The cruelties of the NBA schedule are beginning to catch up to the Wolves. To begin with, they are wading through the mire of a seven-game road trip, one that seems to grow more punishing as it goes on and that includes games against the three best teams in the Western Conference. Trips like this are almost an inevitability in a season as surreal as this one. Perhaps no less inevitable is the idea that players’ bodies will begin to break down as the year wears on. Sure enough, the Wolves have fallen victim to that one too.
During this evening’s game in Sacramento, a nightmarish idea started playing through my head: that without Rubio and the suddenly emergent Nikola Pekovic, and with J.J. Barea and Michael Beasley knackered with nagging injuries, the Wolves begin more and more to resemble the team of the past two seasons. That’s a paranoid thought for sure; I’m guessing that Rick Adelman and superstar-mode Kevin Love will have something to say before that happens. Paranoid, too, because every team plays games in which their attention and energies slacken. Nevertheless, for a few reasons, this 16-point loss to the Kings brought back some awful memories.
First among them was the turnovers. Luke Ridnour throws an inattentive swing pass; Michael Beasley or Anthony Randolph dribble into traffic; Kevin Love commits a careless offensive foul; Wes Johnson gets trapped and throws the ball to nowhere. Simply giving points away was a signature move of the Rambis era and one that the Wolves expertly imitated in Sacramento. Especially when playing in their own building, the Kings are energetic and primed to run; they easily exchanged the Wolves’ turnovers for points (26 of them to be exact).
Next was the perimeter defense, the area in which Rubio’s loss has been most keenly felt. Twice when guarding Marcus Thornton in the pick-and-roll, Martell Webster went under screens and yet was unable to beat Thornton to the corner and prevent him from driving to the hoop. Two other times, he turned his head and lost track of Thornton, allowing him to cut to the rim unimpeded. We haven’t heard much recently about the state of J.J. Barea’s various leg injuries, but they must be killing him right now. Normally, Barea’s lateral movement is about as good as it gets; over and over tonight, the Kings’ Isaiah Thomas left Barea standing still, driving freely into the lane and putting the Wolves’ help defenders in the impossible position of having to both protect the rim against the penetrating guard and stick to their own man. Luke Ridnour? Michael Beasley? Wes Johnson? At one point or another, everybody got done.
Most distressing, and most painfully resonant of last season, was a problem that encompasses everything we’ve already discussed. The Wolves seemed disheartened, driven to distraction by the accumulation of small mistakes and missed opportunities. The team’s on-court culture seemed infected by some swampy malaise, as if the very idea of competing with these youthful, energized Kings was scrambling on their insides.
On one third-quarter play, Thomas, starting from his own baseline off an inbounds pass, sprint-dribbled the length of the floor, past a jogging Barea and on, unimpeded to the hoop. Later, the concrete-legged Chuck Hayes outraced Kevin Love down the floor, throwing the Wolves into a death-spiral of desperate rotations that ended in a wide-open Thornton three. They absent-mindedly released early on defensive rebounds. They stood still on offense. They took contested, flat-footed shots and passed up on good ones (a big reason why they shot only 30.6% from the floor in the second half). Oh yeah, and Kevin Love and J.J. Barea tried to dance on the sidelines. It didn’t look like they were having much fun.