There are lots of reasons why the Timberwolves are a poor fourth quarter team, why they’ve lost ten times (worst in the NBA) after carrying a lead into the final frame. Those oft-mentioned ‘intangibles’ are part of the problem: maintaining composure and focus when things get wild; summoning the energy and determination to make the essential plays. An example of the former might be Ricky Rubio spinning wildly through the lane before lobbing the ball over Nikola Pekovic’s head and out of bounds with 3:18 remaining and the score tied at 93. Or Derrick Williams turning down a wide-open midrange jumper in order to mow down the perfectly positioned Carl Landry. An example of the latter might be, for instance, failing to defensive rebound a missed free throw down by two with 38 seconds left.
These things are all true, and they certainly proved decisive in this afternoon’s one-point loss to the Warriors. As Jim Petersen observed, the Wolves, like many bad teams, have a maddening tendency to go spacey and blank in key moments of the game, to suddenly forget to box-out or, after an entire half of fevered defensive play, to simply stand and watch as an opponent calmly rebounds his own miss and lays in an easy floater.
But rather than attributing the Wolves’ late loss to some moral failing as if losing close games revealed a lack of an inner, guiding virtue (as TV announcers and talking heads everywhere tend to do), lets turn to some tangibles. Yes, conceding a last-minute offensive rebound in a one-point loss is a very bad thing. But how about: on the game, missing seven free throws to the Warriors four? Or hitting just 1-11 threes, as compared to the Golden State’s 7-17? This is not a new story. Nor is it as alluring as opining on a team’s spiritual center. But it helps explain how a team might lose a game despite going to the line seven more times than their opponent, shooting an almost identical field goal percentage, and creating 22 turnovers.
Here’s another thing. It’s not every game that plus/minus stats tell a convincing story. But tonight, the Wolves’ starters were all in the black, averaging a +6 while the bench averaged a -10. The starters hit 33 of their 67 shots while the bench scored just 11 points on 4-18 shooting and were torn apart by the Warriors’ bench tandem of Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack. (To be fair, Landry and Jack played starters’ minutes and feasted on the Wolves’ starters and bench players in equal measure. Pekovic had a particularly tough time keeping Landry off the offensive glass.)
Here’s another way to look at it. When Ricky Rubio was on the floor, the Wolves’ offense actually had some shape and coherence. There were passing lanes and floor spacing. Players got open looks and went to the free-throw line. Defensively, the Wolves were about as ferocious and disruptive as they’ve been all season and, for once, parlayed that pressure into easy fast-break baskets. Rubio short-circuited nearly every action the Warriors ran him through and he forced Stephen Curry into some truly bad shots and awkward possessions. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means–those six turnovers can attest to that–but when Rubio was in the game the Wolves felt like a living, breathing basketball team.
Without him, the air went out of the balloon. J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved, as they tend to do, pounded the ball on the strong side of the court, failing to move the defense by reversing the ball, failing to create anything more than contested midrange jumpers. Defensively, too, the Wolves seemed less energetic and grounded without Rubio. There was less pressure on the ball and Golden State ran its sets more easily, both of which made the frontline rotations less timely and crisp.
Over the past five games, Rubio has averaged 14.2 points, 9.2 assists, 6.2 boards and 4.6 steals per game. The Wolves have been +17 in Rubio’s 174 minutes of floor time and -23 in the 66 minutes that he’s sat. As his conditioning has improved, he has begun to show incredible energy and desire throughout the long minutes he has been asked to play. His faults are many–he’s also averaged four turnovers during that span and while that shooting has improved some, its still nothing to write home about–but he is clearly becoming the spiritual leader of the team. Right now, its hard not to be frustrated with what this great disparity in production reveals about the rest of the team. But it also allows us a little bit of hope about what’s coming next.
* * *
I would be remiss if I didn’t make a comment on Derrick Williams’ fantastic play. All night Williams attacked the basket with more balance, body control and athleticism than we’ve consistently seen before. His reverse dunk in traffic and his towering bank shot over Harrison Barnes were both ridiculous displays of strength and explosiveness, not to mention no small amount of skill. The kind of plays, in other words, that we’re all hoping he can make consistently. He ran the floor; he got to the free-throw line; he competently defended David Lee in the post; he rebounded the basketball like a total maniac.