Well this was surely one of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. It has been a little bit horrifying to see how, during this rough April, the Wolves have slowly morphed into a pre-Adelman version of their defensive selves. The first half of tonight’s game was easily the apex of that nauseating transformation. Like the Rambis-era Wolves, this crew has showed execrable perimeter defense. Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Andre Miller, Danilo Gallinari…and really whoever else felt like penetrating the Wolves’ defense in the first half was more than free to do so.
Almost worse than that, though, and possibly even more redolent of their old selves, has been the team’s incompetence away from the ball. When, in a given defensive possession, the time comes to negotiate an off-the-ball screen, or make a decisive rotation, or give weakside help, the Wolves have reacted indecisively–and defensive indecision is an excellent way to give up points again and again. It was not so much a matter of lack of effort–although the Wolves’ first half was not exactly a paragon of energetic basketball–as of lack of awareness and anticipation.
It doesn’t help, of course, when your offense essentially hands its opponent transition baskets by taking quick, flat-footed jumpers, particularly when that opponent is as eager to run as are these Nuggets. But, friends, lets not hedge our bets. The Wolves were getting owned even before Kevin Love took a JaVale McGee elbow to the temple. The Nuggets scored 68 first-half points on 59% shooting; that right there is a defensive apocalypse.
(Footnote 1: This was not a pleasant night for Love. Before that scary injury (which is being called “a mild concussion”), he had gone 0-5 from the floor and been utterly overwhelmed by Kenneth Faried’s beaming energy. Right now Faried–with his happy-to-be-here smile, with his wildly disruptive play, his ferocious rebounding and opportunistic scoring–is exactly what Love left behind on his road to superstardom.)
But in the third quarter, things began to turn. The Nuggets guards, who had been so relentless in attacking the paint in the first half…just stopped doing that. Denver’s offense, which had made use of all of that dribble penetration to create fluid ball-movement and wide-open shots, soon became a picture of stagnancy. They began to settle for contested jumpers, bailing the Wolves out of actually having to defend.
Simultaneously, the Nuggets forgot the edgy energy that had been their first-half hallmark. Slowly–beginning with some typically economical Nikola Pekovic low-post buckets–the Wolves began to develop an offensive rhythm. (I would like to say that the Wolves came out of the third-quarter gate screaming for vengeance, but that simply wasn’t the case; not until Denver’s lead was into the single digits did the Wolves wake up to the idea that the game had become competitive.)
That the notoriously mercurial Nuggets would become complacent, or that Kosta Koufos might have a hard time preventing Nikola Pekovic from making two-foot layups is not so very strange. What one might not have expected–and twenty-point comebacks almost always contain some note of chaos–is that Derrick Williams and Anthony Randolph would begin hitting nearly every shot that they took. Williams’ little run was particularly ridiculous given that his already suspect shot-selection and janky shooting form were even less aesthetically pleasing than normal. Deep leaning fades, awkward step-backs, arms and legs skewed in all directions; Williams hit shot after shot.
For his part, Randolph performed a dance we’ve all seen before (although clearly, considering that his 28 points are a career-high, never to this extreme). So often when he enters a game, he is listless on defense and lost offensively, getting beaten for rebounds and taking terribly ill-advised shots. But if, for some reason, his shot should begin to fall, he suddenly comes alive. Tonight, energized by the sight of the ball going through the hoop, he was suddenly able to use his enormous gifts of size and athleticism, blocking shots, skying for rebounds, diving for loose balls. The man is an utter riddle.
But, since we’ve been reminiscing about the Rambis-era, the Wolves ragged crew just wasn’t poised enough to make the plays necessary to win the game. Martell Webster hits an ice-cold, shot-clock-beating three to tie the game at 105…and the Wolves–momentarily disoriented at the idea of actually being in a position to win–promptly give up a transition dunk to Afflalo off the inbound pass. With the Wolves down by two and 30 seconds to play, J.J. Barea breaks down the Nuggets defense, finds himself with a clear path to the front of the basket…and then dribbles out the shot-clock before hoisting a contested 15-footer that glanced off the front iron. Randolph allows himself to be boxed out by Ty Lawson, loses the battle for the board, and the foul game ensued.
It was a disappointing end to a strange, ramshackle game. Nevertheless, we were all worried that the Wolves had finally buckled under the weight of the fatigue, the injuries, the disappointment. With Love woozily swaying into the locker room, the remaining Wolves had begun to resemble a sub-Bobcat-ian collection of castoffs, washouts and erratic kids. Lets take some heart that, for a half of basketball anyway, there seemed to be some fire left in the ashes.