Rick Adelman became a broken record last year. Someone for the Wolves would go down with an injury and he’d start talking about how guys couldn’t feel sorry for themselves and had to step up. They had to make the most of their opportunity to help the team. Ricky Rubio went down with his ACL injury. Kevin Love got a concussion. Nikola Pekovic had bone spurs in his ankle the size of Gibraltar. Pick any of JJ Barea’s 27 injuries from last year.
Guys went down and the Wolves went down with them. Nobody stepped up. Nobody cared. Everybody had the calendar circled for their vacation and not for the playoffs. Once Rubio was gone, the season was lost. Once Love was gone, the season was a joke. Once Pek was gone, it was the same old Wolves again. Adelman begged a set of players without anything close to a guarantee of a future with this organization to show some pride and we only saw it one game, when they finally broke their April losing streak.
This looks like another hilarious tweet in which a Pekovic quote tickles our imagination about the lore of his existence. But really, it seems to be the mindset of the team right now. The Minnesota Timberwolves of the 2012-13 season do not use crutches. They don’t use injuries as a crutch for what could have or should have or would have been.
Love goes down; Dante Cunningham steps up. Brandon Roy goes down; Chase Budinger steps up. Chase Budinger goes down; Alexey Shved steps up. JJ Barea goes down; Malcolm Lee steps up. Nikola Pekovic goes down; Lou Amundson plays 14 soon-to-be-forgotten but extremely important minutes.
Does anybody miss Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley, or Wes Johnson right now? Me <EXPLETIVE> neither.
Yes, the Timberwolves have an inordinate amount of injuries right now. I say six of their top seven guys are down with injuries right now. You could argue that Alexey Shved has played himself into the top seven guys, and while it’s early, I wouldn’t be opposed to that thought process. Regardless of the power rankings of Wolves players you have in your head right now, six important members of the Wolves’ roster are currently hurt. Everybody wants to pretend this is some spooky occurrence, fresh off the heels of Halloween and everything that goes bump in the night.
The only thing that seems to go bump in the night right now is the Wolves. They’re sitting at 5-2, even after all of these injuries. They have wins over the Kings, Pacers, and Magic at home. They have big, inspiring road victories against the Nets and Mavericks. The latest one against the Mavericks may be the most special one of all in this early season.
OJ Mayo came into this game torching the rest of the league. He’s been lighting up backcourts left and right, unstoppable to the charms and whims of opposing defenses. He’s been playing like the player that was touted out of USC. Against Malcolm Lee and Alexey Shved, he looked like Michael Beasley in shooting guard form. Two weeks ago, I was wondering why Lee was still on the roster — wondering if his spot on the team was strictly due to a guaranteed contract Glen Taylor didn’t want to eat.
His last few games have been spectacular. There aren’t a ton of numbers that will wow you, although his scoring punch off the bench against Chicago was a nice surprise. His defense though seems accosting. He’s quick and reactive. You create space and he takes it away. His length and reach are like cat burglars coming to take your inherited fortunes. He’s not Avery Bradley or Tony Allen. He’s just your run of the mill pest, bothering the hell out of you like a kid who asks his mom 20 times in a row if she’ll take him to Best Buy.
Not only was Lee great defensively (not a shock) and competent on offense, but Alexey Shved had the best defensive performance I’ve ever seen him have. I’ve watched a lot of Shved over the last two years, prompted by Danny Chau to learn about and love the player who randomly ended up on our favorite team. I can assure you he’s never played defense like he did tonight. His hands were active, like an inappropriate senator at a charity mixer. His hands are usually active and trying to make up for his slow feet. However, tonight he was anticipatory and reactive. He got into the space of the offensive player and became the Seinfeld close-talker — only nobody knows what he’s saying in Russian.
Forget his 9-of-11 free throw shooting or his 16-5-4 line. He had three blocks and all of them were fantastic plays. There’s no reason to believe Shved will defend like this consistently any time soon, but now that he knows he can do it, it wouldn’t shock me to see Rick Adelman find a way to bring it out of him more often.
Then there’s Andrei Kirilenko. There will be discussions of “I know it’s early but AK has to be an All-Star” or “is it possible for Kirilenko to make All-Defense First Team” or “Kirilenko needs to get some kind of award for the way he’s playing this season.” I don’t care about Kirilenko getting awards or accolades for his play. All I care about is he’s on this team and making every minute he’s on the court a joy to watch. The movement without the ball has become something fans are noticing as it’s developing.
The connection he and Shved have is looking scary for opponents. Tonight, they missed on a couple of alley-oop attempts and connected on that play above, but eventually those will start to fall nine times out of ten. The chemistry is there with his countryman and it will continue to grow with the rest of the team. Watching Kirilenko move without the ball makes me a smarter basketball fan. He teaches you without ever saying a word.
I have thoughts I want to get out on Pek, Cunningham, and Derrick Williams, but I have a feeling they all deserve their own post — not just a paragraph in a game recap. I will say this about each:
- Nikola Pekovic had 20 points on 13 shots and was +21 in 27 minutes on the floor. He also had three assists before stepping on Vince Carter’s foot and rolling his ankle. Pek says he’s fine and will be reevaluated Tuesday. He played with bone spurs in his ankle last season; I wouldn’t be shocked if he started against the Bobcats Wednesday night.
- I could watch Cunningham and Kirilenko in the lineup all day. Defensively, they fly around and challenge everything. They’re trying to deflect passes and knock away low dribbles in the paint. The two-man combination right now has a +17.8 points per 100 possessions so far this season. And on offense, they’re both moving without the ball so fluidly.
- Before Williams gets thrown under the bus by the fans, let me say I thought the first few minutes he was on the floor tonight were spectacular. His defense was great, he rebounded the ball well, and he had a sick reverse dunk on the baseline (pictured below). Then he committed a stupid turnover on a fastbreak, Adelman decided to go with Cunningham the majority of the night, and when Derrick came back in, he was pretty awkward.This inevitably leads to the “he sucks; we need to trade him for a good shooting guard” talk that is as over-reactionary as it is contradictory. Again, most of this deserves its own post and will hopefully get one tomorrow or Wednesday. As Jon Krawczynski said to myself and Alan Horton on Twitter tonight, “Sorry, but that’s on Adelman. Can’t sit a guy for 2 1/2 quarters, then throw him back in there and expect him to roll. And I love what DC is doing. He’s earning those minutes. But no way DWill can find a rhythm the way he was used tonight.”I agree with this and I disagree with it at the same time. As a professional, Williams ultimately has to be ready to play whenever he’s called upon to take the court. He’s talented enough to get the job done, even if he is still extremely green. With that said, NBA players constantly talk about routine, set rotations, and show themselves to be creatures of habit. When your routine is all over the place, it does make it a lot harder to find that rhythm. Granted, he’s as responsible for that as Adelman, if not more. But this isn’t NBA2K13 where someone just grabs a controller and directs him. There are tons of variables in this equation.
So far, I’ve been very impressed with his defense this season and it looks like his rebounding is improved. But we’ll get deeper into that in the next two days.
One final note before I end this:
Jim Petersen tweeted me incredibly outlandish and flattering things during a broadcast tonight. Everybody can go kick rocks!