As my wife often reminds me, there are a lot of games in an NBA season and truly, this was one of them. I mean, listen: they can’t all be State of the Union-level referendums on the soul of the team. So here’s the game wrap, shorter edition: The Wolves outrebounded the Clippers 52-35 and took 9 more free throws, but shot 27% from the arc, had 10 fewer assists, and let the Clippers score 22 fast break points. Even with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in foul trouble down the stretch and players like Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf getting technical fouls, Minnesota couldn’t take control. I guess you could say at least this wasn’t like the games of the 5-game losing streak where they would jump out to a lead only to see it disappear in the third quarter. Although they almost established a double-digit lead in the second, they felt shaky the whole game and that it was even close towards the end is more an indication of the Clippers’ own difficulties than anything else.
Oh and, to paraphrase Mclusky, the Clippers could have been yelling “My point guard is better than your point guard, SING IT!” all night.
So here’s what we’re going to talk about: How much the absence of two players, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger, flattens out this offense. (Budinger is obviously on the shelf for quite a while, but here’s hoping Kirilenko’s back spasms don’t keep him out for too long.) On the most basic level, the Wolves miss Budinger for his three-point shooting and Kirilenko for his liquid ability to fill in whatever cracks need filling whether that means with assists, scoring, or doing the defensive dirty work with steals and blocks. But it’s a little more knotty than that under the surface.
It’s no secret that the Timberwolves are not a very athletic team. Pekovic is strong and Barea is quick (too quick, most of the time—he really needs to learn to slow up when things aren’t going right), but the team’s most obviously explosive player, Derrick Williams, has been more or less nailed to the bench (although he saw 12 minutes in this one) for a bevy of reasons, not least because he can’t seem to have a game where he can both hit midrange and 3-point jumpers and score around the basket. No one is a genuine threat to score consistently from downtown. No one is a genuine threat to create off the dribble. So far this season, Pekovic hasn’t shown the kind of offensive skill down low that commands double teams, and Love is still shaky enough (3-12, 1-5 from the arc) that he’s not drawing double teams. When the offense is moving, this assembly of players can create space and opportunities through that movement, but as soon as that stops, there aren’t players who can create space simply via being on the floor.
I sometimes think of players as magnets with north and south polarities that pull or push the other players based on the perception of their skills and the way they’re playing. Imagine that the defender is always pointing his north towards the opposing player he’s guarding. When he’s guarding a player like Malcolm Lee, Lee’s north is pointing right back, pushing that player away and because Lee isn’t a shooting threat, he can’t take advantage of that (although if he keeps up what he’s done the last two games that may change).
A player like Budinger—even though he was only shooting 30% when he went down—is always showing south to the defender. He’s always pulling them out a little bit, making space behind them. When a player like Love is at full-strength, he will pull defenders close and often draw two of them. That makes more space for other players to move through without their charges drawing in other defenders.
And this whole magnetic charge analogy is the most interesting for Kirilenko, because he seems to have the ability to make himself uncharged. When another player’s magnetism draws his defender’s attention, he can drift away without pulling his defender back, opening up space for a cut. The defender either never picks up on it or often becomes hyper-magnetized to Kirilenko, thus neglecting his help duties.
This magnetic push-pull dance is beautiful when it’s working. The players all become little magnetic fields, modulating their strength and polarities to draw the defenders this way and that. But right now, the Wolves are stuck with some weakass magnets. I mean like ones that won’t hold a takeout menu on the fridge. I guess the good news is that with Rubio cleared for full-contact practice we can genuinely start looking forward to the return of the Timberwolves’ universal magnet.