It’s strange to listen to coaches and players and announcers attempt to make sense of the Timberwolves’ current situation. Over and over we hear testaments to the team’s professionalism and resolve, evocations of the stoic warrior ethos: we keep playing; we play with who we have; we all sacrifice more; someone new has to step up. And from their perspectives, this makes sense. After all, even with a lineup as decimated as this, what else are you going to do? The games are on the schedule. You have to play them. The only alternative is a kind of numb, Anthony Randolphian apathy, which, while probably justified by the circumstances, only makes things more painful.
But the hard fact of the matter is that the Wolves–particularly now that they are without J.J. Barea and Andrei Kirilenko–are so undermanned, are stretched so thin at every position that their chances of beating competent NBA teams are awfully remote. Despite the stoic rhetoric, you could see the heft of this realization weighing on the players’ faces at the end of this game. Deep inside, they know: When they play their guts out against good teams, they lose by less than ten points. When they are truly mismatched, or when they are not quite at their best, they get hammered. At certain moments the absurdity of it all seeps through the cracks. What is happening here? Where is Kevin Love and why is Mickael Gelabale getting serious minutes for an NBA team? Why are we even doing this? That’s despair talking. And–get this–we’re not even to the All-Star break.
Ok, good, that’s out of my system. Let’s move on. On Friday night, we discussed the inherent disadvantage posed by the Wolves’ terrible three-point shooting. Today, the team faced an opponent almost (but not quite) as anemic from distance as they are. And so there was an inkling of hope that the scales might be somewhat balanced, that the Wolves might have an opportunity to play on even footing. (See, the spirit never despairs for long; there’s always hope!) Of course, this discounts some fundamental differences between the two teams. First, while the Wolves persist in shooting just over 22% of their field goals from beyond the arc, the Grizzlies recognize their weakness and take only 16.6% of their shots from deep.
Second, unlike the Wolves at this stage of the season, the Grizzlies can really punish people defensively. Their primary perimeter defenders, Mike Conley and Tony Allen, are voracious ball-hawks and the Grizzlies are among the best in the league at generating turnovers. In the first half of this game, Allen and Conley made a point of disrupting the dribble handoff and corner actions that the Wolves have used to good effect over the past few games. Sometimes they merely muddied the Wolves’ offensive execution; other times they were able to create easy open floor points off of Wolves’ turnovers.
But Memphis wasn’t simply running off of turnovers. Their 16 first-half fast break points were as much a result of the Wolves’ inability to finish at the rim as of the Griz’s sticky fingers. Despite being almost entirely dependent on inside scoring, the Wolves are actually in the bottom third of the league in paint field goal percentage (57.8%). (On the bright side, they are very good at getting to the line. On the not-bright side, they are, as we know, appallingly inconsistent at hitting free-throws. Their seven first-half free-throw misses are, unfortunately, no outlier.) Anyone who has watched this team consistently can attest to the aggravating frequency of blown layups and bricked dunks.
In the first half on Sunday the Wolves hit just five of their 11 shots inside of five feet. And the Grizzlies took these misses–and the floor imbalance they create–as a prime opportunity to run the Wolves off the floor. As Wolves’ assistant Bill Bayno pointed out to Jim Petersen at halftime, much of the blame for this inefficiency inside can actually be placed back on that terrible three-point shooting. Teams swarm Nikola Pekovic without compunction, fretting not a bit about the possibility of a kickout to an open shooter. Try this sometime: when the ball is in Pek’s hands or when a Wolves’ guard is penetrating the paint, pause your TV. Chances are, you’ll see four opposing defenders with at least one foot in the lane. Its hard to do work in the face of those odds.
But despite all of this (and because Memphis is still one of the least efficient offensive teams in the league), the Wolves were still within striking distance at halftime. That changed soon enough. One of the unfortunate consequences of the Wolves lack of perimeter size and manpower is the necessity of minutes for Mickael Gelabale. Because despite Rick Adelman’s frankly bewildering comments to the contrary, Gelabale is a listless, unaware defender.
Let me take you through the Grizzlies’ first three half-court possessions. First: Tayshaun Prince runs to the left block and then pops out to the elbow. That was the extent of the action; no picks are set, no devastating cuts are made. And yet Gelabale, watching the ball all the way, completely loses sight of Prince. When Prince pops to the elbow, Gelabale first begins to close out on an imaginary corner shooter, then runs in a circle (not kidding) before finally catching sight of Prince who has, by now, drained a perfectly wide-open 15-footer.
Next: Prince sets up in the right corner. Conley begins to drive right, Gelabale leaves Prince to offer some tepid help on the drive. Conley, of course, kicks to the now-wide-open Prince. Gelabale, still tepid, casually attempts to contest the shot. Prince hits the open three.
Finally: Prince sets up in the right corner again. Gelabale is again mystified by the ball and again loses sight of Prince. Prince cuts to the basket for an easy layup. Throw a Tony Allen steal and layup into that mix and the Griz were suddenly up by 19. And that was it.