The Wolves and the Wolves’ faithful have dropped down a peg or two since Monday’s improbably cakewalk-ish victory over the Dallas Mavericks. That win, which brought the Wolves to 5-2 and gave them their best start since 2001, though, was also the game that saw half-man, all-beast (that’s 150% man-beast) Nikola Pekovic leave the game with a sprained left ankle from whose bourn he has not returned. Then came a loss to the Bobcats that was very nearly a win after a borderline surreal firestorm of a fourth quarter. With no Love and no Rubio and no Budinger and no Barea and no Roy and no Pekovic making the Wolves something something, the team signed veteran swingman Josh Howard yesterday for the veteran minimum because, let’s face it, he’s ambulatory. Put this all together and what you have in Wednesday’s loss and tonight’s loss to the Golden State Warriors (who do, Jon Krawczynski, have the best-looking unis in the NBA that weren’t designed before 1980) are two games to just survive before the four-day layoff leading up to next Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets.
Basically, if there’s an opposite of a statement game, this was it. You had Josh Howard starting hot and hitting his first two shots as a Timberwolf in the second quarter before eventually settling in for a 3-10 night that saw him playing minutes at shooting guard just to try and spell the Wolves restricted guard rotation of Ridnour, Shved and Lee. “He can stay with point guards,” said Williams after the game, “two guards, three guards—there’s a lot of length to our team guarding multiple positions.” (Three guards?) Williams himself had a solid game, actually, notching 23 points on 8-16 shooting and 7 rebounds, even though he was often paired out there at the 4 with Cunningham or Amundson at the 5, which meant the Wolves got positively shredded inside, scoring only 22 points in the paint to the Warriors’ 58. The rebounds told a similar story, with Golden State’s 50 easily eclipsing Minnesota’s 34.
That wasn’t exactly all she wrote, though. Before the game, Adelman said, “I can run all kinds of intricate plays, but if the guy who gets the ball can’t make it, well … we’re just trying to put the ball in playmakers’ hands.” What we saw initially this season was the beauty of Adelman’s system beginning to take hold, but where last year the lockout meant they couldn’t implement it fully, this year the injuries have stunted its implementation. Then after the game, he bemoaned the number of times they got beat off the dribble and how much pressure that puts on the defense, but there’s no mistaking the team that’s out there for the one Adelman imagined he’d have at the before the season began. “We’re playing with guys who [should be] support players around the team and they’re playing big minutes.”
But one of Adelman’s responses pointed to a kind of silver lining. In talking about Shved’s ability to find players—especially Cunningham—on the pick-and-pop, he said, “We’d like to do more of that after some movement. We’re doing too much of it where we’re just coming down into it and [the opposing players] see it. They’re ready for it. [Shved] is much better when the ball is swung to him, we run into it, and he can attack.” That failing was something we saw a lot tonight: Whoever brought the ball up ended up standing at the top of the arc or just to the left or right while players cycled around the paint trying to cut out of screens being set by much smaller players than Pekovic.
Adelman’s comment put me in mind of the kind of sets run by the Spurs where Parker will come up on the wing, drop the ball in low to Duncan, and flash along the baseline before coming out on the opposite wing. It means he catches the ball in motion after a number of options (Duncan handing off to him, Duncan working in the post) have already been run through. It can look more or less like a regular pick-and-roll if Parker takes the screen on the catch, but there’s actually a lot that goes into getting him there on the opposite wing, and it’s the kind of thing that isn’t happening for Adelman right now on a team that’s cobbled together.
So if they’re not winning games right now, what are they getting out of this? For a team where the Wolves are now—riddled with injuries, still learning their coach’s system—these games present some kind of laboratory for players whose roles will eventually be much smaller to get big minutes that can help them. It’s certainly helped Shved, who racked up 22 points to go with 7 assists and continued to show that he is growing comfortable in the NBA. Right now, there’s a lot of weight resting on his shoulders as the guard most capable of creating offense, but imagine that weight distributed more evenly between him and Rubio. Suddenly, he’s picking his spots instead of having to do it every time. Likewise for guys like Cunningham, whose surprisingly solid midrange game has shown itself alongside his ferocious rebounding. Here’s as good a place as any to throw in this GIF of one such rebound in the fourth quarter. I still can’t tell exactly how he beat out David Lee for it:
Along the way to this point in the season, guys like Stiemsma, Williams, Lee, Shved and Cunningham have all had nights when they’ve looked like the real deal, like they’re really getting it. If they can perform in concentrated bursts like they sometimes have while getting extended minutes once Pek and Barea and Roy (whom Kirilenko said he expects to have back by next week) and Rubio and Love (whose return by the end of November isn’t looking so good—he hasn’t started shooting yet) return, the Wolves may have a bench that’s more than a collection of supporting guys. They’ll have been forged into an iron collective in the crucible of this difficult stretch of games where they’ve looked very competitive.