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.