Timberwolves 84, Rockets 87: the great malaise

Benjamin Polk —  December 27, 2012 — 18 Comments

Its hard to feel something you don’t feel. Your family tries in vain to reinvest old holiday rituals with their primordial emotion. Your band struggles to recapture the magic of a song that once sounded vital. You show up to work and unsuccessfully attempt to force yourself to care. These things happen to us and they happen to basketball players. Part of a professional’s job is forcing the body to expend the effort and forcing the mind to focus even when, as is inevitable, the heart just isn’t in it.

Neither the Rockets nor the Timberwolves were particularly successful at this task on Wednesday night. The Rockets had, just a day earlier, spent massive quantities of energy in burying the Bulls in Chicago; the Wolves merely looked as if they had. Whatever the reason–homesickness maybe, or physical fatigue or too much butter in the mashed potatoes–both teams approached the greater portion of the game with a kind of glassy-eyed, morning-after ennui. Suffice it to say, the basketball on display was neither precise nor particularly spirited.

From the Wolves point of view, this malaise was both less comprehensible–having been off for the previous two days–and more disappointing. After all, from midway through the second quarter to midway through the third, the Wolves had put a 25-6 run on the flagging Rockets merely by playing reasonably competent basketball. And, from where we sat at a 60-46 Wolves lead with 7:43 to go in the third, it seemed like reasonable competence was all it would take to put things away.

But then things fell apart. The Wolves stopped rotating with purpose and intensity. They fell into their bad old habit of inattentive transition defense. Their half-court offense became imprecise. But most of all, they stopped hitting shots: for the next seven minutes of the third quarter, they hit just one out of 10 field goal attempts. These were open jumpers; these were point-blank layups; these were desperate threes; you’ve heard this all before. ¬†Suddenly, the Wolves were spent–grabbing shorts, wheezing like smokers–and the game was essentially tied.

The Wolves’ sluggish mein infected every element of their game, from defensive rotations to offensive execution, to jumpshooting. (There were, of course, exceptions to this. Dante Cunningham played with his usual energy and resolve. Derrick Williams attacked the glass with abandon.) Still, certain things were working for them. And for a while it seemed like these things might just carry the day.

Their prime advantage was in the matchup of Omer Asik and Kevin Love. For much of the first half, Asik had single-handedly derailed the Wolves’ pick-and-roll game by hedging on the ball handler, impeding the roll man and challenging penetrators at the rim. The Wolves countered this by going small. They forced Asik to cover Love at the five and initiated a series of ¬†pick-and-pops with Love and Alexey Shved. This served the dual purpose of freeing up driving lanes by drawing Asik away from the basket and of challenging the curly-locked Turk to defend Love on the perimeter.

The Wolves greatest success with this look came in the second quarter when Shved took advantage of Asik’s absence from the lane by taking the ball to the basket. Even when Shved didn’t score at the rim, the action put the Rockets on their heels, causing a flurry rotations and inevitably leaving someone with an open look. It would have worked a whole lot better, though, if Love could have managed to hit even one jumper.

After the first quarter, he took only six flat, jelly-legged shots, missed them all, and never scored. (It was a pretty rotten evening for Love in general. He coughed up five turnovers. He did fight for rebounds, but he looked slow and awkward on defense and struggled to get up and down the floor.) By the fourth quarter, Asik was sinking into the lane on that pick-and-pop, taking away the guards’ driving lanes and essentially granting the league’s reigning three-point shooting champ open looks on the perimeter. And because Love never took advantage of that space, the play lost its sting.

Making matters worse, Nikola Pekovic was suffering an illness that left him looking, and playing, like a wan, gray-green ghost of himself. Love and Pek–the Wolves’ two best scorers mind you–teamed up to hit four of their combined 21 field goals on the night. Neither scored in the second half. Now, I am less compelled than most by what you might call the Great Man Theory of professional basketball, in which a team must have a great clutch scorer in order to succeed and that in order to be a great scorer you must be a great clutch scorer etc, some more macho stuff, etc, etc, alpha dogs, etc. Ok, but now compare Love and Pek’s showing to that of the Rockets’ best player, one James Harden, who scored 17 points on six of nine shooting in the fourth quarter alone, and you begin to maybe get an idea of how the Wolves lost the game.

Four times in the game’s final two minutes, the Rockets lined up an Asik-Harden pick-and-roll. All four times, the Wolves’ guard (usually Alexey Shved) went over the screen, leaving Love to contain Harden’s penetration. All four times, Harden danced around Love like he (KL) was standing still. On one of those, Harden pulled up for a 15-footer, which he missed. On the other three, the beardo scampered to the hoop and finished like a pro.

Over that same stretch of time we saw: a layup by Andrei Kirilenko, neatly set up by Shved; two missed threes by Love; two missed threes by Shved; an awful turnover by J.J. Barea. As it happens, it really does help a team to have someone, anyone who can score in the fourth quarter. The Wolves’ used to have one of those. Let’s hope his spirit chooses to re-inhabit his body sometime soon.

 

Benjamin Polk

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18 responses to Timberwolves 84, Rockets 87: the great malaise

  1. Best put saying “anyone who can score.” I’ve tried twice now to not blame the last two losses on the Wolves specifically, rather it was the other team that did what it took to win.

  2. The KLove we see this year is not the same one who played with such fire and determination last year. The one who put up several 30-20 games. I understand having a broken hand makes it a little harder to shoot, but I don’t see the same fire either as last year. His eyes are not blazing with determination. His body language is more slumped. Was last year an exception? Was that his attempt to get others on the team to care, whereas this year he thinks he doesn’t have to be the same driving force because his teammates play harder? So far this year he hasn’t played like a franchise player. Look at Kobe. Last year I’d say Love had the same intensity and determination. This year he’s light years from that state of mind. I also hope his spirit returns soon.

  3. Really well written and appropriately simplified, Ben. This game felt a lot like that stretch of wins in mid-December when Love failed to show up but the Wolve’s defense and bench were enough to get the job done. Only this time we went cold at the wrong times and couldn’t close the door in the last five minutes. Luke had a few jumpers rim-out that I was so sure would put the game on ice.

    I’m hopeful that a healthy Pek will neutralize Asik in next month’s rematch, but we had no answer for him last night. Asik’s combination of size and footwork were really impressive. And the ball screens he set- Harden kept setting his man up perfectly for Asik to hit him every time. Lost art.

    In the conversation of who does or does not deserve 5 yr max contracts and the lable of being a franchise player, both Love and Harden made their respective GMs look pretty smart last night. I’m going to write it off to sample size and trust that Kevin will prove us wrong…my patience is wearing thin, though.

  4. Glen Taylor was right saying that Kevin Love isn’t a superstar. A superstar player leads his team to the playoffs which Love hasn’t.
    Last night vs Houston, I would rather have DWill on the court replacing Love in 4thQ. Love is terrible at defense.

  5. Its hard for any team to win when two of your players are a combined 6-24 shooting and turning the ball over. Ricky looks sluggish and out of sync with the offense since his first game when he looked like the same Ricky we saw last year. They need find an identity and Love needs to focus on defense and less crying to the refs while the ball is in play. Its getting really really old and Adelman needs to pull Kevin aside and tell him to grow up and play.

  6. I thought the game highlighted two things that consistently seem to plague the Wolves – (1) unlike the Rockets, Knicks, Clippers, Heat, Thunder, etc., the Wolves really lack a go-to guy that can take charge at the end of games, and in the NBA, that is problematic, and (2) the interior defense can be downright atrocious at times. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to watch the Rockets run the same play several times in a row and the Timberwolves being unable to adjust and stop it, except for when Harden decided to change it up and opt for the short J instead.

  7. pagingstanleyroberts December 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Shooters are going to have bad games. The big problem is that they didn’t adjust and go back to the sets that won them games when Love and Rubio were out. The play from Shved to AK and their OT sets vs. Dallas epitomized that style of offense, and they have to be disciplined enough to do that in games when shots aren’t falling. More importantly, they collected a bunch of fouls on the Rockets early in the 4th and failed to capitalize. This team’s offense runs on FT attempts, however they can get them, and those have to be actively sought in situations like the 4th.

  8. I am sure Zack Harper will be along any minute to tell you guys you’re all wrong about Love and how much we need him vs how dumb we are for thinking he is holding the team back.

    We have got to trade this bum before the rest of the league figures out all he did was put up numbers on a bad team and cashed it in for a big contract and it becomes more and more apparent why he is so POd about not getting that last year. It will be the last max contract he signs at this level of play.

  9. That’s a great point, Paging Stanley. Worth noting that the Rockets’ defense is kind of an inverse of the Wolves’ offense. They are inefficient and flawed but are great at not fouling. Its their best quality and that was bad news for the Wolves. Far North: you are wrong.

  10. Some real good insight all around. I will be tending to look to sweeping, general statements, rather than stats.The ball is round and bounces all over the place for a long time. If that is the case for you, then what attitude would be best to approach a plan? Not anything statistical?.

    Two things working against our success, yes both involve Love, I agree. I loathed his mojo last year, but no one could do anything about it, for various reasons. I see a force throughout the team that wishes for his demise, whatever that would mean: he would quit, run away, get hurt, just get lost. It is exaggerated, but that how force seems to expand. He will find it challenging to hit shots under those circumstances, if they are real like I see it. Do others see it, or is it just me? (Did he say he wished teammates were better??)

    The other thing has to do with the other team. I saw the same thing eventually happen with Bird. He is our most personally-hyped incompetent we have. Teams will go at him for two reasons, besides the fact that he is incompetent. There lies with him a focal point that helps galvanize the minds of five opponents, which is helpful. The second reason to go at him is to remind his teammates we will only be as good as this guy.

    No longer the leader of the team? He should be dealt. Wouldn’t Phoenix be funny?

    I can be so bold (God forgive me?) because I thought the first half of the Knicks games was the NBA of the Future.

  11. Very depressing game. I do not think the Rockets played well yet they beat the wolves on the second game of a back to back. Kevin McHale outcoached Adleman. Rubio looks lost and uncomfortable – I think him and barea are a bad pairing. Love started out well in the first quarter. I think the T-Wolves should have gone to him more on post ups then they did. Pek, Love, and Kirlenko all struggled finishing around the basket. I did not like the Wolves rotation. Adleman has to figure out more of a set rotation and stick to it I think and if some players have to sit on the bench so be it. Love is in a funk, but they need to go to him a lot more basically keep feeding him until he figures things out. Adleman is not putting him in a position to succeed. I would play Rubio with someone other then Barea. The wolves need to build Rubio’s confidence up to. They have to think of the future and build toward it instead of what they did last night.

  12. audreyandchuck, it’s just you.

  13. good !

  14. pagingstanleyroberts December 27, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    The idea that Adelman doesn’t have a set rotation is ludicrous. Most of his adjustments have been based on injuries; otherwise, a person could figure out within 2 minutes when each player was coming out or going in. The only exception is the 4th, when the best players to finish the game are on the court. They don’t have anyone to really sit on the bench, except Lou, who doesn’t deserve to be in the league much less on the court.

    Love’s problems are only based on his injury and his substandard conditioning. All of his advanced numbers except shooting are the same as they’ve been for the rest of his career. As for his defense, the team’s strategy and/or execution guarding 1-4 low sets where the ballhandler is trying to beat his guy off the dribble has been problematic all season. Harden’s scoring in the 4th is a strategy/execution problem, which Love is a part of but not solely responsible for. He should be in better shape, he should be more effective within the sets they relied on when he was out, and he shouldn’t force shots; that’s what matters. I couldn’t care less about his comments. MN sports fans’ #1 pastime, above even cheering for the teams, is complaining about players on those teams. Whether this team should be better than .500 is a good problem to have, based on their past.

  15. Yes, Ivan (not really singling you), that describes my point. Isn’t it adding unnecessary pressure to be that sure than it is to be, for example speculative?

    I read that you too have your reservations about Love. So, I go one step further and think he is now unlucky to have on ones team after that much losing.

    I predict he “reluctantly” gets dealt soon, in order to turn a corner. I think it is necessary that there is a break from the past at this crucial time. It seems written on the wall, and I’d say he sees it. Doesn’t he seem affected on the court, anyone? No Timberwolves need say it explicitly; it’ll just get done because that is what management do. Don’t you think players are better without him and the losing baggage? No? OK.

    I’m guessing, and I encourage anyone please guess what will happen next month, as I would be interested in knowing what everyone thought. Obviously, I wish there were more out-on-a-limb hypothesis on these sites. This is the “fun” part for me. Let’s get into psychological aspects of the game! Surely, players aren’t still concerned with its mechanics, let alone statistics on the back of their playingcard. Let’s move pieces around, like chess, in order to effect a particular theme. There are so many plays in so many games, it seems insane to get caught up in details like 30-20, for example. It did not work. I just want to get playoffs with these Russians!

    Yes, Ivan is right that I wouldn’t speak for others by chance. Believe me, I’m a second-guesser of my own perceptions, and probably will be always. It works for me as a strategy, no?

    So, the end. It’s the perfect time to move him I believe. I wouldn’t care if he were black, foreign, just tall and stable cause Pek needs help. We can get a lot for Love. And we play already OK without him! SELL.

  16. Yes, I have some reservations about Love’s play this season. The jabbing with the refs has always been there. The sluggish jogging back on D has always been there. It may bother me, but it doesn’t add to my reservations. Is it just conditioning? I don’t think so. With a broken hand, you can still work pretty rigorously on your conditioning. The fire isn’t there right now. He needs to regain that intensity on the court. I believe that his confidence isn’t where it needs to be due to his shooting woes and that affects his whole body language. With or without a 5 year contract, he needs to lead this team. He needs to find his ways of last season and show Taylor how wrong he was. Right now he’s proving Taylor right.

    Yes, we can probably get some nice pieces for him if we trade him, but I don’t want to trade him. I want to keep him and see him return to form where he can dominate a game and hit those buzzer beaters in 4th. I haven’t given up on him like it seems many people on here have.

    Now we’re back at .500. Should we follow Nets lead and fire Adelman? No, Rick needs to get into Love’s head and set it straight. Ricky getting more minutes will help in the long run. I think we have a good team. Best I’ve seen in many years and I have no desire to change any personnel. I like Pau and all, but to get him we would have to break up what we have and I rather see Pek and Love on this team.

  17. Reading audreyandchuck’s comments makes me feel drunk. No, a Love trade is not “written on the wall”. It is an “out-on-a-limb” hypothesis and would make more sense if you phrased it that way.

    Couldn’t agree more with Paging Stanley. Adleman is doing a really good job of establishing rotations for a roster that can’t seem to bring the same 9 healthy players to the arena for two games in a row.

    I can feel myself looking at Kevin’s play with too critical of an eye as of late. And each game he goes 3-14 from the field just makes it worse. The lack of conditioning is extremely frustrating to me, given it was a hand injury that kept him out. But it’s way too easy to take his 13.5 rbs/gm and all the little things he does for granted. And is it just me or has his complaining to the refs improved slightly over the last couple weeks? Soon the shots will drop, (hopefully) soon his defense will improve and soon we won’t have to debate proposterous trades.

    Really excited for Bease to come back to town on Saturday. #moreshotsthanpoints

  18. Hey, thank you so much Ivan and Karl for sharing!

    See now this is exciting. It would have been enough excitement to anticipate management moves. But to have differences with fellow observers is stimulating too. I relish the challenge in insight and prognostication as it were sport. (I know, I am full of it.)

    As a disclaimer once and for all: I can be guilty of projecting my wishes onto others. And I can be sortof immature when it comes to patience and regretting having made the latest bold move. Ye-haw.

    I’ve thought to add: when it comes to basketball, everything these guys do is on purpose. I give them absolutely no slack, and I imagine them to think of their interest and history with the same vocation as perfectly in their hands. When they really wanted to win, they were the winners throughout their life, and vice versa.

    He is out of shape at Christmas time for a reason. His mid-section keeps his upper and lower portions together as much as mine does, and I make under 20 big ones. I recognize how the two sections hardly talk to each other any more, they are embarrassed.

    He definitely has made a few bad turns since last year. Did he represent well in the
    Summer Games? Someone dissed him from Minnesota I imagine. And he’s a fighter, even should it be petty (like a referees opinion). Thing is, his nature is probably more a lover than a fighter. But he may feel compelled to have an edge. So he grows a stragley beard when the owner thought it wouldn’t be good PR. He comes to the season purposely out of shape, as his little joke or jab. Problem in this case was he never had a great body to begin with. He could shoot straight, had nerves of steel, but now he can’t back it up, and he’s being taken advantage of on the court.

    His response to recent short-comings? I will show up and you will pay me, this is a business issue between just me and the owner, and that man will lose. This is an entertainment industry, and one does not give away their leverage and toe the line. Seriously. Is he from a family in entertainment? He looks at a Timberwolves phenomenon and thinks it is not happening because people named Karl or Ivan like the logo or bulk ticket deals. These people are still loyal to the (fledgling) phenomenon because of the years he has invested, and you will not marginalize me and squeeze me out, or pay me off. I will take the hype I earned down with me. Not a plausible soap opera?

    With these guys who can stare someone dead, everything is OK, until it is not. I’ll make more drunken predictions: he’s done, stick a fork in it. The goal was to get paid so he and his loved ones could do their thing, period. Basketball can be easily considered bull-you know what. No contender would need his POV. Not putting any thought in to it, Phoenix areas like his type (I remember some atrocious mass fan reaction a few years back.) I heard no one comes see a hype they’ve marketed these days?) I’m no fan of Gortat, or as much as the Suns like him, but he defends I think. With all of our foreigners here, he wouldn’t say no.

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