Trail Blazers 100, Timberwolves 98: Lesson finally learned?
The idea of wanting it more than the other team is a confusing concept to me. Wanting it more doesn’t really mean anything positive, necessarily. Do the Wolves lose games because they don’t want to win enough? Or do they lose games because they don’t want to win it correctly? Or do they lose games because they are simply too banged up?
After playing an abominable 38 minutes to start out against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday night, the Wolves found some pride and decided to fight back by executing basketball plays. It sounds simple because… well, it is simple. When the Wolves play basketball like they’re designed to play, good things can happen. It doesn’t mean they’d always win if they played the way they’re supposed to. Certain match-ups will always be problematic for what they have for personnel.
However, watching them run pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, and get controlled dribble penetration in the fourth quarter against a team like Portland showed they have potential to compete even with the current injuries.
After Saturday night’s blowout victory over the Pelicans, I said it was really hard to learn anything from a blowout win or loss because you don’t see your team tested or responding. Have enough blowout losses in a short amount of time and you’ll learn that your team just isn’t very good, but having them sporadically really just means they’re random occurrences rather than tell-tale signs. But when your team keeps consistently getting down big early in games and then has to fight its way back, what does that teach you?
What it teaches the Wolves’ team is a lesson.
“We didn’t play hard like we talked before the game,” Nikola Pekovic said after the game. “This need to be a big lesson for us, if you don’t play hard like we’re supposed to play then it’s really difficult to win some games.”
The Wolves have trailed by double digits or more in 24 games this season. They’ve trailed an opponent by 15 or more points 16 times this season. Their record in these games shouldn’t be good and it’s not. In games they trail by double digits, they’re 4-20 and when that lead gets pushed to 15 or more, they’re just 1-15. The only win in one of those games was the 22-point comeback victory over the Brooklyn Nets in November.
The weird thing is the Wolves just don’t get blown out that much. It happened recently in a string of losses when the team was absolutely decimated by injuries and Andrei Kirilenko was the only starter remaining on the floor (by the way, he strained his quad last night and is day-to-day). And even with the bad string of games since January started, the injuries, and being down double digits in 24 of their 45 games this season, their net rating right now is only -2.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s not a good number, but it shows they rarely get destroyed in a game. They always have some fight in them.
That’s encouraging on some level but it’s also discouraging because they can’t find energy early on consistently.
“It’s disappointing,” Rick Adelman said after the loss. “I give guys credit; we came back in the fourth quarter there and had a chance to tie it twice and couldn’t get there. I hope it’s a lesson learned. We’ve got play with a lot more intensity and a lot more urgency than we played tonight.”
I asked Adelman if he thought perhaps pushing the pace at the beginning of games (Wolves play the 12th overall fastest pace in the NBA but are 16th in first quarter pace) and he said, “That’s what we talked about — pushing the pace. We’ve talked about pushing the pace all along but if we’re just going through the motions like it seemed like we’re doing, it’s not going to happen.”
The team needs energy to start games but I look at the personnel left outside of the trainer’s room right now and I don’t know if I see a solution. Dante Cunningham could start and bring it with Ricky Rubio to begin games, but I’d rather have DC as a safety valve for when he’s playing out there with J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved. The balance of the two lineups is going to be key, especially when the Wolves are still missing a few guys out of their regular rotation.
The team could certainly use more effort like Greg Stiemsma showed halfway through the second half when Damian Lillard had a breakaway dunk.
Once the Wolves decided to have some pride and turn on the energy, we saw beautiful basketball. Minnesota was 17-of-24 (70.8%) from the field in the fourth quarter, scoring 40 points behind the trio of Rubio, Cunningham, and Barea. Rubio, Cunningham, and Barea were responsible for 37 of the 40 points in that quarter by either making a shot or assisting on a shot. Only Shved’s free throw and Pek’s score inside on an assist from Shved accounted for any points outside of that trio.
The Wolves did it with the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays. The Blazers are 26th in the NBA in defending the pick-and-roll/pop screener. They allow 1.06 points per possession, which is an astronomically high rate. Rubio had nine assists (he was credited with 10 but one was actually Dante Cunningham passing it to Barea for a breakaway layup) in the fourth quarter and seven of them came off of action in a pick-and-roll.
DC was HUGE in the fourth quarter, playing exactly within his role. He never tried to do more than he was capable of doing. He rolled to the basket, popped to an area, and cut off the ball to get his baskets. He probably has the most baskets in the NBA with the fewest dribbles take, other than Tyson Chandler.
Some fans were upset with Adelman for not calling a timeout when Luke Babbitt missed the second free throw with 21 seconds left. The Wolves opted to go right down the court and not burn the timeout. Personally, I’m all for this decision by Adelman. Calling too many timeouts in the final minute of action gives the other team a chance to do offensive-defensive substitutions and set up their defense in the half court.
I asked Adelman about that after the game as well and his reasoning was:
“You get down to the end there and call too many timeouts too quick, then it comes down to six seconds to go and you don’t have anything. I thought you have a much better chance of getting to the basket, we needed a basket two or three (times). I thought we had a much better chance getting the basket when the defense isn’t quite set. In the halfcourt, they can sub; they can do everything. I’ve always felt there’s a much bigger advantage on the floor with the three guards for us to do that.”
The Wolves certainly were able to take advantage of it and get into the lane, except Rubio made a big mistake with the ball. He got into the paint and ended up with a mismatch. Aldridge had to switch onto Rubio and when Rubio circled around the lane, he went for a shot instead of bringing the ball back out. Aldridge blocked the shot before giving the Wolves one final chance to tie it when he missed two free throws.
“I was trying to get a bucket but their defense was pretty good,” Rubio said in the locker room. “Then I was trying to find someone and couldn’t find it. Finally, I took a shot — a bad decision for me. I take the blame on me and learn from that. But if you don’t take the shots… you’ve got to take it. I’m going to take a look at the play and try to learn from that.”
So what do we take from this game? The Wolves can be a good basketball team when they’re playing the way Adelman is pleading for them to play. However, something is off with either the personnel or the initial game plan or something, considering that energy to start out games strong has been questioned and an issue lately.
“You get too far down,” Adelman said. “It’s too hard to come back. Everything’s got to be perfect to come back and win that game.”
Yes, the Blazers turned the ball over 28 times and the Wolves took advantage of it for the most part, but they also allowed 58.6% shooting from the field. Those two things end up balancing each other out and what you get is the Wolves having a chance to tie or win the game in the final seconds. I’ll have a break down of the play later this afternoon.
For now? We have to hope they’ve learned their lesson, even this late in the season.
“It’s late; it’s over half of the season,” Pek said after Jon Krawczynski asked him if it’s getting too late in the season to learn lessons. “All-Star close and after that it’s only like 30 games or whatever. But I think my opinion is everyday you can learn something. I think every game, no matter if it’s late or beginning of the season, you can still learn something.”
“At the end we had a chance to tie the game, and that’s probably punishment for not playing hard for all 48 minutes.”
We’ll see what kind of energy they come out with on Wednesday when the best team in the West is here for a nationally televised game.