Timberwolves 101, Wizards 114: Nobody Beats the Wiz

Steve McPherson —  January 26, 2013 — 4 Comments

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards

The numbers here tell a story that’s all too familiar: The Wolves shot 21% from three while the Wizards more than doubled that, shooting 47% from the arc and 58% overall. The Wolves put in a strong effort on the offensive boards, putting up 25 second chance points to the Wizards’ 11, but their defense was lackluster, their free throw shooting a woeful 61%. That really stings when they got to the line 33 times to Washington’s 17.

That lumpiness to the stats (great offensive rebounding coupled with subpar defense, getting to the line a lot while not making your free throws) would be easy to chalk up to injury, and it would be easy because it’s right. And this where we have to talk about the difference between “reasons” and “excuses.” This is something that’s come up time and again in talking about the Wolves and it’s not something that’s going to stop coming up. The players and coaches can say whatever they want about having to play for each other and play hard and finish games and not use injuries as an excuse. That’s because they’re in a position to directly affect the outcome of the game. When fans or the media talk about the injuries and their effect on the team, they’re talking about reasons, not excuses, because they cannot affect the outcome of the game. The law of gravity is not an excuse for not being able to fly, it’s the reason. And you or I can’t any more do anything about the law of gravity than we can about the Timberwolves’ injuries.

Furthermore, the players and the rest of the team say all that stuff about being aggressive and continuing to work for a whole host of reasons other than basketball reason, as David Stern might say. When Rubio says (as he did after their loss to the Nets), “We just have to want to win. Sometimes it seems like we don’t want to win,” we need to keep in mind that this is a 22 year old who’s been steeped in the culture of sports dealing with a plethora of issues and concerns. It’s easy to hear that and think it’s simply a matter of every guy down the roster wanting it 15% more and then everything will be all right. But Greg Stiemsma wanting to hit a 20-foot jumper isn’t going to make it happen. Rubio wanting his legs to be stronger isn’t going to make it happen. It’s not just some romantic failure of heart. Whether the team wants to acknowledge it or not, this team, with the players they’ve got available right now under Terry Porter until Adelman comes back, have problems that are more arithmetic that arrhythmical.

Looking at this game against the Wizards specifically, the Timberwolves are simply unable to disrupt another team’s defense. It’s common to hear the reverse of this—about how a team’s defense disrupts another team’s offense—but it’s just as important for a team’s offense to dent and misshape the other team’s defense, and not just on a possession by possession basis, but in a way that builds and builds in a chain reaction.

In a TrueHoop TV interview, David Thorpe related a story about Hubie Brown from when he was a coach. At a practice, he asked his players what the purpose of setting a screen was, and they gave all kinds of answers before Brown said simply, “To make the defense think.” When you’ve got different kinds of offensive threats, you’re making the defense choose every time you run plays. And every time you get them wrongfooted, you can take advantage—and not just on that play, but on the next play and the next.

Consider an optimal kind of Wolves lineup that would involve Rubio, Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. For the purposes of this example, they are all healthy (I know: hard to imagine). If Pekovic sets a screen for Rubio at the top of the key, they’re instantly forcing the defense to decide how to react. If Pekovic gets a step as he rolls, the defenders have to make a decision about helping off of Love, who can hit the three, or Kirilenko, who’s always a threat to sneak in along the baseline. In this scenario, Shved is also waiting on the perimeter to either shoot the three or even set up a secondary pick-and-pop with Love. As these options play out, the defense has to keep making decisions, and every time they make a decision, they could be wrong.

This kind of thing just isn’t happening for the Wolves right now on offense. Their opponents’ defenders simply have to play reasonable man defense. They don’t have to close out hard on the perimeter because the Wolves are shooting abysmally, nor do they have to collapse the paint because there’s no one to make them pay down low. You can see this in a couple early possessions from the game last night. Here’s the Wolves’ first offensive possession:

It begins semi-interestingly with the two guards (Rubio and Ridnour) heading into the post while Williams and Stiemsma set up on the wings and Kirilenko controls the ball up top. This is a basic floppy set with the wrinkle that Kirilenko is playing the role of the point guard.

FloppyA

Ridnour runs along the baseline past a weak screen by Rubio and then curls out behind a Stiemsma screen. Rubio releases and runs out past Williams, where Kirilenko gets him the ball.

FloppyB

But of course the problem is that Bradley Beal (who’s switched onto Rubio) is more than happy to go under the screen because Rubio’s not a threat to even look at that midrange shot. Once Beal meets him on the other side, Rubio gives it up to Derrick Williams and this turns into a Williams iso on the wing, which doesn’t really scare anyone.

FloppyC

Rubio is the nearest pass to Williams and he’s not a long-range threat. When Williams actually breaks Nene down with the dribble, Beal is free to come help because of this. He’s more than welcome to leave all this space between him and Rubio.

FloppyD

Williams bobbles the ball and the result of the play is a Williams stepback three with every Wizard defender in good position against his man. But the crazy thing is that Stiemsma actually manages to get a hand on the rebound and tip it to Ridnour. Stiemsma immediately calls for the ball but doesn’t get it.

ReboundA

You think if that were Pek on John Wall he’d get the ball? Probably. Instead, Ridnour heads into the paint, which is clogged up with more Wizards than a Harry Potter convention, and gives it up to Williams, who also heads for the paint, which is still clogged. He drops it to Stiemsma in the corner. You think if that were Love he’d take that shot over Beal? Probably. Instead, he swings it to Kirilenko, who takes a long two, the least effective shot in the game. To Kirilenko’s credit, it’s an open shot and he makes it.

But what has that whole possession done to establish the offense for the Wolves? Williams took a bad stepback three that the Wizards will always live with, Washington’s attempt to start a fast break led to Stiemsma barely tipping the ball to Ridnour, and a jumbled possession led to a long, open two by Kirilenko that the Wizards would still live with.

Let’s look at another early offensive Wolves possession:

Once Rubio gets the ball on the wing, Stiemsma moves across the key to set a screen, which Rubio moves away from, whereupon he gets doubled by Okafor and Wall. This sets up Nene to have to defend the paint from two guys, Stiemsma and Williams.

RubioDouble

Fortunately, for Nene, that’s not so tough. Stiemsma gets the ball at the elbow and is open. This is a shot he’s been taking, but it’s not a very good one. So Williams cuts across the paint, catches the pass from Stiemsma, and has his shot troubled by Nene, who has at least three inches on him. Sadly, Kirilenko is making a nice baseline cut while this is happening:

WilliamsCut

It’s easy enough to judge decision-making well after the fact, but it seems like if Williams had backed off instead of cutting into the paint this could have been a wide-open lay-in for Kirilenko. But that also misses a deeper point: it’s not that the Wolves couldn’t make better decisions on any given offensive possession. The first play above shows that they often can. But they could make every correct decision and it still wouldn’t be forcing the defense to adapt to their game. They just don’t have the personnel for it.

Stiemsma is not a threat to post-up as Pekovic would be, nor a threat to make a wide-open jumper, like Love would be. And even in the case of a guy like Cunningham who has been making wide-open jumpers, I think if you’re the opposing team, you’re fine with that. With no threat in the paint and no perimeter threat, what the Wolves kept getting were long twos from Ridnour and Cunningham. Their best offensive weapon right now, J.J. Barea, can get his own shot and even make the right pass when he sees it, but likewise, his approach to the game doesn’t open up the offense for other players. He plays that role of spark off the bench so well, but with the rest of the team so thin offensively, that spark rarely builds into a sustainable fire.

This inability to make the Wizards react to their offense in turn affects the Wolves on defense. Certainly, the overall effort on the defensive end seemed to be lacking, but the fact that the Wizards defense could more or less maintain their shape during Wolves’ possessions meant that it wasn’t hard for them to get back and set up their own offense.

It’s generally agreed that a strong defensive effort can form the foundation for a good offensive effort, but it can go the other way as well. The key is that these different elements need to feed into each other, need to develop, to move, to build in a series of reactions. That’s just not happening for the Wolves right now. They seem mired and static, unable to get going in any direction at all.

Wait, didn’t I write about this weeks ago when I talked about the horse latitudes? I guess that’s the thing about them: we’re still there. Let’s just cut to Seinfeld.

Steve McPherson

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4 responses to Timberwolves 101, Wizards 114: Nobody Beats the Wiz

  1. Sadly I was at this game last night. I took my kids. I know the Wolves are undermanned and they have limited offensive options. I can’t tell you the disappointment I had in the Wolves performance. I sat near the floor and the lack of energy was evident. I have a few observations:

    Last night was a pretty sorry defensive effort. I mean the Wizards are not a top team. I know there’s not one guard on the Wolves that can stay between Wall and the basket, in fact Ricky looked like a revolving door, but the slow rotations led to dunks and layups aplenty. The Wolves weren’t getting to shooters. It was sad.

    Offensive rebounds mean nothing if the follow attempts are weak. At least three times (and probably many more) I saw weak attempts at the rim and missed gimmees that should have been solid dunks. D-Will in particular brings the ball down for some mid-airi pumps to try to draw contact, when he should already be in the chest on NeNe getting an and 1. He wasn’t alone, Cunningham and Kirelinko missed easy layups.

    Free throw shooting. We all know there’s no excuse for this. The Wolves need to contend any way they can right now. Making free throws is part of that.

    This team is not only not winning, but they aren’t fun to watch. I paid more money than I should have to see at least some energy, athleticism, and effort. I saw none of that. It could have been a winnable game, as it was it was an embarrassment.

  2. We have too many limiited players to win against a disciplined Wizzard. These players have bright spots, but not made to do everything. If ones plus/minus is negative, they’re better off not helping. So we will always lose a bit of advantage with a Rubio, a Love, a Pek, a Steisma, a Luke, a Shrved, and other new and old bench players, you know which ones.

    For comparison, look at Washington’s Crawford? Hunched over already to not give an inch. Says nothing, has no reaction to getting scored on. Really has a complete game, and coming off the bench. Where’s his weak skill? Against an opponent with a limitation, it’s a matter of time Crawford wins. Washington is full of these players, not “role” players, who can also shoot, which should be a requisite before entering this league.

    Last night, I would’ve to death beat AK, Williams, the Hobbit guy, the other mid-range shooting big man. To death, never taken them out, in other words. Just played four guys against five, so that no one else was making mistakes.

    So that is today’s prediction: these four play down the stretch when it counts. (they kinda do anyway, and that is because Porter know the talent too.)
    Lately, I was right about Rubbio
    wrong about Steisma.

  3. I was at the game last night as well. I sat right behind the T-Wolves bench and one thing I noticed was how upset Ricky was that they were not playing well. It is not about a lack of effort with these guys, you could see that with all the offensive rebounds that they were getting. I disagree that the Wizards torrid shooting percentage solely cause by the Timberwolves bad defense. Yes there were a few defensive breakdowns but most of shots the Wiz were making were with a hand in their face. And I don’t know what game NoahB was watching but I felt that Ricky was playing great defense on John Wall

    I don’t really put any stock into the way the team is playing right now. I think they have by far the worst active roster in the league at this moment. But that’s what is going to happen when you are missing three starters and 5 guys that would have playing 30-40 minutes a game for you at the beginning of the season. You can’t be playing two guys on ten day contracts for 20+ minutes a night and expect to be competitive. Guys like Stiemsma, Cunningham, and Ridnour are terrific role players but they should not be playing 30 minutes a night. And when you are not in a position to yank Barea if he is not feeling it because you don’t have enough players, he is a massive liability to your team.

    Imagine if the Spurs lost had lost Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green for an extended period of time. Not even Gregg Popovich could keep that team a float for long. And we have just been talking about players who aren’t there. This doesn’t even mention the fact that Ricky Rubio, who is their only truly great player on the floor right now, seems to only be playing at about 60% right now. And the fact that they are missing Rick Adelman who is exponentially better as a coach than Terry Porter. The way Porter works the rotations is just dumb. I also hate it when they run sets that take Rubio off the ball for extended periods of time. Porter does this with frequency and it is terrible offense. What is the point of running Rubio off screens when he cannot shoot the ball at all? If he is not on the ball he very ineffective on the court.

    An example that I saw of this last night of the lack of talent that we have right now. There were a couple times where Rubio and Smith were trying to run a pick and Roll up to while everyone else stood around the outside. Now if you had Love(shooting threes like last year), Budinger, and Ridnour standing on the perimeter that is a scary 2005 Suns esque offensive set that I believe would score tons of points. But when they ran it last night, 4 Wizards had their feet in the paint because there were no offensive threats on the outside.

    A side note to audreyandchuck. I live in the D.C. area and so I see Wizards games from time to time and Jordan Crawford is NOT good. He is like a version of J.J. Barea with no basketball I.Q. and is 5 times as much of a ball hog. When he is hitting his shots he is great, but for every time he makes an amazing shot there will be 5 more times that you will be pulling your hair out because he did something incredibly stupid. He is fine in is roll on their team but if you put him on the Timberwolves they would have to play him too many minutes and you would hate him. The Timberwolves have role players too but they are playing starters minutes right now because we are missing SIX!!! let me repeat SIX!!!!!!! players.

    Expecting this team to be anything more than a hastily thrown together pool of under qualified players who aren’t going to win many games is unrealistic.

    P.S. it’s not all bad news, I think when Shved and Pek come back this team will be down right mediocre as apossed to the dreadful they have been for the past couple of games.

  4. Sorry about the experience Noah and the kids. I wonder if you read this, you would comment about having decided to go. Personally, I never do, and I live in the sticks. But I see those who do from the TV. It looks more civil than, say football, in that people don’t stand in front of people who chose to sit, yes? And basketball people, if I may generalize, have to be somewhat sophisticated, if they have some years to them. The game, the players, and that which goes into the game is special, which is not saying much I know.

    I would never pay much, why do you? I’d be afraid of exactly what happened with you in D.C. Some games are not very intense. That would be strange indeed to pay for.

    And I’m not one to cheer, or laugh heartily, or really care for much noise at all. Can your experience be a serious appreciation? What is it like to go to a game?

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