Here’s a sight for you. If you had taken a peak down the Wolves’ bench in the fourth quarter of this rigorously un-lovely loss to the Clippers, you would have seen: Lou Amundson, Greg Stiemsma, Lazar Hayward, J.J. Barea, lots of empty seats. Larry Bird is not walking through that door.
Past Timberwolves teams have been dislike-able for a host of reasons. From last year’s grim-faced underachievers to the callow, talentless bunches of years past, there have always been reasons to distance your self from the awful things happening on the court. But, in their basic competence, in their plucky, Euro-inflected flair, and in their foreignness to the Wolves’ rancid culture, this team has been unprecedentedly appealing.
Which makes it all the more of a bummer to see them so completely threshed by misfortune that even home games against upper-echelon opponents have come to feel essentially un-winnable. Even before Nikola Pekovic and Alexey Shved hobbled off the floor, this game was pretty dark. Facing the single-minded, absurdly long Deandre Jordan, Pek was just 1-8 from the floor. Shved looked every bit the fatigued rookie, as he has for most of the past month. Dante Cunningham continued to awkwardly brick his signature jumper. Ricky Rubio continued to play as if he is recovering from a reconstructive knee surgery that kept him off the court for nearly a year. J.J. Barea continued to attempt yogic finger-rolls over multiple shot blockers. The Wolves hit 21.1% of their threes. They hit just 14 of their 35 shots in the paint (!!!). They whiffed on wide-open layups; they bricked dunks.
So yes, a bummer. Just weeks ago, the Wolves’ rallied to an inspiring, nationally televised home win against the Thunder. But tonight, the Clippers, without their superstar and team leader, played with the nonchalance of a team certain that their superior talent and depth would eventually roll over their opponent. (With the exception of one sequence of offensive rebounds, Eric Bledsoe showed half-asleep 8th-grader-level interest in this game.) And so it did. The Clips’ offense was arrhythmic and undisciplined, their defense solid but unremarkable. They turned the ball over and rarely got into the open court.
And yet, powered by Jamal Crawford’s poetic meanderings and the sheer caffeine-value of a gesticulating, facially expressing Ronny Turiaf (I have now seen a player go 5-5 from the floor and also airball a free-throw–thanks Ronny), the Clippers’ bench overwhelmed the Wolves. Not counting Ryan Hollins’ minute of garbage time, the subs averaged a +11.2 for the game.
It’s not that these Wolves haven’t been competitive. We didn’t see (and, for the most part, haven’t seen) the kind of dispirited, watch-checking efforts of years past. And we didn’t even see the kind of system-wide defensive breakdowns that Zach enumerated earlier today. Indeed, the Wolves managed to piece together stretches of really fine defensive basketball. In the second quarter, playing at their most frenetic, they forced the LA into a six-minute stretch in which they (the Clips) managed just two points and gave away four turnovers. And in the third, despite fielding a ridiculously small lineup, they used their aggressive 2-3 zone to hold the Clippers to 21 points on 31.3% shooting.
And yet, because the Wolves are so undermanned and are so lacking in offensive firepower, there was never the sense that they could muster either the sustained energy or the points to overcome the Clippers’ sheer depth. This year’s Wolves have pieced wins together with patchwork lineups before. They’ll probably find a way to do it again. But we’re into the heart of the schedule and the fatigue of a short bench and the long season is already setting in. I’m afraid things are going to be rough for a while.