Timberwolves 94, Spurs 104: We all walk the long road

Steve McPherson —  February 7, 2013 — 11 Comments

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A pair of white and blue Nike Hyperdunks lie in front of Greg Stiemsma’s ice-wrapped legs in the Timberwolves’ locker room. The tongue is branded with a nickname: B. ROY in all caps. But this isn’t some handmade tribute; these shoes were made by Nike for Roy.

“He’s got a ton of them,” explains Stiemsma, nodding his head towards the locker where Roy hasn’t been since November 9 when he played his fifth game as a member of the Timberwolves and likely his last game as a pro. Roy isn’t using them, so he passed them along.

Another pair of the shoes stands in front of Nikola Pekovic’s locker, one of them knocked to the side and the B. ROY on each tongue blacked out with Sharpie. As he dresses, he answers questions. Are these Brandon’s shoes? “Yup.” You put the marker over them? “Yup.” His clipped responses carry some kind of weight, but it’s hard to tell just what.
Shoes are a frequent topic of discussion in the locker room: appreciation for J.J. Barea’s bright red kicks, questions from Derrick Williams about what kind of boots he should get. But the players are reluctant to talk much about these Hyperdunks, scrounged from a fallen brother-in-arms on this long campaign beset by so many losses, both to other teams and to injury.

It’s not difficult to see what felled the Timberwolves in this game against the Spurs, and it’s not all that different from what’s happened many times before. There was no logey start, no need for a furious comeback, though. Instead, the Wolves hung tough for a long time, withstanding 31 points from Tony Parker and a barrage of 3s from Danny Green, who went 8-for-12 from the arc. Even without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs were going to play tough, and Adelman said as much before the game, explaining how what Parker, Duncan and Ginobili do for the Spurs goes well beyond their on-court contributions.

“Those guys have a real effect on the other guys because there isn’t any messing around: they’re going to play the game their way,” he said. “The young guys learn that and they find a way. I think that’s what [Gregg Popovich] does: he finds a way to give a guy a spot and show him what it takes for him to help the team. It doesn’t have to be the hero effort, it just has to be a consistent effort. That’s what makes them so good.”

You can see it most clearly in Parker himself, who came into the league as a raw 19 year old, a late first-round pick with a shaky jumper. Within Popovich’s system, he’s grown into an All-Star, a Finals MVP, and a player who’s often in the conversation for league MVP. He still doesn’t look like he should be able to get to the rim like he does, but there he is, slithering through traffic not just with aggression and speed but with change of pace and slickness, like his body is coated in beurre blanc.

But Parker’s success hasn’t just grown from his own development as a player. It’s also rooted in the culture of the Spurs, which Adelman alluded to. As the team shifted away from Duncan, it shifted towards Parker’s skills and Popovich opened the offense up, adjusting the team to a faster tempo on the fly. The solid groundwork established over years of success is what makes that possible—a kind of stability that this season’s Timberwolves can only dream of.

At the beginning of the season, it wasn’t entirely clear what the starting lineup—the backbone of the 2012-13 Timberwolves—was going to be. If Brandon Roy’s knees had held up, he likely would have been the starting shooting guard. They were waiting for the return of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, but they would obviously be part of the squad that would start and finish games. Had Alexey Shved not been pressed into service so quickly by Roy’s absence, he might have stayed on the bench longer, but it’s become clear by this point that the best balance of developing the Wolves’ future and giving them a shot to win now would mean starting Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.

That lineup has played five minutes together this season.

It gets worse. According to NBA.com, the league’s most-used lineup is the Pacers’ starting lineup of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert. They’ve played 795 minutes together this season. Second and third on that list are the starters for the Blazers and the Thunder, who have played 764 and 756 minutes together respectively.

The Timberwolves top five most-used lineups have totalled 589 minutes this season, as shown in the chart here:

020713_Lineups

What should stand out is that three of the players that appear in these most-used lineups (Kevin Love, Malcolm Lee and Brandon Roy) are out, two of them for the season. Their fourth most-used lineup includes a player who hasn’t played since early November. Left with the second and fifth most-used lineups as current options, we can see they’ve posted an average net rating of almost -10 (or -7.8 weighted roughly for minutes).

By way of contrast, the top five most-used lineups for the Spurs (who actually spread their minutes out more or less by choice in much the same way the Wolves have been forced to by injury) have an average net rating of +10.

His knees still bandaged in ice, those shoes willed to him by Roy still in front of him, I ask Stiemsma if they learn things from playing an opponent like the Spurs, if they can see something in them on the court that shows them a way forward. “I would hope so,” he says. “It all comes down to execution. They got a couple of big baskets late. That’s what we need to do, that’s what the winners do, that’s what the top teams in the league do. When they have so many different weapons, somebody’s gonna make a play at the end.”

That someone was Danny Green, and you can find the hinge of the game in his play from 7:20 to 4:07 left in the fourth quarter. After the Wolves went up 79-77 on a jumper by Mickael Gelabale, Green drilled a 3, his sixth of the night. Shved missed a jumper and Green made a layup after rebounding a Kawhi Leonard miss. Shved missed a 3, then Barea missed a 3. The Spurs called a timeout and the lineups were shifted, but it didn’t matter: Green drilled another 3 before Rubio finally came through with a layup. The Spurs response? Green’s final 3-pointer of the night, putting the Spurs up 88-81. The Wolves never drew closer than 5 again.

And Danny Green is a guy who was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Stiemsma says the Spurs have so many weapons, it’s like jealously eyeing a guy’s 2 x 4 with a nail through it. Green’s a weapon because the Spurs made him one. Are the guys who were out there carrying the load for the Spurs last night—guys like Green, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard (who had a double-double) and Nando de Colo (who had 6 assists in 13 minutes)—so demonstrably different from guys like Dante Cunningham, Stiemsma, Shved and Luke Ridnour? They’ve all shown themselves capable of having big nights, but the shifting responsibilities incurred by injury mean they have to do it again and again.

The challenge is that there’s a long road between where the Wolves are now and where the Spurs are, and right now it’s littered with bodies. Over the last few weeks, the way the Wolves players and coaches talk about the team has become increasingly littered with wall-building words about stepping up, playing hard, trusting each other. They’re girding themselves for a tough slog through the rest of the season, hoping it builds them instead of breaks them, taking their fallen comrades’ shoes for support, for warmth.

Steve McPherson

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11 responses to Timberwolves 94, Spurs 104: We all walk the long road

  1. I understand about the need for continuity and how much injuries have hurt this team and all that, but at what point do you have to say that maybe this just isn’t a very good Wolves team? No Love and Kirilenko obviously hurt, and yes Rubio is still working his way back into the game, but your point about Danny Green shows to me that maybe the supporting cast is not as good as we’d like to think. It’s not just the loss to the Spurs, it’s 15 of 17, many against teams that had injuries to key players as well. I worry that this team is using the injuries as a crutch to justify the losses without looking what needs to be done to improve as a team for next year when hopefully they are healthy. I just hate that at this point in every season I get indifferent to the losses because I want their lottery chances and draft pick (which thankfully they have this year) to improve.

  2. Forgive the Big Bang Theory/Physics analogy here:

    Yes it is fair to say that perhaps this wasn’t the 50+win roster we had hoped for. There is evidence to support that Rubio would have likely been a shell of himself and Shved was not ready for big minutes and beyond Bud and a very ricketty BRoy our wing situation was ill prepared for the rigors of an 82 game season.

    It is also fair to say that it was and we were robbed of that season by Twins Like injury patterns. No team can compete when you remove it’s best player from the majority of the season, remove thier best wing for nearly the entirety and your 2nd unit basically becomes your 1st unit.

    However – it isn’t until we “open the box” – in this case visiting an alternate reality where we had average missed time due to injury with our roster – that we could conclusively say if this roster was a 50+ win team or not.

    We can fairly think of this roster as both a well built playoff team and a team with too many unproven parts to win 50 – but until the technology exists to gaze an alternate reality where we have just average amounts of missed games due to player injury, I believe this is a mystery that will remain unsolved.

    Schroedinger’s Season if you will.

  3. As a Spurs fan for more than 20 years, I’ve noticed a few things. In the Robinson years, despite being pretty good, they never had continuity. A new coach every 1.5 years meant a new system and a player carousel. That made building the team nearly impossible. Small market teams can’t usually buy one, so we have to build one. Once Pop took over in 1996, they finally had stability. (Yes, winning the Duncan lottery was key, but so was stability.) The Spurs draft and trade for the system. Having continuity means they can develop players and allow the players to fit in to what they do.

    The Wolves have a great coach. They also have great players in Love and Rubio. Keeping them and building around them and getting players that fit them and the way Adelman wants to play will be the way to get Wolves into to a 50+ win team and eventual contender. Being patient is important.

    The Spurs opened the 98-99 season 8-9 and nearly fired Pop. Luckily they didn’t. The Spurs turned it around and won their first title. Be patient. The Wolves have the building blocks in Adelman, Love and Rubio. If they don’t screw that up, you’ll hopefully see the rewards soon.

  4. You know it’s bad when even David Sten talks about how rough the Wolves have had it this season do to injury’s. Even he said that he can’t remember any other team going through this much. The only thing I hope Kahn regrets is that he took a flyer on B-Roy when he could have gotten OJ Mayo. He should let the guys who build teams build them and get back to saving money for Glen.

  5. Steve McPherson February 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Karl: I use the Schrödinger’s Cat metaphor/analogy more than any other one when talking about basketball. It seems entirely appropriate because of the obsession with prediction and judgment. I think the reality is as you say, and it’s something that makes assessing this team very difficult.

    That speaks to Ryan’s point as well because it’s almost impossible to tell what this team will be next year. Given specific performances from players like DC (when he went 9-for-9 or just how generally solid he’s been on pick-and-pops and rebounding) and even Barea (I would LOVE for him to just get those 20-25 mins. per game so he doesn’t drive the offense off a cliff), I think this team HAS those guys like Danny Green who can step up. But they just can’t step up night after night after night when the season is such a meat grinder. And that’s not an excuse because to me an excuse is only something you can give when it’s within your power to change that thing. The players and coaches could give excuses, but they haven’t. But I can’t do anything about how the team plays; I’m just looking for angles and perspectives that help me make sense of all this stuff.

    Zach was saying after the game that at this point all he wants is a couple good weeks at the end of the season where we can see Love and Budinger out there with a healthy Rubio and a more experienced Shved so we can get a sense of what they could be next season. I think only when we get that experience will we be able to draw some conclusions about what direction they could go with complementary players.

  6. Steve McPherson February 7, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Great insight and comment, Krista. Thanks for reading.

  7. pagingstanleyroberts February 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    For reasons of continuity or otherwise, the Spurs put on a clinic last night about how to win when shorthanded. Obviously, their situation is different, but their 3rd-5th best players (Parker, Leonard, and Green) all stepped up, and they got everything they wanted offensively while taking away what the Wolves wanted to do on the other end.

    As for what this stretch of play indicates, I can’t evaluate it as one stretch because Porter as coach and Adelman as coach are significant differences. With that in mind, they’re lacking a necessary mindset: “We have little margin for error and can’t beat ourselves.” Their schedule has been challenging, but they’ve also stepped on their own toes too much during this stretch. Part of that is youth (expecting Rubio/Shved/Williams to be the key cogs is foolish given their NBA inexperience), but I don’t think that explains all of it.

  8. I have a hard time trying to understand Wolves’ fans and their belief that Chase Budinger is a superstar. I do indeed appreciate that he is a fine player, but to ascribe his abilities to
    ‘rescue’ a team after playing just six games is far beyond any logic that I am familiar with. He would no doubt be an integral piece in the process of improvement, but I fear Wolves fans have become so enchanted with his possibilities that they will suffer another Roy-like blow to the heart if he turns out to be mere mortal.

  9. pagingstanleyroberts February 7, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    I don’t think anyone considers Budinger a savior; he’s lumped in with Love more because they’re two rotation guys out with injuries who will return in March, but no one would put them on anywhere near the same level. With that said, he’s a deluxe offensive role player for this system and a wing who would bolster their depth at their weakest position.

  10. Paging, your stance does seem sensible. On other boards I read (Wolves ESPN and Canis Hoopus), members have an incredibly over-inflated judgment of a player with only six games into a Minnesota experience and an off-the-bench past.

  11. Steve McPherson February 7, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    It’s funny you should say that, pagingstanleyroberts, because one of the exact things Adelman said last night was that they have no margin of error. I think they do understand that, but understanding it and having the capability to do something about it are hardly the same thing.

    And as for Budinger, Nova fan, no one expects him to come in and dominate games. It’s pretty simple: the Wolves are currently shooting 30.2% from beyond the arc and Budinger is a career 36% shooter from 3, plus 40% last season. Love obviously struggled with his shot in his brief return this season, but he’s a career 35% shooter. Having those guys back in the rotation at full-strength would dramatically change the complexion of this team’s offense.

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