The Wolves, as we had sensed all season long and as Zach meticulously charted earlier today, have been a monumentally poor three-point shooting team this season. Poor enough to be mentioned along the worst three point shooting teams of the post-Rockets era; poor enough to evoke the memory of Nikoloz Tskitishvili. But though the phenomenon was all too real, you had to have the feeling that it couldn’t last. Chase Budinger would return; Kevin Love would find his stroke; the market would self-correct (as it always does, right?). It just seemed statistically improbable that the insane specter of competent NBA players bricking open jumper after open jumper could sustain itself over the course of an entire season.
Likewise, though, we should not delude ourselves into believing that Wolves’ transcendent shooting display in Philly will become their new standard. 13-25 from behind the stripe is simply not something you’re going to see every day. Instead, as Rick Adelman has been reminding us all season, in both cases–hot or hopelessly cold–we should be examining the kinds of shots the Wolves are taking and the precision and creativity with which they create those shots.
This blowout win against the Sixers was mostly encouraging on both counts. The first half was probably their most impressive stretch of offensive basketball this year. The Wolves’ starters showed great execution and patience in in the half court, cycling through their options on each possession, reversing the ball, forcing the Sixers into overcommitting on helps and rotations and taking the open shots when they materialized. Josh Howard looked like an energetic, sweet-shooting young man. Malcolm Lee never missed. It was great.
But it wasn’t until the reserves showed up that the Wolves really dropped the hammer. I wrote over the weekend about the J.J Barea paradox. When he’s at his worst, Barea plays both too fast and too slow; his movements are frantic and hurried but he also holds the ball too long, over-dribbling and stagnating the offense. At his best, as he was tonight, he is both more decisive–quicker to make decisions, more purposeful in his attack–and more patient. He pushed the pace, as he always does, scoring points in transition and pressuring the defense in the early half court. But he did so with a composure that was lacking from the second half of Friday night’s game against Milwaukee.
Two second quarter assists to Derrick Williams illustrate this nicely. On the first, Barea pushed tempo off of a Jason Richardson three-point miss. The Sixers had four players back but had yet to match up in their half court defense. Barea exploited their momentary confusion by driving the baseline and drawing three defenders before firing a pass from under the basket to a wide-open Williams on the wing. Two minutes later, Barea broke down Jrue Holliday on the perimeter and penetrated the paint, causing the Sixers’ defense to collapse. Williams’ defender left him to help on the drive; Williams rotated into the space vacated by Barea behind the three-point line; Barea calmly spun and delivered a perfect pass; Williams nailed the three. (For the record, Williams again made good use of his brief time on the floor. He competed for rebounds and looked poised in hitting three out of his five field goals.)
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One of the Wolves’ great concerns coming into this game was whether they would be able to contain the Sixers’ dribble penetration. There just didn’t seem to be a combination of Wolves’ perimeter defenders who could guard Jrue Holliday and Jason Richardson. Both Sixers had solid games (J-Rich was 6-10 from the field, Holliday had nine assists) but they didn’t shred the Wolves’ guards the way we feared they might. Rick Adelman chose to start Malcolm Lee and Luke Ridnour, sticking Lee on the quicker Holliday and putting Ridnour in the familiar position of defending a much bigger two-guard.
Now, Sixers coach Doug Collins must know that Ridnour has been struggling to move laterally, to contain the ball and negotiate screens. But rather than exploiting this weakness by putting Richardson into the pick-and-roll, Collins, mesmerized by the siren song of the size mismatch, asked Richardson to post-up. This is an understandable urge, but Ridnour competed manfully in the post. He denied J-Rich the ball and generally frustrated the bigger fella with his energy and quick hands. Richardson scored some points in transition and off of offensive rebounds, but it was the Wolves’ guards who hit threes, dropped dimes, did damage in the paint. The four of them (J.J., Ridnour, Lee and Alexey Shved) combined to hit 18 of their 30 shots and dish out 19 assists. Certainly not how I would have predicted it all to turn out.
Now then. The Wolves have defended better than anybody could have expected. It looks like they just might be returning to jump-shooting normalcy. They are .500. Anyone else excited to see what happens when Kevin Love finds his legs, when Andrei Kirilenko returns, when Ricky Rubio finally steps on the floor?