I like to talk about how a game’s unfolding–its ebbs and flows, the processes that shape its outcome, the feeling and texture of the performances–are more interesting to me, and ultimately more important than its final result. And I’ll stick to that assertion. Nevertheless, and despite any pretensions to journalistic professionalism (which, not too many) I will admit this: I really want the Wolves to win.
I desperately, nauseously wanted them to win when KG was hammering away at the Lakers and Kings. I wanted them to win when they were slouching toward the lottery under Wittman, McHale and Rambis, draft positioning be damned. I wanted them to win when Rubio and Love were lighting hearts on fire. And although there’s supposedly nothing to play for at the moment, although the Wolves are fielding a raggedy crew of misfits and loners, many of whom likely won’t wear a Wolves uniform again after Thursday, I still want them to win now.
And so despite it all, despite the fact that I’m a grown man watching a bunch of young dudes play a game on TV, watching the Wolves, for the second time in a month, fritter away a 20-point lead to the grievously undermanned Golden State Warriors, I found myself: groaning, sighing, clasping my face in my hands, noticing feelings of dread rise in my gut. I don’t care that it was the penultimate game of a long-destroyed season; it still felt terrible.
They lost this game because they simply could not score in the second half. (20 points in the third quarter, 13 in the fourth, 25% shooting for the half: that’s about as close to zero as it gets in the NBA.) You can expect that a team that boasts Klay Thompson, Brandon Rush and Charles Jenkins (who is shooting 32.9% over the past 10 games but is evidently the greatest point guard in the NBA when he is being guarded by J.J. Barea) will begin hitting shots at some point in a game. But the Warriors employed what is now a familiar late-game defensive strategy against our Love-less Wolves: choke the Barea/Pekovic pick-and-roll by exaggeratedly sagging into the paint (in the process deterring people like Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph from getting to the rim); wait for the Wolves to start taking and missing outside shots. Full stop.
But I don’t want to burden you with gory details. We all know this crew is capable of some truly ungodly basketball. Let’s talk about the elements of this game that bear some relevance to the Wolves’ future.
Barea has shown many times over that he is an electric scorer. His quickness off the dribble and ability to handle the ball in traffic are uncanny–and I still cannot believe the impossible, high-arcing layups that he regularly hits. He’s even shown an ability to distribute the ball that was not previously part of his game, averaging 10.8 dimes over the past six games.
But those numbers notwithstanding, it remains eminently clear that Barea is more of a change-of-pace scorer than a starting NBA point guard. This becomes evident whenever an opponent shuts down Barea’s primary options in the way that the Warriors did tonight. Barea’s two second-half assists–and the Wolves’ extended offensive malaise–are a product not just of the team’s rotten shooting, but also of the fact that he is not terribly creative in facilitating an offense. Rather than exploring options for creating open shots, rather than studiously attempting to enable offensive rhythm and flow, Barea tends to delve even deeper into his areas of familiarity. That is, pounding the ball, probing the defense in an effort to create driving lanes for himself. The result: a lot of over-dribbling; a lot of stagnant possessions; a lot of contested, late-shot clock jumpers.
The Wolves’ final meaningful possession (Wolves down 90-88, 1:01 remaining) was illustrative. Everyone in the arena knew that a Pekovic/Barea pick-and-roll was in the offing. Most probably knew that Barea would attempt to hit Pek as he rolled to the hoop. The Warriors sagged into the passing lane and, sure enough, Barea attempted to force the ball inside. Mikki Moore deflected the pass and lobbed the ball to a streaking Dominic McGuire and the game was effectively over.
Against Oklahoma City on April 14th, Beasley scored 26 points, on 11-21 shooting, by dynamically attacking the basket. “If he could just play like this every game…” (trails off). But in the intervening four games he has gone back to his old habits, disappearing for large stretches of the game, re-appearing for others, with the chronically inconsistent diet of midrange, off-the-dribble iso jumpers that are his first and last resort. Every time Beasley takes a step in the direction of becoming a reliable scorer, he seems to regress deeper into the morass of predictable, one-dimensional, ball-stopping offense. We hoped that the Wolves’ many injuries might have given him license to expand his offensive game. But that doesn’t really seem to be happening.
Which is really unfortunate, because when he isn’t scoring, Beasley simply kills his team defensively, the occasional athletic play at the rim notwithstanding. In the third quarter, after Charles Jenkins’ initial blitz of jumpers, the Wolves finally contained him by trapping Jenkins with Anthony Tolliver off the pick-and-roll. Beasley appeared as amazed by this as everybody else because as his man, Brandon Rush, cut to the basket, B-Easy’s eyes were locked firmly on the ball. Jenkins made the easy bounce pass to Rush for an uncontested dunk.
Two possessions later, same situation. This time, Tolliver’s cover, Mikki Moore, cut to the hoop. But instead of rotating down, Beasley again floated out in no-man’s land, innocent as a newborn babe. Once again, a wide open layup ensued, and the Warriors comeback rolled on.
Its nice to know that when his ankles are feeling moderately ok and when his point guard can find a way to get him the ball in his spots, Big Pek is still a crusher. In a better world–in a world, that is, in which the Wolves have more than two offensive options–Pekovic will be asked be isolated on the block less and catch the ball on the move more. But it is clear that his great assets–his clever footwork and soft touch and massive size and strength–aren’t going anywhere. And that, finally, is some good news.