There’s a kind of weird, inherent contradiction in writing about sports. Because here I am, preparing to build something out of words about a game played by people who don’t use words to illuminate, but rather to sometimes obfuscate, sometimes motivate, and almost always for ulterior motives. I don’t mean that athletes are dumb—far from it, actually. The clichés they often speak in are tools as surely as the pick and roll is a tool. I simply mean that I’m always striving to use words to carve away the noise from the game, to find some skein of sense—or at the very least, a clearer perspective—that can build a resonance for myself and, hopefully, whoever reads this, while athletes and coaches are packing together words for themselves, for their team, for the public in multi-layered and often contradictory ways.
Let’s take returning head coach Rick Adelman before the game, talking about the Timberwolves’ fundamental shortcomings: “The biggest thing is: What do you do at the end of the game to win the game? Most teams have a go-to play, a go-to guy they’re pretty comfortable with. You lose Lexey, you lose Pek for a period of time, and from what I saw, we were struggling to figure out what we were going to do at the end of the game. There are other teams that have turned things around and there’s no reason we can’t.”
First of all, for selfish reasons, it’s great to have Adelman back. Assistant coach Terry Porter cracked some good jokes—like when he was asked after a win what was a good amount of minutes for Kirilenko to play and he looked down at the stat sheet and said, “I would say 42; 42 looks good”—but the way Porter talked about the team made it clear that he was only holding a place. It was all about stepping up, about playing hard. And while Adelman wields some of the same sportstalk tropes, it’s also clear that he’s got a bigger game in mind, that he’s looking past the trenches and the game in front of him to some kind of longer road.
What he said there before the game is right: without Love, without Rubio at full-strength, there’s nothing to fall back on when the other team makes that decision at the end of the game to take everything away. There’s a Chris Whitley song I’ve always loved called “Dirt Floor” whose opening lines are: “There’s a dirt floor underneath here / to receive us when changes fail,” and that’s what the Wolves lack right now in close games; instead of finding that solidity somewhere underneath everything, they just keep falling through the Earth. You can make arguments about the appropriateness of a stretch 4 as your go-to guy, or a point guard with shaky shooting, but as options, each would be an improvement over throwing Barea out there and hoping he spits fire instead of blowing himself up.
Where the language gets sticky, though, is in the whole “there’s no reason we can’t” part of what he said. Adelman and every player have different things to say about how that turnaround can happen and what stands in their way.
After the loss, Adelman said, “it comes down to the same thing: we can’t hang our heads if things start going the other direction. We’ve gotta finish plays, at the basket especially. But I thought the guys played hard, we got some people back, we’re just gonna keep at it.” So the team needs to play harder, but they played hard. Each thing in isolation makes sense here: in the third quarter—following a bizarre, topsy-turvy second quarter that saw Matt Barnes ejected for losing his entire damn mind for no reason I can perceive and multiple technical fouls—the Timberwolves came out flat and fell behind badly. But instead of packing it in, they came back to keep it close before falling short, largely due, in the end, to Los Angeles’ size. So they need to play harder where they didn’t play hard, and then play hard where they played hard. It seems like the prescription is just to play hard.
But in addition to playing harder, the Wolves also have to be tougher. “We have to be tougher at the end of the games,” said Rubio in the locker room afterwards. “We want to win, but we have to show it. Teams are playing aggressive and they want to win, too, so we have to not sit back. We have to push them.”
On the surface, this can sound like more of the same, but I think there’s actually a subtle difference here. Playing hard means exerting energy in a direction, along a certain trajectory. In the NBA, the season is long, and the games are long. For all the rhetoric about giving it 110% at all times, teams like it a lot better when they can build a big lead based on hard play and then hold the other team at bay. The latter is more what playing tough is about: bears play hard, turtles play tough. The Wolves need to push teams, but they also need to be able to take a punch. Oh and play hard.
But in his postgame comments, Adelman gave a hint into yet another element the team needs to develop. “It just seems like they start getting a little bit down and they try to do too much themselves and not as a team,” he said. “We have to play as a team at both ends and you have to trust your teammates.”
So in the running tally, they have to play hard, play tough, and also trust each other. This is starting to sound like a Des’ree song. In essence, all this team needs to do to win is to exert straight line energy in the right spots, exert continuous, general energy, and have trust and faith in each other while they still lack a primary go-to option. Seems simple enough. My head is starting to hurt.
That storm of words and ways forward was, fortunately, dissipated a bit once most everyone had left the locker room, leaving only Nikola Pekovic, clad in shorts and a Captain America T-shirt, reluctant to get going to an ice bath.
Sure, he talked about playing hard: “If you just keep playing hard like we were playing tonight … I’ve said it many times before: Even if you lose the game, sometimes you play good—you don’t score a few shots, some little things happen. But still if you play hard like we played tonight, I think we can do some things. We just need to keep playing hard.”
But he also talked about things you can’t control, admitted that the team was simply subject to the dice of the universe. “We’re just missing something,” he said. “We were just missing some little luck like in many games before. Like last game [against the Bobcats]. I think when we start winning games and we start turning around this thing, then we’re gonna get that luck.”
It might sound confusing, but there was something strangely comforting in Pek’s confidence. There are things this team needs to do to get better. But then there are also things beyond their control, like luck and time. Take Pekovic’s terrifying new bear tattoo, which got its season debut last night, unleashed at last from below the arm sleeve he’d been wearing to cover it up. Its unveiling wasn’t any calculated intimidation factor, though: the head trainer simply forgot the sleeve. Heading for his ice bath, he bellowed, “Put in the newspaper: Gregg Farnam forget my sleeve.”