Timberwolves 97, Blazers 102: Fear and trembling
Here’s Rick Adelman lamenting the Wolves’ effort against Portland last night: “I just hope this game taught our guys a lesson, because for the first three quarters we hung our heads, we didn’t make shots, we didn’t compete like we have to compete.” On the face of things, even through the first three quarters, this game appeared relatively even. Both teams shot poorly overall, the Blazers just a few percentage points better than the Wolves (indeed the Wolves made one more field goal than Portland on the game). The Wolves out-rebounded the Blazers by a significant margin and played solid on-the-ball defense. Free throws were roughly even; turnovers were even.
But then consider: the Blazers were playing their fourth road game in five nights and coming off a bruising win in Memphis the night before. The Wolves’ burst of fourth quarter energy was ultimately unsustainable: its hard to play such frenetic defense for 48 minutes and also have the legs to make shots on the other end, as the Wolves proved in the game’s last minute. But it pointed to an advantage in energy and stamina that the Wolves–with a day’s rest and the home crowd on their side–ought to have had all game long. Under the circumstances, simply matching Portland’s level of effort was not nearly enough.
If you watched the game, you are aware that there is one particular statistical category in which the Blazers held a commanding advantage, and that said advantage was decisive. The Wolves, as we know, are an historically bad three-point shooting team. They hit five of their 16 three-point attempts during this game, which is actually a few ticks above their league-worst 29.5% success rate. Portland, on the other hand, shot the living hell out of the ball. Wesley Matthews hit five of seven; Nic Batum hit five of six; Damian Lillard sunk three of five; Luke Babbit, bringer of chalupas, drained two of three. (Quick question: as a Wolves’ fan, would you rather have the last two years of injured Martell Webster or Luke Babbitt and his 37.5% three-point shooting right now?)
Anyone curious how Portland built the twenty-point lead that necessitated all of that frantic fourth-quarter scrambling need only examine this stat: after three quarters, the Blazers had hit 16 of 24 threes; the Wolves had hit one of nine.
To be sure, the Blazers, and Matthews in particular, hit some truly ridiculous deep, well-contested shots. But their run of unconscious perimeter shooting began, as it often does, with a string of wide-open first-half threes. This was a product of the Wolves’ simply not executing their defensive game plan. They were meant to stay at home on weak side three-point shooters when Portland penetrated the paint. Instead, the Wolves’ weak side defenders over-helped, sagging into the paint when Portland got the ball inside. The Blazers’ weak side shooters were wide open all half and all it took was a simple ball reversal or drive-and-kick to find them. We’ve said it all before: one of the surest ways to lose NBA games is to shoot poorly from three and allow your opponent to shoot well. Done and done.
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This raises a question that has been lingering all season but becomes suddenly more urgent now that we know that Kevin Love will be gone for some time: How will the Wolves possibly score points? Well, first of all, they will have to redouble their focus on executing Rick Adelman’s offensive schemes. It means that people like J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved (who contributed mightily to the Wolves’ poor shooting with his 1-11 performance) and Luke Ridnour will simply have to find a way to make shots consistently. It means that Derrick Williams will have to build upon his recent improvement. It means that we will have to weather lineups like the Lou Amundson/Greg Stiemsma/Lazar Hayward/Barea/Williams abomination we saw through much of the last night’s third quarter–and the dull, stagnant offense they will inevitably bring.
But maybe their most important effort will be a bit more spiritual. This new group is becoming assimilated into what are, for us, the familiar themes and tropes of Wolvesianism. There are the endless injuries, the streams of bad luck and disappointment. There is playing from behind against deeper, more talented opponents (opponents who, for instance, do not deploy lineups featuring Lou Amundson and Lazar Hayward). There is struggling against gravity to create makeable looks. If they cannot weather these things, if they hang their heads and sink into themselves, if they slouch into their tendencies for shapeless one-on-one basketball (looking at you J.J), if they become careless and disheartened, if, in other words, they cannot stave off despair, they will lose and lose a lot. We know all too well what that looks like. It is awful.