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.