Today we’re going to talk about the philosophical concept of microcosm. Don’t run away! This stuff is cool, I promise. Or, at least as cool as looking at how a season’s worth of frustration can be contained and reflected in a minute and a half of basketball.
Here we go:
Let’s give this clip a little context. This stretch of play comes about halfway through the fourth quarter of last night’s game, which had begun with the Wolves tying the game at 79 on a tip-in. At the end of the first, Minnesota led 26-25. At the end of two, they led 57-53. But they lost the third quarter 26-20. At the beginning of the above sequence, the Wolves are only down 3. Following it, they slip from down 5 to down 10 before pulling closer again, but never retaking the lead.
The play-by-play detail on NBA.com for the above clip looks like this:
You good so far? So this is, of course, a very small sample size, but I want to be clear that I’m not trying to extrapolate anything mathematically from this sequence of plays. I’m not picking out Dante Cunningham’s +10 rating and Derrick Williams’ -8 rating from last night and saying it’s obvious that Cunningham should start.
But this clip is like a diorama or microcosm of the Wolves’ experience this season. Microcosm sounds like a scientific word, but it’s really not. It comes from the Greek philosophical idea that the patterns of nature are repeated on both the grandest and the smallest levels. Quantum physics has shown this to be untrue—at the smallest levels, things get mad weird and not at all like how they are for us at the human level.
But as a philosophical concept, it can be a good way to think about how little things reflect the big things. In this case, we see two bad shots (a long 2-point jumper by Barea and a 3-pointer coming off a screen by Shved) followed by a very good shot by Budinger (which, by the way, BUDINGER!!!). None of them go.
All the early offense does little to move the defense around. Cunningham’s screen for Budinger ends up with Budinger trapped on the sideline. He swings the ball back to Cunningham, who has a mismatch on Evans but is too far out to do anything with it. He swings it back to Barea and the play restarts.
Stiemsma’s screen frees Barea enough that he thinks he should shoot it and he misses. Budinger corrals the long rebound and the play restarts. Stiemsma’s screen for Shved at the elbow doesn’t free him and Stiemsma gets the ball from Barea then hands it off. This leads to Barea getting trapped in the corner, so he passes back out to Shved at the top of the arc, and the play restarts. Cunningham sets a screen for Shved, who fires the 3-pointer. Over the last 10 games, Shved is shooting 22.9% from downtown.
So after he misses, Stiemsma gets the rebound. This time, his handoff to Barea actually manages to reshape the defense a little bit. If you look here:
you can see that when the play swings back to Stiemsma, all the Kings are collapsed in the paint, leaving Shved open at the arc (which, again, don’t bother at this point), Cunningham open at the elbow (which is a good spot for him) and Budinger open in the corner. This is great!
Stiemsma swings it to Budinger who gets Salmons up in the air on the closeout and like the consummate pro he is, Budinger doesn’t settle for a midrange look but takes it all the way to the rim where he absorbs the contact and misses. The ball is knocked out of bounds by the Kings and the Wolves restart the offense.
Pekovic and Kirilenko come in, and Pek’s presence in the paint keeps his man honest enough that Shved can drive to the hoop and miss. This would be a good time to point out that Shved’s approach to basketball right now is akin to playing a first-person shooter by ducking into cover and then blind firing until a bad guy sneaks up and knifes you.
But the Wolves get the rebound! And Barea drives and hits a meat wall but finds Kirilenko open on the perimeter and he misses. For the Kings, Evans takes the ball up the court, crosses over Kirilenko, gets into the paint, gets fouled and makes the shot.
Sigh. There you have it: futility followed by bad decision followed by hustle followed by futility followed by bad decision followed by hustle followed by something that resembles decent basketball followed by futility. And then on the other end, one play and boom: shot goes and a foul.
This is, in miniature, the texture of the Timberwolves’ season so far. There are things about this year’s Wolves that are not contained in this minute and a half of basketball facepalming—things both good and bad. But it does reflect an essential component of where the team is: hustle and effort can make up for bad decisions, but even good decisions are subject to forces beyond their control.
Now let me step back for a minute: I typed that line and now I’ve been sitting here staring at it intermittently for ten minutes trying to decide if there’s anything left to say. There’s not. Phoenix tonight. Here’s a video for the song “Go” by The Apples in Stereo from the album I named this post after.