When Jon Krawczynski broke the news that Kevin Love was coming back to start for the Wolves tonight, a brief hush fell over press row, or at least, my end of it. It was about an hour before gametime and we were suddenly filled with an admixture of uneasiness and excitement. Love was supposed to be back in six to eight weeks, but here he was taking the floor in just a little over four. The way Love described it after the game didn’t make it seem like a medical miracle. “The doctor said, ‘When’s your next game?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow.’ He said, ‘If you want to give it a go, go ahead.’ And I said all along that when I have a chance that I was going to be out there first game and I didn’t want to wait.”
And we didn’t want to wait either, sitting there and knowing how completely bananas the building was going to go when they announced the starters for the game. And it totally did and then the game actually started and it looked like a miracle. After 8 minutes, Love had 14 points and 4 rebounds; in other words, he was on pace for 84 points and 24 rebounds. Although he looked flushed with exertion—a likely sign his conditioning is not there yet—he brought a level of energy and inspiration to the team that they’ve been sadly lacking in over the last couple games. They outscored the Nuggets 26-15 in the first and 32-29 in the second, and their 58 points at the half were the most they’ve scored in a half this season.
It looked like it was going to be so simple for a while there. The rest of the team would play more or less the way they had during Love’s absence, especially with Pekovic and Barea returning from injury tonight as well. To this they would simply add an All-Star, All-NBA player who was fourth in scoring and second in rebounding last season. What could go wrong?
Well, the second half went wrong. As Kirilenko said after the game, “We started to rely on him a little bit too much in the third quarter and lost our pace, but it’s not his fault: it’s our fault.” The stats tell the tale. Although Love was 12-25, the team as a whole shot 38.2% and only Barea and Pek cracked double digits in scoring. Once the Nuggets got their bearings, they pushed the ball in transition, just as Adelman warned they would in his pregame remarks, and Minnesota’s defense couldn’t hold up.
Although the first half felt markedly different from the last couple games with Pek, Barea and Love all out there, Kirilenko went on to point out how the third quarter has been much the same story for the last week. “I think we lost our energy in the third quarter and I don’t know what’s happening: our third game in a row we get pretty much the same scenario. We’re playing great two quarters and then in the third we kind of drop, we kind of stop. We run out of gas.”
Love was clearly disappointed and drained after the loss, and who wouldn’t be after such a hot start fizzled out? But it’s not all bad out there. The Nuggets are in a different class from the Warriors and Bobcats and the Wolves played them very hard in the first half with a roster that looks radically different than it did a week ago. Love has not even had a practice yet and he’s being thrown out there with Howard—who’s only had a couple—as are Pek and Barea, who have never played with Howard.
As he was last season due to the compressed season, Adelman is once again being forced to run mostly pick and rolls, rather than a corner offense that could take maximum advantage of players like Kirilenko and even Howard, who’s a better slasher than spot-up shooter. As he said last game with regards to Shved, Adelman wants to run the pick and roll out of motion. “If pick and roll is something you do at the end of motion, it’s tougher to guard. But with a young group and guys that aren’t used to playing together, it takes time.” By the fourth quarter, any organized sense of motion setting up the pick and roll had stopped.
In short, whatever energy they had built up from the four-day layoff and the boost they got from Love’s return seemed to at first fuel them, then overwhelm them, then depart, like a possessing spirit running rampant through a host. The good news is that in so many ways this was an anamolous game, full of circumstances that aren’t likely to repeat themselves. Or at least, not until Rubio returns.
Some other notes:
- Malcolm Lee is a problem as the starting shooting guard for this team. He has value for his defense, but shooting 1-8 is not going to get it done. Several times he was left wide open and the Wolves wouldn’t swing it to him and other times they did and he’d clank it. At least once I saw him get the ball on the left wing with Love on the block, not dump it down, dribble, stop, fake the shot, fake the pass, then shoot a long two that missed. As a guy to bring in as a stopper, he might be useful sometimes, but right now, his defense isn’t worth the team playing 4-on-5 on the offensive end.
- When Lou Amundson checked in in the fourth quarter, it left just one healthy DNP-CD on the bench, and that was Derrick Williams. No one brought it up at Adelman’s press conference—maybe because he seems sick of talking about Williams uneven play and minutes—but it seems like at least two things are possible: 1.) There was some undisclosed physical reason for him not to play or 2.) He is not just in Adelman’s doghouse but is having his mail forwarded there and has gotten a new driver’s license with the address of Adelman’s doghouse on it. With Love back, it makes some sense. What Adelman needs off the bench are guys who know their games, like Cunningham, who will go after rebounds with reckless abandon and knock down the elbow jumper, not a guy who’s trying to figure out who he is. But to reiterate, it’s just one game and a highly weird one at that, so there might be plenty more angles on this.
- It’s amazing how much space Love and Pek create on the floor. Against the Warriors, the Wolves just seemed to be swarmed. The defense never had to collapse completely nor chase shooters out to the line, but Pek can draw them into the paint and Love can do that plus pull defenders out to the arc. It means there’s a lot of space for other players to operate, as we saw when Ridnour—who, it’s worth mentioning, was maybe the high-usage player most familiar with Pek and Love—snuck into seams and made midrange shots. As that space becomes something they can not just know or see but feel and use, beautiful things should start happening.
- And when Rubio comes back? This could be a very terrifying team. If Shved gains confidence—hell, if he can just bottle the confidence he seems to habitually find in the fourth quarter—then a lineup of Rubio, Shved, Kirilenko, Love and Pekovic will be something really pretty amazing. I can’t wait for that.