Timberwolves 91, Cavaliers 73: A 'Lenk to the Past
First of all, his name is Alonzo Gee and he likes to dunk.
Little known fact: The Timberwolves were in Gee’s first NBA team. After going undrafted in the 2009 NBA Draft, Gee was signed by Minnesota on September 24, 2009, then his contract was put on waivers on October 6. It was a brief run that, sadly, did not contain any dunks.
But back to the matter at hand. No one would call this a pretty win, but it was a game in which the Wolves never trailed, and that’s encouraging. After games in which they’ve wilted against teams both superior and inferior, sometimes coming back and other times never climbing out of that hole, the Wolves hung tough even when Cleveland tied the game at 35-35 with 2:12 left in the second quarter. They went on a run to end the first half and kept the lead stable until about halfway through the fourth quarter when they started to push it out and Cleveland seemed to pack it in. It was a slow game, but that’s the way the Wolves have preferred to play this year; they came in under their season average of 93.2 points per game, which is 25th in the league.
This game marked the return of two notable things: Andrei Kirilenko and Love’s shooting stroke. Although Love still went 2-5 from downtown (and the team as a whole shot a discomfitingly regular 21% from 3), he went 10-19 overall and 14-18 at the free throw line to set a season high of 36 points to go along with 13 rebounds. And Kirilenko came within a steal and two blocks of a five-by-five with 8 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. A quick check of Basketball Reference reveals that Kirilenko has 3 of the last 4 five-by-fives. Maybe we should just start calling it the Kirilenko? I can’t overstate how much he’s going to mean to this team going forward as they readjust to Rubio upon his return.
But let’s talk about the niftiest play the Timberwolves ran last night. It’s one that I pointed out in my recap of their game against the Kings on November 27. Here’s the play from that game:
Kirilenko gets the ball just inside the arc and Love and Pekovic set up a staggered screen for Shved down low. As Shved curls around the double screen and in towards the basket, Love pops out past Pekovic to the 3-point line. In the above play, Love gets an open look, but it doesn’t go down.
It worked out a lot better on two plays in the fourth quarter last night. The first time, Kirilenko finds Love popping out to the 3-point line as he did against the Kings, but this time, he drills it:
The second time they run it—less than a minute later—Kirilenko hits Lee splitting between Zeller and Gibson for the easy lay-in.
What’s cool about the second one in particular is you can actually see the moment when Varejao realizes Lee is going to get the pass and it’s just a hair too late to stop it. Here he is with his attention still on Love, letting Zeller jump out to cover Love while he stays at home on Pekovic:
The only problem is that Lee is already through and Kirilenko is already delivering the ball. By the time Lee has gathered the ball, all Varejao can do is swipe at the air behind him:
This is a terrific example of a set that maximizes the abilities of the Timberwolves’ personnel. It puts the playmaking decision in the hands of Kirilenko, the player best able to make those decisions (at least until Rubio returns). It positions Pekovic low on the block and setting a screen. It allows Love to slip out to three-point range. All it asks of Lee or Shved is to dive to the hoop—if they get the ball, they just have to put it in because you can rely on Kirilenko to make the right pass. It even sets up good second options. As you can see here, Ridnour is position in the corner, so if his man collapses on Lee’s drive, Lee can kick it out for a solid 3-point attempt:
This set-up also puts Pekovic in excellent position for an offensive rebound if the SG’s shot misses. In the play where Love nails the 3, he sets a screen on Varejao:
But if there’s confusion and both Love’s man and Pek’s man run at Love, then he can step inside for the feed from Love after the pump fake.
Seeing a play like this work can make you understand why Adelman is so eager to run a system instead of just hitting pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. Once guys know where they’re supposed to be and you’ve got decision makers like Kirilenko and, eventually (maybe next Wednesday?), Rubio to make those decisions, the Wolves will have an offense that will not only be effective, but also beautiful.