In sharp contrast to their swing through Florida earlier in the week, the Timberwolves showed against the Thunder how everything can work when everyone is doing their job, in ways that are both quantifiable and unquantifiable. On the quantifiable end of things, you have the numbers from mainstays like Love (28 pts on 9-20 shooting, 11 rebs, 7 asts) and Pekovic (24 and 10 on 10-18 shooting), plus huge contributions from Shved (his first NBA double-double with 12 pts and 12 asts to go with 7 rebs) and Barea (18 pts—14 in the 4th—and 3-4 from deep).
What the straight numbers don’t show, though, is how those numbers came in chunks as the Thunder struggled to shut down what was working for the Timberwolves. Interestingly, the Wolves lost every quarter except the first, which they won 30-18. But as each avenue for scoring ran its course, another seemed to open up.
Early on, Love’s shooting stroke was sure and confident, and his 4-4 shooting in the first quarter—including 3-3 from distance—was what opened up the lane for Pekovic to do serious damage on pick and rolls and post shots. As Adelman pointed out after the game, “The way they were playing it was [that] they were worried about Kevin. They were worried about getting to him and Pek was open but you gotta give the guards credit: they really found him. They found him late: they didn’t go to him early, they found him at the basket.”
You can really see that here on a play from about halfway through the first quarter:
You can see that as Collison and Jackson jump out on Shved that Ibaka shows on Pek as Pek rolls into the paint. But Ibaka is also concerned about Love at the three-point line, and so the show is just that. Shved gets the ball to Pek right at the rim so he doesn’t even have to dribble.
Looking at the rest of Pekovic’s made baskets from the first half, you can see that he didn’t even do all his damage just on pick and rolls. In the first part of the clip below you can see him cut through the lane and take the pass from Love, and then after a couple of pretty pick and rolls with Shved, you can see him spin off Perkins and take the feed from Kirilenko.
This kind of action for Pekovic is much preferable to the straight pound-it-in-the-paint approach we often saw early in the season and from time to time since. Pek is most effective when he’s catching the ball on the move, either as he’s cutting across the paint to receive the entry pass or or as the roll man. His strength and size get multiplied by his momentum—like a car crash, the forces involved increase geometrically with speed, not arithmetically. It’s just simple physics.
On the opposite end of the size spectrum is Barea, a player I’ve given plenty of stick. But his fourth quarter tonight was a thing of beauty. Adelman was generous with his praise after the game: “JJ’s not afraid. The way they were defending us was switching all the pick and rolls and JJ did a good job of understanding [that]. The big guy was waiting for him on the other side and the small guy was dropping under Pek, he had nobody guarding him right behind the pick and he saw that three times in a row.”
Well, kind of. At the beginning of the fourth, the Thunder quickly closed the gap, turning a 76-69 game into a 76-75 game with a flurry of shots from Westbrook, Durant and Jackson. But then Barea got the switch out on Collison after an offensive rebound and dropped a long two near the top of the key.
Now Barea often takes too much time when he gets a mismatch like this for my taste, but here the time works in his favor. First of all, he’s putting Collison on a yo-yo, and you can see Barea working the big man back and forth until he’s back just far enough to not contest. Importantly, he also has three Wolves in or near the paint when the shot goes up, including Kirilenko, who has good position:
This started a charge that Barea largely led over the next five minutes that ended with the Wolves up 92-81 with 5:26 to go. Barea’s next shot of that run might, at first blush, look like he’s just hoisting up an ill-advised three, but there’s actually a flare screen set by Cunningham that knocks Jackson off of Barea enough for him to get a really good look at the basket.
But so far, we haven’t seen the kind of play Adelman describe. Barea’s next basket came in close after he turned down a Cunningham screen on the left wing and drove on Jackson, grabbing his own rebound and putting it back. His next three-point jumper does, however, demonstrate what Adelman was talking about:
Once Pek sets the screen, Barea dribbles left once and gets Ibaka on him but then crosses back to his right and pulls up. It’s a solid, smart play, but honestly, his next three is a real long shot that he had to take with only a couple second left on the shot clock following an Ibaka block:
The real highlight of that clip is the wave of three-point celebrations from the bench: Stiemsma, then Amundson, then Rubio. It was pretty entertaining to watch Barea clowning Stiemsma for his traditional celebration early on and then seeing the whole end of the bench get in on the act. According to Amundson after the game, Barea never got it right. “He’s uncoordinated,” he said. “He couldn’t get the leg and the arm going at the same time.” I guess we can give him a pass on his celebration problems so long as his coordination is working on his jumper.
Finally, in the unquantifiable column for this win, I have to put in a word about Kirilenko’s defense on Durant. Looking at his line, it looks like he had a pretty poor game: 3-10 shooting, 9 pts, and 6 personal fouls that sent him to the bench late in the fourth quarter. But throughout the game, he harassed Durant and kept him uncomfortable and frustrated. Sure, Durant got his 33 pts in a fairly efficient manner, but he was only 1-4 from distance.
“With those guys like Kevin Durant, Lebron, Kobe, it’s almost impossible to cut their scoring abilities,” he said after the game. “All you can do is break their percentage or make them work. And I think we did a pretty good job making him work for those points. He was shooting tremendously well tonight. Every time he got that little half step advantage, it was a guaranteed 100% shot.”
I thought the way he put that—”break their percentage”—was telling. You know those players are going to score, but you just try to make them do it under duress. As Kirilenko went on to explain, “You saw in the second half, I was trying in the half-court to deny him, to not let him get that ball easily. If you want to get it, go work for it. For those guys who are playing 40 minutes every game, it’s tough when he’s working and working and working to get that ball. If you let those guys start scoring easy shots and make those easy points, it’s going to be a long night. And we all know: I’ve been there, I’ve had 50 points scored on me and I don’t like that feeling.”
Now the Wolves are off to New York to face the Knicks and Kirilenko has yet another tough assignment—Carmelo Anthony. It will be another tough game, and this time on the road, but at least now they’ve been through the ringer against a top team and come out shining this season, and even without heroics from Rubio, who was mostly quiet this game. But this game showed that they don’t have to try and get everything right every time, just the next thing right each time.