Timberwolves 92, Kings 80: the bloom on the rose
Its a bit embarrassing to look back on what I’ve written on home openers of years past and find an optimism that ended up being thoroughly unwarranted. In those back pages, you’ll find glowing talk of the newfound wing athleticism brought by Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley. You’ll hear about the possibility inherent in the triangle offense and the inevitability of an endless river of Mike Miller threes. So yeah, a little embarrassing. This is partly because new beginnings and the feelings of renewal they bring on and, oh yes, partly because the Wolves open at home against the Sacramento Kings nearly every year. Its enough to stir the optimist in anybody.
Because these Sacramento Kings, I tell you, they are terrible. I’ll let Wolves’ coach Rick Adelman do the talking here. Here he is on the massive foul disparity between the two teams (34-17, in the Wolves’ favor): “I thought that we were attacking them pretty good in the first half and they were kind of out of position. They were reaching and fouling early.” This is true. Not only was the Kings’ poor first-half defensive positioning causing them to commit early fouls, it also resulted in the Wolves getting practically any look they wanted. And this was just in the half-court; the Kings’ transition game was even uglier. On at least three occasions, Wolves’ guards streaked untouched to the basket before Sacto’s defenders had even bothered to turn their heads up-court.
Here is Adelman on Sacramento’s offensive profile: “You know, they’re a team that attacks without passing the ball. They love to come one-on-one at you. The stats we have, usually they’ll have over 50 possessions where its one pass or none. So as a team you have to get in their way and not foul them.”
Man, can you imagine the nightmare of attempting to cheer for a team like that? that plays such undisciplined defense and such stagnant offense? And then there is Demarcus Cousins, phenomenally large, phenomenally gifted, the Kings nominal best player and a piping hot mess. Picture yourself as Demarcus Cousins. I’m not talking about how young and talented and wealthy you are (or even about the very shrewd, future-conscious ways you are surely spending that wealth). I’m talking instead about demonstrably reacting to literally every not-perfect thing that happens to you. Miss a shot? You beseech the ref with barely contained frustration. Don’t get the ball where you like it? You sulk your way back down the floor. Get bumped on a pick and roll? You roll your eyes and shake your head–in the middle of a possession. Get called for a foul? Forget about it. Sounds miserable.
So this is what the Wolves were up against: a team in full-on mid-February slog mode with a star player driven to distraction by the world’s injustice and his own 5-13, four rebound, five foul showing. The Wolves’ defensive game plan was to protect the rim and force the Kings to take jumpshots and they executed that plan admirably. (I am thrilled to be writing those words and I don’t care who they were playing). Staying in front of guards like Aaron Brooks, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas is no easy task but the Wolves collapsed the paint with energy and aplomb. Derrick Williams’ and Nik Pekovic’s newly lean bodies allowed them the lateral quickness to successfully cut off drives to the rim. Dante Cunningham provided energetic interior help. Greg Stiemsma provided the aggressive rim protection that the Wolves have sorely lacked for years. Darko got in the way of some shots in his days here, but he never looked as hungry to attack shooters as Stiemsma did on Friday night.
The only moment in which the defense faltered in a significant way was during the Kings’ 20-8 3rd-quarter run. The Wolves were scuffling through their longest dry spell of the game and maintaining poor floor balance to boot; when the Pups missed inside, the very quick, very aggressive Thornton and Thomas and Evans were able to take advantage of that careless transition D find some easy baskets in the open floor.
This hiccup notwithstanding, the Wolves’ only real defensive problem was their anemic offense. Its not that the Wolves were turning the ball over or failing to execute their sets. Nope, they were just missing shots, plain and simple. Adelman again: “We were getting shots, you just have to finish them. You can’t shy away from the contact, you have to go to the basket and finish it. Get the contact first, shoot it second.” True enough, but that only explains part of the problem. The Wolves missed layups and they missed open jumpers. They bricked threes and pulled the string on paint floaters. Derrick Williams was 3-12. Big Pek was 2-8. Chase Budinger went 3-12. Brandon Roy was 4-14. It was eerie to see so many good looking shots go so very wrong.
Judging from the stat sheet, it would appear that the Kings and Wolves had similarly bad offensive nights. Sacramento hit 32 of 89 field goals, the Wolves hit 32 of 87. The Kings were 3-16 from three, the Wolves 2-17. But the reality is that while the Kings, their third-quarter run notwithstanding, never really generated much offensive continuity to speak of, the Wolves mostly looked fluid and patient, like a team ready to score points in bunches–if only those shots would fall. That massive free-throw disparity tells the rest of the story. A 12 point win is decisive enough, but even that doesn’t adequately describe how fully the Wolves dominated on Friday. Cue optimism.
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One final note. Despite our celebration of his fabulous muscles and his newfound role as the apex of an offense, Nik Pekovic was notably off. He scored just nine points on 2-8 shooting and pulled down only five boards. I noticed two reasons for this. In contrast to his magical time with Ricky Rubio, when Pek notched so many easy pick-and-roll buckets, the majority of Pek’s touches against Sacramento came in the post. Rick Adelman cited a desire to get Pek the ball closer to the basket as the reason for this strategy. Which makes sense, except that, to these eyes, Pek is at his best when he catches the ball on the move. He doesn’t seem yet to have the skills or creativity to consistently win one-on-one battles down low, especially when, (this is the second point) without Kevin Love, he is the focus of the defense’s frontcourt attention. The Kings were clearly intent on preventing Pek from hurting them on the pick and roll, swarming the paint whenever he rolled to the hoop.