Do you remember the Wolves-Lakers game in March from last season?
The Wolves didn’t know it yet, but they were in the early stages of a 15-game losing streak to end the season and clinch the worst record in the NBA. What stood out that game was Wes Johnson went off against Kobe Bryant. He scored early and he scored often, totaling 29 points on 11/21 shooting. Kobe had an off night, partly due to Wes’ defense on him, scoring just 18 points on 7/16 shooting. It was a beacon of hope at the end of a tumultuous season.
Then this season happened and Wes has been so bad shooting the basketball that people (myself included) wonder why he’s even out there. His confidence has seemed shot and he wasn’t attacking the basket like he promised before the season started.
Last night, he finally broke through his shooting slump and that beacon all of a sudden was a little brighter once again. He claims the shots were just falling this time, but his shooting motion looked altered like a fine Italian suit. There seemed to be less motion and noise getting the ball cocked back to fire. It was quicker and more compact. There wasn’t any hesitation or doubt that he should be shooting the ball. The result was confidence throughout the game and a quicker step than the mopey saunter that we’re used to after a few bad misses.
His catch-and-shoot motion may have changed but it didn’t change when he was taking shots off the dribble. It looked like the same slower release, except this time he had some assurance coursing through his veins. Give a player confidence that his shot will fall and you’ll see a new man. You’ll see someone that doesn’t believe anyone in front of him can deter the scoring surge that is about to smack down on their forehead.
Wes Johnson is definitely one of those players whose play is contingent on momentum. He has to be moving forward in order to be moving at all. Luke Ridnour isn’t like this one bit. Over the last couple of days, Wolves fans have been pondering whether Luke Ridnour might be expendable if it means bringing in a real live scorer like Jamal Crawford to the shooting guard slot. Normally, this would be a no-brainer because it’s just Luke Ridnour. However, Luke reminded us tonight just how valuable he can be.
He started off the game hot with a couple of 3-pointers that found the bottom of the net. He also ended the game with nine points in the fourth quarter to help extend the lead and put the Blazers away. In the middle, he just kept moving the ball, guarding bigger players like Wes Matthews, Jamal Crawford, and Nicolas Batum. He constantly got in the way on defense and still found a feathery touch to drop points on the Blazers at the other end of the floor. He’s been capable of mucking up the defensive end of the floor while keeping things nice and tidy on offense from the shooting guard position.
How many point guards in this league can do that on a nightly basis?
The 41 combined points from Luke and Wes were huge and allowed the Wolves to survive without Nikola Pekovic on the floor. It also meant that Kevin Love didn’t have to go for roughly 40 points in order for the Wolves to win. His 29 and 16 effort was enough to keep LaMarcus Aldridge in foul trouble for the second straight game against the Wolves.
Love did everything in this game. He started out slinging the ball into the basket like there was nobody else in the gym. 15 points and 6/7 shooting in the first quarter to put the Blazers on notice that it was going to be another long night of stretching out the floor to guard him. In the second and third quarter, he owned the boards with 11 and even facilitated the offense with three assists in the third period. In the fourth, he finished off his night at the free throw line and by playing really good interior defense.
Love seems to get better and better with each week of the season. His leadership on the floor is pretty impressive and his ability to get the best of some of the top power forwards in the NBA is not something I would have thought possible two years ago. But he can’t do it alone and it took another stellar effort from the role players stepping up.
Before his ankle injury, Barea had seven assists off the bench (by the way, now the Wolves definitely can’t deal Luke for Crawford with Barea out). Derrick Williams shot the ball poorly but he made up for it with 11 rebounds of his own. Luke filled up the points column in the stat sheet and Martell came in for 10 points in 20 minutes.
The story of the game though for me is Wes. I don’t know that this is a point of galvanization for the rest of his season. He didn’t look terrible last year after the Corey Brewer trade, but you also can’t just see one great shooting performance by him and assume the worst is behind him.
If the change in his motion that I think I see is actually there, it could help him feel much more comfortable shooting those corner 3s that he is always open for. The Wolves shouldn’t stop exploring trades for wing help because of Wes last night, but if we can see this kind of performance every three or four games instead of every month then a deal isn’t necessary for this team to make the playoffs.
By the way, this Wolves team is currently residing in the eighth seed of the playoffs, thanks to the tiebreaker over Houston right now. After last season, would you have guessed we’d be in this position right now?
Where is our Wolves team and what have you done with them? Actually, never mind. This is fun.