There should be pitchforks and torches headed toward #42 at the Target Center right now.
After “spouting off” in a national column that he assumed would include many of the positive things he allegedly said about the team, Kevin Love had a horrific night of basketball. The 3-of-17 from the field doesn’t really even begin to show the struggles Love had in this game against the Denver Nuggets. He got the shots you’d want him to get: spot-up jumpers, half hooks six feet from the basket against poor post defenders, basically everything he’s supposed to be good at.
The ball awkwardly came off his finger tips, often coming up short or looking like he was shooting the ball off of his wrist. His touch wasn’t there and he didn’t really know how to make up for it. He heard heckles from fans, although it was nothing to attempt to really write about. He was neutral about the things that were said to him, not giving in to prodding questions hoping for a sound byte.
You could argue that Love made up for his poor game on the boards. After all, he did have 14 of them with five coming on the offensive end. But then you look at his defense for much of the first half and how he did little to stop Kenneth Faried and the rest of the Nuggets from shredding the Wolves in the paint. It wasn’t just his fault. Rotations were bad all around and there seemed to be a bit of rust or a slow step or just poor schematics for shutting off the paint from Denver’s cutters. Love certainly didn’t do much to alleviate the attack on the rim by his opponents.
The thing is… there isn’t any controversy from this bad game following a bad day of press. Mainly because Nikola Pekovic, JJ Barea, Dante Cunningham, Andrei Kirilenko, and Luke Ridnour wouldn’t allow there to be controversy. And that’s the fun thing about this Wolves team right now. They’re actually good enough to get past this stuff.
They had a couple things working in their favor. 1) They were coming off of four days of rest, which may have caused a bit of rust at first but it gave them fresh legs. 2) The Nuggets have spent the majority of this season on the road. This was their 17th road game of the season (Minnesota has played 19 games total) and the end of a five-game road trip. It makes sense that Denver didn’t quite have a 48-minute effort to give Wednesday night.
But that’s life in the NBA. The Wolves just kicked off a tough stretch of six games in nine nights and will have a trying stretch of basketball the rest of the month. Everybody goes through ups and downs of the NBA schedule and the Wolves are learning not to let those teams on the down parts of the grind off the hook.
Pek was the star of this game, even if the clouds of the Love comments were collecting overhead. You can look at the 22 points and 11 rebounds from Pekovic and marvel at his production. He was dominant on the offensive boards and went back to putting his assigned defenders back into the meat grinder that is his post game. He set up on the left block, dislodged the defender as he turned over his left shoulder, and buried jump hooks into the hoop. He came across the lane and hit his sweeping hook, and instead of bringing the ball down like he’s been doing, he kept it high and out of range for wandering helping hands.
But where Pek really starred in this game was defense in the second half. What used to drive me crazy two years ago when people would try to tell me that Darko was a good defender because he was blocking a lot of shots was he wasn’t a good defender at all. During that season, Darko was consistently late on defensive rotations. He couldn’t defend the pick-and-roll to save his life and he put poor effort into sliding over from the weak side. The thing about Darko that season was he guessed correctly in the post and around the rim a little over two times per game.
That’s not defense; that’s hitting on a 14 when the dealer is showing a face card. Sure, you might pull a seven but you’re probably going to end up having to pretend you’re still sitting down with your friends at the table until the waitress comes back with another “free drink.”
For much of this season, and especially last night, Pekovic has been rotating and playing defense without blocking a lot of shots. Pek had two blocks last night, pushing his season total to 16 in 17 games. The great thing about him is he’s not playing defense with his hands; he’s playing defense with his feet, like you’re supposed to do.
In the first half, the Nuggets were living at the rim. In the second half, they still scored points inside but a lot of it was stuff they had to work for. Pek was a big reason for that. His lateral movements from side-to-side have been spectacular. He’s making plays defensively you wouldn’t have imagined him making last season. It could be a better understanding of the NBA game or the defensive system. Maybe it’s the dropped weight and lighter feet. Whatever the reason is, Pekovic is acting as an anchor right now, even though he’s not blocking shots.
Sometimes getting in the way to muck things up is the best way to defend. And with the way the Wolves rebound the ball, it’s a lot easier to finish off defensive possessions when you get in the way and then secure an errant shot.
It helps set a tone for everybody else to fall into their roles; it doesn’t matter that your best player is missing shots.
I’d say that Love and Shved had bad games for the Wolves last night and that was it. Everybody else gave incredibly productive minutes when they were on the floor. Kirilenko continues to be absurdly opportunistic on defense and Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea look to have new life in how they’re playing. This team is probably getting Ricky Rubio back on Saturday and that will begin another adjustment period.
But there is a light at the end of this tunnel right now and it’s looking pretty bright.