Did you happen to catch the shot of Ahmad Rashad and Michael “Air” Jordan wallowing away in MJ’s shadowy luxury suite? Here were greatest basketball player ever, captain of dynasties, phantasmagorically wealthy man and his best cigar buddy surveying the team he (MJ) owns and the players he attempted to screw to the wall just over a year ago–in what appeared to be wordless, abject boredom. Is this a product of Jordan’s legendarily psychotic vainglory gone to seed? Maybe the resentment inherent to graceless old age, the misery of being forced to watch young fellas many times your inferior playing the game you once dominated? Or maybe that’s just what it feels like to be the ruthlessly competitive owner of the NBA’s worst squad.
Because that’s what these Bobcats are. Coming into tonight’s game against the Wolves, they had lost 16 consecutive home games. They barely edge out the Wizards for the NBA’s worst record (and unlike the Wizards, have not won seven of their last 10 games). They are third worst in the league in offensive efficiency and are tied for last in defensive efficiency. This is a very bad team.
True to form, Charlotte’s early half-court offense was a mess of isolation sets and forced jumpers. Most importantly, they made the kinds of defensive mistakes–errors in communication, misreads, systemic breakdowns–that are common to bad young defenses (as we Wolves watchers know all too well). They would hedge screens and fail to contain the ballhandler; they would lose people on switches, leaving people like Greg Stiemsma wide-open under the basket; they would fail to rotate, or do so indecisively.
For a while, the Wolves were able to take advantage of these mistakes. And while its fairly easy to spot a white-blonde seven-foot teammate all alone under the basket, making outside shots, even uncontested ones, is a different story. The Wolves were doing that early on–they hit six of their first nine threes–racing out to an 18-point lead; things were going pretty well.
The Bobcats reacted to their early defensive afflictions by switching most ball screens, conceding the attendant size mismatches for the sake of simplicity and containing penetration. This turned out to be a solid tradeoff for Charlotte; they managed to disrupt the Wolves’ offensive flow without allowing the Wolves to consistently exploit those bad matchups.
As the game wore on, Steve’s very insightful point from yesterday’s post was repeatedly borne out. The Wolves simply did not have the skill to make Charlotte pay for those matchup decisions. Without Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, they don’t have a big man capable of creating his own shot down low against a defender of any size. Neither could the guards take decisive advantage of Charlotte’s big men on the perimeter. The great irony of NBA offense emerged again: without players skilled enough to exploit the momentary advantages that emerge in the half court, a team’s offense actually becomes more dependent on one-on-one play. When offenses stagnate and possessions break down, players are forced to frantically create shots using only their individual skills. We see this time and again in the Wolves offense. As the team offense fails to generate meaningful looks, responsibility devolves to players like Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea to manufacture something out of nothing. (And thus, I believe a measure of understanding is owed to J.J. Barea. His ball-stopping, clock-devouring habits can be infuriating. But his one-on-one skill is very often the offense’s only viable option.)
The other end of the floor posed its share of problems too. As with the Wolves in their current incarnation (that is to say, without Love and Pekovic), the Bobcats are a perimeter-oriented team that shoots poorly from the perimeter. The only possible way for them to beat you is if they are able to break down your defense and penetrate the paint. And that happens to be exactly what they did.
The Wolves’ small guards have been afflicted with matchup problems of their own in recent games–that Deron Williams/Joe Johnson backcourt was certainly not a pretty sight–but that was not the case tonight. Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions pose no particular size problems for Barea/Ridnour/Rubio et al. And yet the three of them combined to score a total of 66 points on 41 shots. Now, preventing penetration is not simply the task of the guards. Big men need to contain the dribble and challenge jumpers when they hedge the pick-and-roll–and the Wolves’ bigs failed fairly spectacularly at this task tonight. But more than anything else, Walker, Sessions and Gordon simply abused the Wolves’ guards off the dribble. They lived in the paint and at the free-throw line. They made easy floaters and open midrange jumpers. It was too easy.
Late in the fourth quarter, Terry Porter went small and began switching screens; this had the same disruptive effect on Charlotte’s offense as it had on Minnesota’s. But it was too late. By that point, the Wolves’ lead had evaporated and the ‘Cats had hope.
And so, as a Wolves fan, you might lament the injustice of the desperate game-winning Gerald Henderson three that capped the Wolves’ best, most intense defensive possession of the game–or the subsequent no-call on J.J. Barea’s attempt to put the Wolves back on top. And those things were, indeed, cosmically unjust. But the truth is that this game was an accurate representation of where the Wolves are right now: trading runs and going down to the wire with the league’s worst team; vulnerable to that team’s strengths; unable to consistently take advantage of its many weaknesses. You’d like to think that our Wolves should be a shoo-in to protect an 18-point lead against a team as bad as the Bobcats. Unfortunately, their current level of talent simply doesn’t justify that opinion.