struggled with the basics of defending the edges. Unlike that last game, though, the problem seemed to be less a lack of energy and more a baffled indecision. They were unable to aggressively come off of screens and challenge shooters; they were unable to anticipate and deny the Suns’ off-the-ball actions; they were hesitant in their rotations.
But the worst of it stemmed from the very point at which Rubio’s absence was most stark: that is, guarding Steve Nash at the point of attack. Luke Ridnour never could figure out how to deter Nash off the pick-and-roll. The Wolves tried forcing Nash away from the screen; they tried going under the screen; they tried going over the screen. None of it worked; Nash got whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it, hit 10 of his 16 shots, dealt out 10 assists. Nash is surely not quicker than Ridnour–indeed, Luke usually defends smaller point guards pretty well–but no one, with the possible exception of Chris Paul, moves more efficiently with the ball in his hands than Nash. It was fascinating to watch Nash calmly, incrementally maneuver Ridnour out of position and either easily drain a suddenly wide open jumper or, catching the Wolves in mid-rotation, thread a pass to a wide-open teammate.
In other respects, though, Ridnour approximated a fair Ricky Rubio impression. He found Nikola Pekovic diving to the rim and Kevin Love popping behind the three point line. He penetrated the lane, found open shooters and facilitated sharp ball movement. (The Wolves finished with a season-high 30 assists.) In true Ricky Rubio fashion, he even turned the ball over four times and missed five of his first six shots. But he finished by making his last three, including a hesitating drive and scoop that left Jared Dudley wobbly and the crowd gasping, and put the Wolves up 121-120..
If the Wolves’ previous loss to the Suns (not to mention that ugly Hornets game on Saturday) was decided in part by the Wolves’ pointed inability to make shots, Monday’s game was the opposite situation. Because of fatigue or lingering illness or his tender back, Kevin Love did not play with his normal fury–didn’t attack the basket consistently, didn’t sow his normal chaos on the offensive glass–but his stroke was pure and clean. Strangely, considering their own rich history of deep-shooting power forwards, the Suns never did figure out how to take away Love’s shooting space on the perimeter.
But, despite Love’s fine shooting and Nikola Pekovic’s brutally efficient play around the basket (he hit 11 of his 17 shots and essentially fouled Marcin Gortat out of the game), the Wolves’ real saving grace was their bench scoring. Wayne Ellington, Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley hit 19 of their combined 26 shots and an incredible eight out of 10 threes, keeping the Wolves from burying themselves alive with their brutal second-half defense. It’s true that the Suns were no better than the Wolves when it came to denying cutters and disrupting off-the-ball screens. But for the Wolves this season, actually making those shots has been a totally different battle than creating them.
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There was a moment midway through the fourth quarter when it seemed like the wheels were poised to come off of the Wolves’ rickety machine. Derrick Williams had just hit a three to eke out a 107-105 lead. Then, as if to atone for his good play, Williams once again demonstrated his befuddlement when it comes to perimeter D. (He had already failed to close out on Channing Frye on two straight threes–as if Frye threatens a defense in any meaningful way apart from behind the arc.) As Sebastian Telfair came off a Frye screen behind the three-point line, Williams not only arrived too late to prevent Bassie from draining the shot, but also managed to foul him on the way down. Four point play.
Telfair clearly has blood in his eyes for the Wolves (I guess spending 40 games sitting behind Jonny Flynn will do that to a guy) because he promptly devoured Luke Ridnour as Rid attempted the not-so-simple task of dribbling the ball across half court. Steal, breazy layup, 111-107. The Suns had just rattled off six points without the Wolves crossing the timeline. Things got worse when Ridnour had his jumper blocked by Markieff Morris at the other end. Leading the break off of Ridnour’s miss, Telfair spotted Morris streaking to the basket and lofted an alley-oop; with six minutes left, the game seemed just about ready to slip away.
Instead, another demonstration of the vanishingly thin margin between winning and losing in the NBA. Morris was unable to fully gather in the pass and instead landed and hit a wide-open Shannon Brown in the corner (things possibly looking even worse for the Wolves)….who missed the clean three-point look. Pressing on with their run of fevered energy, the Suns grabbed the offensive board (still very bad); and then the game finally turned.
Derrick Williams anticipated a casual Telfair swing pass, shot the lane and cruised for a breakaway dunk. Morris then took a terribly ill-advised three at the other end. On the ensuing possession, Ridnour drove baseline and kicked to Wayne Ellington in the corner who canned a three. The backbreaking Suns run was averted; order was restored.