Friends, this is a familiar feeling. I’m not talking about losing close games in novel ways although that has been a Timberwolves specialty for years. I’m talking about that moment in which a Wolves season descends into pure, wild, effing absurdity. We’ve learned the hard way that this can happen at any time. It can happen because a team rebels against its coach or because a bad team finally succumbs under the weight of its own soul-sucking badness or, as is currently the case, because a genuinely entertaining and competitive squad has been pulverized by injury. In any case, the fourth quarter of this very strange game was a descent/ascent into a state of wasted, anarcho-schizoid carnival.
In the game’s final moments we saw: missed jumpers and blown layups (by many people); passes spiked off of legs (Alexey Shved); stunning missed free throws (Ramon Sessions); a Webber-ian time out gaffe (Reggie Williams); a man just kind of walk out of bounds for some reason (Tyrus Thomas); more stunning missed free-throws (Derrick Williams). Finally, Kemba Walker put an end to the carnage by liquifying Shved’s knees and ankles with a crisp crossover and step back jumper just before the final buzzer. The Bobcats, having frittered away a 14-point lead over the game’s final four-and-a-half minutes, escaped.
Now, the Wolves’ last-minute comeback was unquestionably stirring. It was paid for with ferocious paint defense, an attacking open-court mentality and just enough shot-making panache, not to mention a callow, suddenly tight opponent. But they had no fewer than three chances to take control of the game in the final 40 seconds and, very much like a team missing almost all of its veteran leadership, they blew them all. And this is to say nothing of the game’s first 44 minutes.
Rather than entering into a detailed analysis of just what went on for most of this game, I’ll simply describe a single, exemplary third-quarter sequence. Derrick Williams blows by his primary defender with his first step. When he reaches the rim he encounters the very long-armed Bismack Biyombo and, in attempting to avoid having his shot blocked, misses the layup. The ball caroms directly to Greg Stiemsma who misses a wide open dunk. Williams fights for the rebound, goes back up…and his rejected by Tyrus Thomas. It was like that all night. (Incidentally, this game illustrated the importance Stiemsma handling the basketball as little as possible. His having any role in the offense apart from shooting immaculately wide open set shots and dunking–and even then, apparently–is just bad news. Stiemsma had a really tough time out there tonight.)
The Wolves missed incredible quantities of layups. They had 12 of their shots blocked. They bricked 11 of their first 13 threes and hit on 32.4% of their field goal attempts through the game’s first three quarters. That this eventually drew boos from the home crowd I understand from an emotional standpoint; it certainly wasn’t easy to watch. On the other hand, it really is a bit unfair. Did you see all of those tall, handsome men in expensive suits sitting on the Wolves’ bench? Those are the Wolves’ best players. Another one was at home recovering from surgery. Yet another is off somewhere attempting to bathe his “sore” knee in absinthe and moose oil. I hear that’s very rejuvenating.
My point: all ‘no-excuses, everybody’s gotta step-up etc, etc’ rhetoric aside, its hard to expect a bunch of kids, role players and career second-stringers, lovable as they might be, to perform at an elite level. Listen, for instance, to Rick Adelman’s explanation for all of those blocked shots: “If you can’t finish ’em there then you need to find the next guy to pass it to or kick it outside, because they have guys that went after the ball and we’re acting like we’re going to shoot it in their face.” And later, on Derrick Williams: “You gotta learn that if guys are blocking shots on you…you’ve gotta go in with the shoulder first and get a hit on them and then finish the shot afterwards.” When you hear comments like that and consider that the majority of those blocks were at the expense of Williams and Malcolm Lee and Alexey Shved, you realize again how young, how inexperienced, the Wolves have become in just the last few weeks. Oh wait, did I mention that the Wolves missed 17 of their 31 free throws? I guess I would’ve booed that too.
Before I leave you, a strong note of praise for Andrei Kirilenko. 26 points on 9-12 shooting; 12 hard-fought rebounds; two assists, which should have been at least seven had his teammates been able to make layups or wide-open jumpers; two blocks; +8. He scored on baseline cuts and duck-ins and threes and drives to the rim. He dished to teammates out of high-low action, with pinpoint no-looks from the post, in the open court. He defended without fouling.He grabbed a Kemba Walker jumper out of the air with one hand. Yes, AK turned the ball over five times but those turnovers were a product of the fact that, for much of the game, it seemed incumbent on him to facilitate the entire Wolves’ offense. His mistakes–like an errant second-quarter baseline pass to a cutting Luke Ridnour–were largely the product of his teammates being unable to feel openings and opportunities as quickly as he does, lacking his creative vision. He is so good at basketball. It is just too painful to even think about where the Wolves would be without him now.