Before Tuesday night’s warmup game against Maccabi Haifa, Rick Adelman seemed pretty intent on reminding folks that he really wanted to see his key players together on the court so he could see what they’ve got. While the Wolves have had glimpses of good things in the brief preseason so far, one thing we haven’t seen a lot of is the probable starters playing together, and the bench unit getting to be the bench unit in a game setting.
Thanks to Luke Ridnour’s back, Andrei Kirilenko’s hamstring, and Kevin Love’s horrible use of a Sleep Number bed, the Wolves haven’t had much of a shot at continuity in the first three games of the preseason. With everybody available against Haifa, coach Adelman was finally going to get to tinker with some lineups. When I asked him during pregame if he felt like the team was getting more accustomed to the system, he said, “Well, we had a good practice yesterday. I think that helped having practice and I hope it carries over to today. We had those three in four nights, were missing guys in the lineup, and we didn’t play well offensively so hopefully we’ll see an upgrade in that today.”
Early on in the game, I think you saw players on the team feeling out the system and adjusting to the opportunities it brought. The passing was good and much more active than we had seen in previous games. However, the final execution of plays wasn’t there. The Wolves missed a ridiculous amount of shots at the rim, and most of them seemed to be due to rushing shots inside and not moving the ball one extra time to make sure guys were in a position to score. Here’s the chart from the first quarter:
The Wolves were 6-for-15 at the basket, and I’d venture to say a good number of those were open looks that they couldn’t get to fall. They rushed it inside once they grabbed the ball, instead of gathering for the shot or looking for one extra pass to make for a bit of an easier shot if theirs wasn’t there. Adelman after the game said, “we were just throwing the ball up there. We’ve got to be solid and you’ve got to see the defenders there and find open people. This team has got to learn we can’t just force the issue.”
By the time halftime hit, the Wolves went from a double-digit lead at the end of the first quarter to just a three-point advantage, mainly because the second quarter was mired in missed shots and a 2:6 assist-to-turnover ratio in the second quarter. The Wolves got sloppy and they started letting Haifa take open 3-pointers to trim down the lead. Despite a 20 to zero free throw attempts advantage, the Wolves just couldn’t get any consistency and extend the lead.
Then the second half happened and the Wolves seemed to right the ship. They continued to pound the ball inside and get to the free throw line. The passing got crisper and the shots started to fall. They kept finding a way to create more mismatches with Love getting smaller players in the post to punish and Roy finding a groove getting into the paint and capitalizing on his own post-ups.
Adelman said in the postgame press conference that “they didn’t really have anybody to guard Kevin so we went to him a little bit more in the second half.” When I asked him about putting Roy posting up other guards, he added, “he’s always been really good down there and he gets his shot off. We have to find ways to get him the ball and get used to what he likes to do. And again, we haven’t had everybody on the floor so that’s what I want to try to accomplish in the last two weeks here. We have to find ways, not only to get people the ball who start there, but what are we going to do when we need a basket? Until you get them on the court and go through it, you don’t really know it.”
Love, Roy, and Kirilenko exploded in the third quarter by combining for 33 of the Wolves’ 39 points. A lot of it came off aggressive basketbal getting into the paint and creating contact to get to the free throw line. The rest of the game was a chance for the second units and fringe guys to get some minutes, really show the coaching staff how they work together.
There’s not a lot of analysis you can do with a game like this because a) it’s preseason and 2) they’re playing a team from the Israeli Basketball Super League. Maybe Donta Smith was the only NBA caliber player we saw on the court and they shut him down with Andrei Kirilenko bothering him most of the game.
What this game did do was allow the new teammates to get more familiar with the system and each other. There were plenty of guys who stood out on the court tonight for Minnesota, but that’s exactly what should happen in a matchup like this. The man who seemed to set the tone for his team was Kirilenko.
“I mean, I don’t really look for those numbers,” Kirilenko said in the locker room. “I’m looking for, let’s say, valuable action on the floor.”
He talked about how with lots of new guys coming together that “it’s a process” to learn how to play together.
“You know, it’s a new team for me. I was playing 10 years with the Jazz and with the Russian teams. It’s the only two teams I know.It’s a pretty new experience for me as well. Coach has a very, let’s say, unique system to play. You have to pick it up. It’s like any kind of sport you play. You have to find out where those points are to get something out of it. Like tonight, we have a couple possessions with me and Kevin kind of figure out the new thing. Every game you can get one or two possessions out of it. The more and more games we play, we’re going to get better and understand each other better.”
This seems to be the overall tone of the team right now. Learn each other and get better. You saw that with Kirilenko and Love finding each other. And the passing becomes infectious. Guys start looking for each other because the last pass was so fun. This is a staple of the Rick Adelman system on offense and it’s something that will permeate throughout the team.
You even saw that in the first quarter. They weren’t making the baskets but the passing was there, for the most part. After Pek blocked Pat Calathes volleyball style, this happened:
Even last season, I’m not sure Kevin Love makes that play. But as he gets more entrenched in what Adelman asks his players to see and do, plays like this may become more routine for him.
As for the rest of the team, I think we saw a lot of good energy out there. Roy was fantastic again this preseason, Pek did a great job on defense and the boards, and the role players stepped up and played hard. Some might say, “it’s easier to do that against a non-NBA team,” but I disagree. We’ve seen plenty of NBA teams get pushed by the international teams this preseason, and some have even lost their games.
Other than a couple of plays where JJ Barea tried to dribble the life out of the ball, he did a great job of setting up teammates and getting into the paint. Chase Budinger knocked down outside shots and was active on defense. He even played some 2-guard, which was a nice role to see him succeed in. Alexey Shved, Will Conroy, and Jermaine Taylor all had great minutes in the final quarter of the game.
And then there’s Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams. Last night was a look at how different these two guys are. Obviously, they should be different in the sense that Derrick Williams was the second pick in his draft and Cunningham was the 33rd pick in his respective draft. But it’s weird that Williams should be looking to Cunningham on how to attack the game.
On Twitter, Derrick Reder tweeted me and said, “Is Cunningham not exactly who D Will needs to play like?” He couldn’t be more dead-on. Derrick continually looks like he’s waiting for the plays to come to him. He’s not aggressive like Adelman wants him to be and it ends up with him floating. He tried to get into the paint a bit in his brief minutes against Haifa, but there was a lot of hesitation in his game.
Cunningham, on the other hand, is always active. He’s setting screens on the ball and away from the ball. He’s circling around penetration for open jumpers. He’s attacking the basket with or without the ball in order to get in on the action. He’s an Energizer Bunny type of player that you’re always happy to see enter the game. I don’t think we should freak out about Williams just yet, and I still think he’s a huge key to this team long-term.
But would it shock me if Cunningham ends up getting more playing time this season than Williams? Absolutely not. Especially not if Cunningham is consistently making plays like this:
That’s just one play in a long night of basketball, but it’s a perfect example of Dante’s mentality. He doesn’t wait for the game to come to him. He just gets after it on the court and sees what happens when he does. Coaches love guys like that; they don’t love guys that seem tentative to mix it up.
Overall, a nice showcase for the Wolves last night. Next game is in Chicago on Friday.