So the Minnesota Timberwolves are a little shorthanded at the moment. They’ve churned their way through waves of fractured metacarpals, strained and torn knee ligaments, spasmed backs. They’ve cycled through backcourt combinations and shed multiple layers of wing players. They have descended so far into the black hole that Lazar Hayward’s illness takes real on-court significance.
It would probably be journalistic malpractice not to mention that Kevin Love and JJ Barea and Rick Adelman all missed Friday’s game in New Orleans. So there, I mentioned it. But fretting about such things, decrying our foul luck and muttering about what ought to have been, has become a truly futile, almost passe exercise, like complaining about congress or your stupid boss. At some point you just have to accept the fact that there certain aspects of reality are so asinine and unfair as to not warrant further mental anguish. And, really, the Wolves’ rotten luck has to be the least of these.
So I’ll try to go easy on the excuses, qualifiers and cosmic complaints here. But I will mention that, to agree with Jim Petersen and pace our own critiques, the Wolves really did miss JJ Barea. We’ve frequently maligned the way that Barea can short-circuit the Wolves’ offense with his over-dribbling and aggressive-to-a-fault style. But the truth is this: the team has no one else who can reliably penetrate the paint off the dribble, no one else who can reliably break down a defense, no one else (at least until Kevin Love scrambles out of purgatory) who can manufacture points when the offense is sputtering. Given the Wolves’ well-documented shooting issues and their more general struggle to find points, we have to conclude that the Wolves really need Barea on the floor, at least in certain moments. (Indeed, 82games.com tells us that the Wolves’ offense is three points better per 100 possessions when JJ is on the floor.)
None of this is much of an issue when, as it was in the first quarter of last night’s game, the team’s offense is humming they way it should be. They were tying the Hornets’ defense is knots with their high post corner action, moving the ball, making good use of Nikola Pekovic’s ability to move block to block and punish Robin Lopez in the low post. They were playing with beautiful continuity and movement; maybe most importantly, they were hitting shots. The clear high point of this was when, with 3:30 left in the first quarter, Luke Ridnour used a high Dante Cunningham screen to penetrate to the free-throw line, faked a jumper and dumped it down to a ducking-in Pekovic who delivered a touch pass to the rolling Cunningham, now wide open under the basket. It was beautiful; the Hornets’ defense was one step behind the entire way.
Combining their offensive success with energetic defense, the Wolves managed to build an early 18-point lead. But there were clouds on the horizon. Because of foul trouble, the Hornets’ Greivis Vasquez played only seven minutes in the first half. But it was clear throughout that first half that Luke Ridnour would be unable to guard him. Both he and Eric Gordon had an easy time penetrating the paint, especially when they were on the floor together putting pressure on the Wolves’ vulnerable perimeter defense at multiple points of attack.
And so, two things happened. The first is that the Hornets went to a 2-3 zone late in the second quarter in order to pack the paint, limit Pekovic’s effectiveness and force the Wolves’ to play outside in. This had the desired effect. (If I were an opposing coach, I would never hesitate to throw a zone at the Wolves. NBA teams rarely use zones for long stretches of the game because of their vulnerability to outside shooting and offensive rebounding. But Kevin Love is out and the Wolves can’t shoot from outside; zones allow defenses to collapse into the paint, the one area in which the Wolves are proficient offensively.) New Orleans’ defense was rejuvenated by its own success; the Wolves’ offense lost its continuity and was never the same thereafter. In the first half, the Wolves hit 18 out of 35 shots (51.4%); in the second half they hit just 13-34 (38.2%), and three makes came in the last minute when the game was out of reach and the Hornets had stopped defending.
The second problem was that, for much of the second half, the Wolves played the kind of tentative, befuddled defense that we were used to seeing under Kurt Rambis and Randy Wittman but that has blessedly become much more rare since Rick Adelman took over. Some of this was a structural problem. The Hornets bring two big men, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith, who excel in hitting perimeter jumpers off of pick-and-pops. As Kevin Love’s and Dante Cunningham’s outside shooting has shown us many times over, opposing big men often struggle to defend perimeter shooters in general, and the pick-and-pop action in particular. Ryan Anderson’s 3-4 first half three-point shooting was evidence enough of this.
But compounding this inherent problem was the fact that, once the tide started turning in New Orleans’ favor, the Wolves’ were indecisive and inattentive defensively. They communicated switches poorly. They neglected to pick up roll men and to hedge ballhandlers off of screens. They forgot (or attempted meekly) to box out. They got caught watching the ball, allowing cutters to reach the rim unimpeded. (Strangely, the normally attentive Andrei Kirilenko was guilty of these last two.)
So they struggled to stay in front of Gordon and Vasquez. They struggled to find Ryan Anderson on the perimeter. They struggled with the nuances of pick-and-roll coverage. This is how a defense allows 57.4% shooting in a half, as the Wolves did in the second. This is what turns a well-spaced Vasquez-Smith pick-and-pop into the unstoppable play that it was for the Hornets late in the fourth quarter.
With any luck at all, the nine-man roster will be a one-night-only phenomenon. Chances are, Dante Cunningham and Andrei Kirilenko will return to being the attentive conscientious defenders and reliable shooters that they normally are. But the Wolves are a terrible outside shooting team (they were 4-18 from three tonight, ftr) and, the late returns of Love and Budinger notwithstanding, they will likely remain so for the rest of the year. And they are undermanned; this also would seem to be the case for the foreseeable future.
In other words, you will see Stiemsma and Lou Amundson share the court again; you will see Lazar Hayward on the floor, shooting shots and guarding people like Kevin Durant (that actually happened against the Thunder on Wednesday); you will see more nauseating shooting performances. Get used to it, buddy.