Timberwolves 95, Bucks 85: the disease and the cure
Kevin Love was laughing when he walked into the locker room following this unpretty win. He was laughing because he knew that, in past years, games like this–shots not falling, players injured and ailing–would have ended another uninspired, disheartening loss. Neither team was particularly elegant; neither team shot the ball well; the game was arrhythmic and undistinguished. Love himself, ghostly and wan after two wretched days of stomach distress, was struggling mightily just to run the length of the court. And yet, the Wolves, through a combination of spirited defense and timely playmaking, managed to eke it out. Love reflected for a moment on the passion and resolve shown by his new teammates: “I love this team,” he said. That’s great news.
|Kevin Love, PF 30 MIN | 5-19 FG | 4-7 FT | 14 REB | 0 AST | 15 PTS | +14Love was a shadow of himself offensively. His illness had sapped the lift out of his jumper; everything he threw at the basket–threes, free throws, even layups–came up short. Still, he managed to compete on defense and on the glass, which is remarkable, given how close to barfing he was throughout. On a night he could easily have spent watching movies in his pajamas, he hedged screens effectively, helped hard on penetration, took charges, battled for rebounds. Made me a little queasy just watching it.|
|Josh Howard, SF 24 MIN | 3-8 FG | 2-2 FT | 4 REB | 2 AST | 8 PTS | +2Another fairly nondescript game from Josh Howard. I will say this: Howard is playing harder and with more emotional investment than I’ve seen him do in years. It might be wishful thinking, I still hold out some hope that those skills and that touch will return.|
|Nikola Pekovic, C 36 MIN | 5-12 FG | 4-6 FT | 16 REB | 1 AST | 14 PTS | +8Pekovic dominated Samuel Dalembert, as he loves to do, in his 12-point first quarter. But when the long and lean Larry Sanders entered the game, Pek started to struggle. Although Pek was able to use his considerable strength advantage to push Sanders around, he never did find a way around those long arms. But, like Love, Pekovic didn’t let his second-half offensive struggles prevent him from defending and rebounding with serious abandon.|
|Jose Juan Barea, PG 31 MIN | 6-10 FG | 2-2 FT | 1 REB | 5 AST | 15 PTS | +1Early on, Barea seemed in control of his game. He saw the floor well (which he does not always do), delivered some nifty interior passes and made sound decisions in the pick-and-roll. But as the game wore on he got up to his old tricks: dribbling into trouble, over-penetrating, playing too fast. Defensively, his game was just as mixed. There were times when his pressuring ball defense gave Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis problems; there were times when his aggressiveness gave them openings to blow past him.|
|Luke Ridnour, PG 36 MIN | 6-13 FG | 3-4 FT | 4 REB | 2 AST | 16 PTS | +10Ridnour’s numbers seem okay, don’t they? He managed to hit his spot-up shots and a few of his pick-and-roll jumpers to boot, which contributed to his solid shooting stats. But don’t be fooled; he had a really bad night. He struggled to create any offense off the dribble. And I don’t believe I can recall him ever looking worse on defense. He couldn’t stay in front of Monta Ellis and he couldn’t negotiate screens effectively. There are rumors that Ridnour’s back is bothering him; considering how stiffly he is moving, that wouldn’t surprise me in the least.|
|Dante Cunningham, PF 24 MIN | 2-9 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 4 PTS | +3Once again, Cunningham’s energy was a major boon for the Wolves. He found himself in some unfamiliar spots offensively–driving the ball to the hoop, shooting contested jumpers–but his defensive ferocity and his hunger for loose balls kept the team afloat during their rough third quarter. It’s easy to understand why Cunningham is eating up Derrick Williams’ minutes at the four.|
|Derrick Williams, PF 15 MIN | 2-4 FG | 2-4 FT | 10 REB | 0 AST | 7 PTS | -2Another strange mixed bag from Williams. He rebounded with real energy, which is good; he struggled to close the gap on shooters, which is not so good. Most curiously, he failed to recognize that, when being guarded by a smaller player, he really ought to use that size and strength of his to power his way to the hoop.|
|Greg Stiemsma, C 11 MIN | 0-3 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 PTS | +4Nothing much to see here. Stiemsma still can’t do much offensively, still does his part defensively, still struggles to see playing time when Adelman goes small.|
|Alexey Shved, PG 32 MIN | 5-9 FG | 2-2 FT | 3 REB | 5 AST | 16 PTS | +10Shved was the Wolves’ best player one important reason they managed to win the game. He was the only guard who consistently created scoring chances for himself and his teammates. And, amazingly given his rep as a defensive softie, he proved to be far superior to either Barea or Ridnour at staying in front of Monta Ellis. Also, he took, and hit, some pretty ballsy shots.|
Four Things We Saw
- Another note on the absurd swagger of Alexei Shved, the scrawniest Timberwolf. Here’s an incomplete list of some stuff he did in the game’s last three minutes. Off a high screen-and-roll he dribbles to his right and lobbed a rainbow of a skip pass over everybody to Luke Ridnour who hit the wide open jumper. He was wide open because nobody in the arena besides Shved knew he was standing there. Two possessions later, he tries the exact same thing again and throws the ball away. One possession after that, with the shot clock running down, he very calmly nails a 29-foot three that seals the game. Skinny, slope-shouldered white kids with braces simply do not do that where I come from.
- Shved’s gutsy fourth-quarter scoring was thrilling and all, but with Love and Pekovic combining to hit one out of their 17 combined second-half shots, the Wolves’ defense was the truly decisive factor in the game. In the first half, Jennings and Ellis slashed into the paint mostly unimpeded; considering their recent run of hot shooting and the Wolves poor record for defending the perimeter, things were not looking good. Two factors turned the tide. First, Shved entered the game and immediately used his length to impede Ellis’ driving angles and contest his shots. What’s more, although Shved sometimes struggled to negotiate screens, he recovered to attack the shooter with more energy and purpose than either Ridnour or Barea have managed to muster.Second thing. In what has been a focus of the Wolves’ defensive strategies in recent weeks, Love, Pekovic, Stiemsma and Cunningham began to do a much better job of hedging on pick-and-rolls, preventing Jennings and Ellis from turning the corner with speed, giving the primary defender time to recover and the rest of the defense an extra second to rotate into position. By the second half, the Bucks were reduced to a series of long, contested two-point jumpers, the lowest efficiency shot in basketball and were well on their way to a 36% shooting night.
- The Wolves’ ridiculous spate of injury and illness permanent flux has forced Rick Adelman into some rather tortured lineups. The first of these was a pairing of Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams with a center. These were Williams’ first minutes of the season at small forward; as I mentioned above, he struggled to find his way, both within the offense and in the more mobile, perimeter-oriented world of wing defense. This combination was a +2 on the night, but was a part of the Wolves’ run of hurried, ineffectual third-quarter offense.The second was a three-guard array of Shved, Ridnour and Barea that Adelman used late in the fourth. And although one would think that some, ah, ball movement issues might arise out of this alignment, Shved’s late game takeover made the issue moot.
- I know that Monta Ellis is a terribly inefficient scorer. I know that he dribbles too much and takes way too many long, contested jumpers. I know he doesn’t play much defense. But I really cannot help loving the guy. I don’t think there’s a player in the league who more perfectly combines quickness and grace around the basket. He moves at impossible speeds, but with exquisite balance. He changes direction in mid-dribble, and in mid-air, while maintaining perfect equipoise. He shot 8-22 on Friday and just about every minute of it was beautiful.