The Timberwolves’ free-throw shooting is occasionally mediocre and often terrible. Their three-point shooting, as has been well-documented in these very pages, is historically awful. So when you’re thinking about the team’s chances on a particular night it’s important to realize: the Wolves, in essence, begin nearly every game in a scoring hole. In order to have a chance to win, they have to make up for and exceed this almost pre-ordained deficit by surpassing their opponent in other phases of the game.
This, I think, is a useful way of analyzing Friday night’s loss to the Knicks. In a six-point loss, the Wolves made just one fewer field goal than New York. They grabbed two more offensive rebounds and went to the line seven more times, the latter of which suggests that despite the nearly identical field goal percentages, the Wolves actually did a better job of creating good scoring chances than did the Knicks. All of that looks pretty good, right? Well how about this: the Knicks made 16 of their twenty free-throws (80%) and the Wolves made 19 of their 27 (just 70.4%). And now the really bad news: the Knicks made a below-average eight out of their 26 threes. The Wolves? One for 13, which is 7.7% if you’re into math. The rough reality becomes apparent: when you shoot threes that badly, playing your opponent evenly is simply not good enough.
Here’s another way of looking at it. If you are up by, say, five with, like, 4:14 left in the game and Carmelo Anthony is on the other team and is starting to settle into a rhythm, you are probably going to need to score some points in order to win. Melo is a strange kind of superstar. Dudes like LeBron and Kobe, and even Durant and Derrick Rose have a certain physical charisma, a vibrance of movement that captures the eye even in their most nonchalant moments. Carmelo’s not quite like that; he doesn’t have quite the same bodily dynamism, doesn’t move with that sublime bounce in his step. But when he squares up in isolation or releases that shockingly quick pull-up jumper, it’s easy to see why he is the toughest one-on-one cover in basketball. The combination of a big man’s power and a guard’s silky quickness is impossible to guard and frankly stunning to behold.
Compounding the problem, of course, is that the Knicks are currently able to surround their superstar with shooters. And while you wouldn’t exactly say that Carmelo has Rubio-esque court vision, he’s certainly smart enough to know that dishing to a wide-open Steve Novak in the corner is a pretty good bet. Your best odds, then, are first to pressure him off the pick-and-roll, making him set up far from the basket or, better yet, give up the ball early in a possession. Failing that, you roll with your best big wing defender, hoping that he can force Carmelo into contested jumpers.
On Friday, that task fell to Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham. Both Williams and Cunningham have the strength and the desire to at least compete with Melo down low. Williams is a bit quicker, Cunningham savvier and more energetic. Both of them tried their honest best and both had moments of success. In the end, though neither of them were a match for Melo’s ridiculous arsenal. In Rick Adelman’s words: “I thought we overcommitted a couple of times when we had him in a tough spot. He picked his dribble up, he pump faked and we flew by him and he got to the rim….That’s when you’ve just got to keep him there and make him make shots over the top of you.”
Easier said then done, needless to say. You can feel a Carmelo Anthony hot streak gathering in the air like heavy weather. As the fourth quarter wound down and the Wolves’ lead dwindled, all the signs were there. Melo’s jumpers were falling; he was getting to the basket; thus, the need to score points of your own.
Refreshingly, this hadn’t been a huge problem for much of the game. Attempting to take advantage of their size and athleticism, the Knicks had been switching most screens all game. And thanks to Ricky Rubio’s newfound decisiveness and Rick Adelman’s playcalling, the Wolves had been able to take advantage of this tactic. The Wolves would set multiple screens, until they found the matchup they wanted–Tyson Chandler on Luke Ridnour fading to his favorite spot on the left wing, or Derrick Williams guarded by Raymond Felton on the block–and Rubio was aggressive enough to exploit those matchups before the defense had time to recover. Early in the game, Rubio was particularly adept at finding Nikola Pekovic rolling to the rim after Anthony had switched to him.
Despite the Wolves’ early success, the Knicks never really changed this tactic. And late in the game, when the Wolves desperately needed buckets, they had multiple opportunities to find Big Pek in a mismatch at the rim or on the block. And yet, after Pek checked in with eight minutes remaining in the fourth, he took exactly zero shots. The Wolves’ guards–Rubio, Shved, Barea and Ridnour all had a hand in this–were never able to deliver him the ball in good position on those crucial final possessions. Some of this is thanks to the natural drawbacks of having a big man as your best scorer: Late in games, when the refs swallow their whistles and defenses start to swarm, it becomes much harder to feed the post or cleanly roll a big man to the hoop.
But a large part of this is also a still-inexperienced team’s repeated inability to execute in the clutch. Whereas, for much of the game, Adelman’s craft, Rubio’s creativity, Williams’ athleticism and Ridnour’s shot-making had been enough to keep pace, late in the fourth quarter you could just see the Wolves’ start to wonder where the baskets would come from. There were missed free-throws. There were contested jumpers. There were hopeless drives into traffic. Melo did his business. The Knicks ended the game on a 15-4 run.