What was a foregone conclusion is now an actual mathematical reality: the Timberwolves are not going to make the playoffs this year. From where we sit now–after this catastrophic run of injuries, after this recent spate of rotten, dispirited performances–it’s hard to believe that this was even a thing, that the Wolves very briefly sat in the Western Conference’s 8th spot, emanating gallons of positive vibes in the process. The truth is that by now we shouldn’t even be disappointed; we knew this was coming from the moment Ricky Rubio took that awkward, unfortunate step while attempting to double-team Kobe Bryant. It’s fine, really.
On to the task at hand. The Wolves are missing their entire starting backcourt. Their starting center is fighting to regain his conditioning and is playing on a pair of pretty gnarly ankles. And their very best player, the one who was drawing those MVP whispers, spent last night in the hospital. The players who did take the floor for the Wolves are, for the most part, a collection of rookies, misfits and perennial bench players. In other words, there’s only so much we can expect from this group.
Speaking as a fan, the true nightmare scenario would have been a repetition of the melancholic efforts the Wolves offered against Phoenix and New Orleans. Six games feels like a thousand lifetimes when your team is so clearly desperate for the pain to end. Luckily, the Wolves reserves that have been forced into action over the past two games–Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley, among others–have done themselves and us the service of actually attempting to compete.
Which is nice, because those games have shown that when they are playing with a little passion and hitting their shots, even these depleted Wolves can stick with playoff-caliber NBA teams (for a time anyway). In the first half of tonight’s game against the Clippers, the Wolves did just that. They made use of the J.J. Barea/Nikola Pekovic pick-and-roll combination to break down the Clippers infamously soft perimeter defense. Once Barea settled into the paint, he was able both to distribute the ball and to find his own way to the rim. They even found away to deter the Clippers’ guards from doing the same, forcing LA into a string of outside shots.
But entropy eventually took over. With only one truly NBA-level ballhandler in their lineup and only two players–Barea and Beasley–genuinely capable of creating their own shot it soon became clear that the Pek/Barea pick-and-roll and the Beasley elbow isolation were literally the Wolves’ only options for creating shots. This becomes easy to defend pretty quickly, even for the Clips. And so, with LA loading up in the paint, the Wolves offense devolved in a hurry: lots of one-on-one basketball; lots of overdribbling; lots of contested, arrhythmic jumpers.
Because Anthony Randolph and Derrick Williams were somehow draining those aforementioned jumpers, this non-strategy actually managed to work (to a point) against the Nuggets. But against the Clips, reality set in. Not only was Williams missing from outside (as one might expect, given the kinds of shots he was taking), but he continued his curious habit of blowing by his defender off the dribble only to finish meekly at the rim. For his part, Randolph enacted a by now familiar pattern: punctuating a run of effective, energetic play by grossly overestimating his own skills. I ask you, Anthony Randolph: how many clumsy, loping crossovers in traffic and impossible, fading 20-footers are too many?
But it almost seems wrong to critique these things. These are dyed-in-the-wool second-unit players, after all; does it make sense to expect anything more? especially against a team as locked-in as these Clippers? These Wolves have been whittled down by attrition into a state of ragged sub-mediocrity. The playoff dream has dissolved away. Take a deep breath, it’s almost over.