Timberwolves 92, Rockets 79: New Addition

Steve McPherson —  January 20, 2013 — 11 Comments

NewAddition

This Timberwolves win started with defense and it ended with a huge quarter from two guys whose guaranteed future with the team is only the next week and a half. Let’s start with the numbers. Minnesota’s defensive slide has been well-documented: according to NBA.com, in November they ranked 6th in the league in defensive efficiency; in December, 7th; in January, 27th. Over the five-game losing streak that began against the Thunder, they’ve lost by an average of 16 points and never broken 100. In short, they’ve been getting whacked, and a lot of it has to do with transition defense stemming from the basic fact that the injuries to this team and the resulting shift in roles has worn guys down.

But last night they held the Rockets’ three primary offensive options (James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parson) to just 10-of-40 shooting (25%), and they did it without a dramatic revamping of their defensive scheme, but with sheer effort. After the game, Porter said, “We talked about getting in [Harden’s] space and then sprinting back and building walls. He’s so good in open space and good at changing speeds to get to the rim, we just made sure he always saw multiple bodies so he wouldn’t get a straight line to the basket, make sure everything he took was contested or over somebody.”

It was interesting that Kirilenko used the exact same phrase when talking about their defense: “I think we’ve been a little more concentrated. We didn’t let them score a lot of transition points. Points in the paint, I think we prevented that—Harden, Lin they penetrate and get a lot of points off that. I think we did a pretty good job to build those walls right in front of them.”

The Wolves’ work on defense was excellent, but it didn’t hurt that the Rockets are going through their own rough patch. They came into last night’s game riding their own six-game losing streak, and they just looked disjointed. Basically, this game was like watching two guys in a bar go after the same girl, but one of the guys (the Timberwolves) haven’t had a date in like a year, whereas the other guy (the Rockets) had their girlfriend break up with them like last week. For the latter guy, it was just a week ago that he was snuggling and going out for breakfast and sharing in-jokes with someone and he wants that back so badly that he’s just all thumbs. But the former guy has been taking it on the chin for so long that he’s learned to live like that, and when he leasts expects it, he finds that he doesn’t have to be dazzling or spectacular—he just needs to keep it simple.

Working new additions Chris Johnson and Mickael Gelabale into the offense demanded simplicity, and it seemed to bring Ricky Rubio to life. “Today, I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to run this play; oh, no they don’t know that play,’” he explained after he game. “I was running through the plays in my head but I tried to keep it simple. [I]t’s basketball, you know, at the end of the day. So it’s just like pick-and-rolls and stuff … and I tried to keep it as simple as I can. And tried to, as a point guard, run a team and try to put everybody in the spot they had to be.”

Rubio finished with 7 points and 6 assists in 30 minutes of action (2 minutes more than his prescribed limit; Porter said, “I had Barea up—I think Ricky tried to stall so he could get to 30 minutes”) but Gelabale and Johnson were the surprise stat stuffers of the evening. When Kirilenko tipped in a missed Rubio shot with 1:35 remaining in the fourth, they were the first points not scored by the Wolves’ latest additions—they had racked up 21 straight points in the final frame on a mix of jumpers, free throws, and thunderous dunks by Chris Johnson. And because they’re always fun, here are all those dunks:

Johnson didn’t just put up highlight reel jams, though. As Porter noted, “They only had [Johnson] down for one block, but I thought he had more than one. He was just changing balls at the rim.” And during the beginning of his impressive fourth quarter there was this totally bananas sequence that had four players down on the floor at one point:

It was Johnson lurking along the baseline who finally got the ball and drew the foul on Parsons to put points on the board. The kind of energy displayed on that play is something the Wolves have been lacking. The challenge for the Wolves now is finding a way to hold onto the feeling this injection of new blood generated. Not to try to bring the party down, but the Wolves are very much a team feeding on emotion right now, and that’s a hard way to live. When Rubio came back, they won. When Porter had to step in for Adelman, they won. Now with the stripped down game demanded by two new players and the rush of energy they provided, they won.

“I think they did a tremendous job and they brought us a win,” said Kirilenko about the new guys. “We need that win. We need to get back on track.” Johnson and Gelabale aren’t the answer to the Wolves’ season, but for one night, at least, they felt like it, and that’s worth something.

Steve McPherson

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11 responses to Timberwolves 92, Rockets 79: New Addition

  1. New Addition: If it isn’t Love

    it’s Johnson and Gelabale!

    Fun game to watch although the Rockets missed a lot of close shots and three-pointers. Jeremy Lin looked lost on offense.

    Favorite part of the game: The wink from Gelabale to Rubio after a nice pass got him to the FT line.

  2. Here’s something I totally spaced on while writing the game wrap: The Wolves’ 3-pt shooting was still awful. They shot 3-for-14 (21.4%), which is even more atrocious than their season average which is already historically bad. This is interesting, because the common opinion is that this team needs more shooters to get better, but this game showed how far strong defense and energy can get you. Of course, more shooters would be good and again, they can’t keep living on emotion like this—they need a repeatable gameplan if they’re going to have sustained success at any point this season. But I think it says about how fundamentally solid this team can become even without addressing some of the most glaring issues.

  3. Someone has been overlooking these two guys because that shows alot of character and a strong mentality to sign a contract in the morning and then step in that night to not only be effective, but a big big difference maker. A combined 26 points on only 10 shots between the two is very effective basketball. One of the two will be on our roster for the remainder of the year. Johnson seems to be the better of the two with a nice smooth jumpshot.

  4. What I want to know is, how did Chris Johnson not make the team over Lou Amundson out of training camp?

  5. Steve McPherson January 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Nate: You have to remember that Amundson was supposed to be filling the role of third center and third or fourth power forward. He was looked at largely as a veteran presence who could bring energy off the bench and be a stabilizer in the locker room. Johnson looked great last night, but it’s also just one game and on a 10-day contract, he’s basically playing for his life right now. That can add a lot to a guy’s game in the short-term.

  6. Steve McPherson January 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Shawn: Are you sure you mean Johnson? He was 4-4 with 3 dunks and one semi-floater in the lane that hardly counted as a jumpshot.

  7. Chris Johnson definitely looks like the type of player that can mesh with the team. I like Greg Steimsma but (minus the San Antonio game) he’s looked like a total offensive liabilty this whole past month. Rubio’s game thrives on athletic finishers and spot up shooters and he has had much to work with all year. Johnson seemed to revitalize him more than anyone.

    To Steve, while I feel like the defense was more active last night, I don’t feel like giving the Wolves too much credit. The numbers are deceiving because the Rockets just A) Didn’t hit their shots and B) the different personnel naturally lends to better transition D. Point A)– Not saying it wasn’t a good strategy to let slashers like Harden, Beverly, and Lin throw up bricks from beyond the arc but Beverly, Lin, and Harden going 0-13 is a statistical outlier. If four of those shots go in like they average, then it becomes a much different game. Point B) part of the woes of the Wolves transition D the past 5 games has been the starting combo of Pek, Cunningham, and Kirilenko. All three have a tendency to hunt for putbacks and offensive boards. But substitute Pek and Cunningham for Williams and Steimsma and you have 4 guys getting back on D when a shot goes up rather than two. You can see it in the shift of numbers; yes they gave up less fast break points but they also grabbed 5 fewer offensive rebounds than normal and would’ve had even less if Kirilenko wouldn’t have had an outstanding hustle game.

  8. Not talking about anything particular from last night. I did some research when I seen the Wolves had signed the two. I appreciate good form in a players catch and release jump shot. Of course Jordan had the sweetest of all time. Sigh. I miss watching him.

  9. Obviously, it can’t be forgotten that the game was a statistical outlier. But, as a fan, I couldn’t care less about that. This team needs to win some statistical outliers to have any chance of staying in the playoff race. It also can’t be forgotten that, even in the NBA, on any given night, a team can win with effort and focus (or lose if they lack it). They obviously need to try to keep such effort and focus up without burning out their key players, but they can do some good things. They didn’t shoot that well, basically played a pickup hoops offense in the 4th, had some FT problems in the first 3 quarters, got dominated on the boards, and still beat a playoff contender while holding them under 80. I thought they had a chance because McHale-coached teams don’t expose opponent weaknesses that well, but it certainly was unexpected, and the crowd was behind them.

    On a side note, I never understood and still don’t understand giving Amundson a guaranteed, full-season deal over giving another player a Conroy-like deal. I understand the perception of him, and he’s obviously contributed to some good teams, but he’s not effective. Also, he’s not a good complement for any of their other frontcourt players, and they’re better off going with Cunningham or Williams at C instead of him.

    One thing Johnson highlighted: it’s nice someone who, when open close to the hoop, is likely to attempt and make a dunk. We’ve seen far too many missed open layups from tall players who shouldn’t struggle with that shot. Adelman’s teams, for some reason, rarely have bigs with hops.

    This is the type of game we were seeing early in the season. The margin for error will be little to none for many of their upcoming games, and while they don’t need to shoot 60% to win, not letting the opponent do what they want to do will take the type of work they had last night.

  10. If you don’t understand the reasoning for signing Amundson after reading Steve’s explanation in the comment above, you’re forgetting the conditions in which we signed him. We never expected injuries to pile up to the extent where we’d need to ask Lou to haul considerable minutes. This roster was reworked with emphasis on things like “energy off the bench” and “stablizing locker room personalities”, and Lou fills both of those roles well enough for a 3rd/4th string guy. If management had seen all these injuries coming, maybe they would have picked up Anthony Randolphs contract for another year. I for one, amd glad we didn’t go down that road. It will be interesting to see where the season leads Johnson and Gelebale.

  11. I read it before posting the first time and understand why they did it. I think their rationale was stupid. Roy was a huge injury risk; Rubio was coming off of surgery that kept him out of the first 6 weeks; Lee had injuries in his rookie season and over the summer; Pek had surgery during the summer; Stiemsma had to back out of Olympic team tryouts because of his recovery; Love had missed 10-plus games in 2 of his 4 seasons; Barea missed 25 games last season; and Kirilenko last played 70 games in 2008. They had to focus on worst-case scenarios and keep the end of their roster as open as possible by signing guys to unguaranteed deals (not guys like Randolph who get guaranteed deals).

    When I think of “energy off the bench,” it reminds me of one of John Wooden’s famous sayings: “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Cunningham and Barea are energy off the bench. Budinger was energy off the bench. Why? Because they do helpful things.

    As for “veteran leadership,” hmmm…Roy? Kirilenko? Ridnour? Barea? They had that covered. Also, why not get a veteran who can play a more needed position? This team can’t win without guards, so loading up on bigs makes little sense. They’ve played AK at guard during this stretch; my guess is they’d be better off having him as a smallball 4 and having someone else defend quick players.

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