Something you hear a lot of commentators say is that the NBA is a “make or miss” league. I don’t get this. Or rather, I understand that the game is decided by who scores more points, and thus that the team that wins has—by design—made more shots than the other team. But is that all there is to this cliché? If anyone has some deeper insight to it, I’d appreciate it.
But another thing that makes a lot more sense to me that people often say is that the NBA is all about matchups. Consider this: This season, the Timberwolves have a winning percentage of .366, while the Thunder have a winning percentage of .726. And yet the season series between the two teams is even at 2-2. And last season—even though the Wolves were 0-3 against the Thunder—the games were hard fought. Minnesota lost their season opener to OKC 104-100 in 2011-12, and that was before anyone really knew what Rubio could do on a basketball court. And then, of course, there was that magnificent double overtime game in Oklahoma City that saw Barea and Durant notch triple doubles and Love score 51 while pulling down 14 rebounds.
So in the same way that the Blazers just seem to have the Timberwolves number (0-4 against them), the Wolves kind of have the Thunder’s number. Obviously, they’re not dominating them, but they play them tighter than it seems reasonable to expect them to. This was not like the win against San Antonio, where Popovich basically pulled the cord in the third quarter, nor like the last couple blowout wins against the Suns and the Pistons, where the question was which team was going to roll over and die first.
This was not just an enjoyable game for Wolves fans because they beat a division opponent at the top of the standings, not even enjoyable because they played well. This was legitimately good basketball to watch. And it was largely because the Wolves did what they set out to do.
When he spoke to the media before the game, Adelman pegged the keys to winning this game as limiting the Thunder’s opportunities in transition and keeping them off the foul line. Running down the stat sheet while waiting for Adelman’s post-game press conference, you could see that was exactly what they did. The Thunder had 20 FTAs to the Wolves’ 27, allowed the Wolves 13 possession-stretching and fastbreak-stopping offensive rebounds, and only managed 10 fastbreak points. OKC averages 16.8 fastbreak points per game, good for fourth in the league; Orlando averages 10, which puts them 25th.
“We wanted them to be a jump-shooting team,” said Adelman, “even though they’re a very good shooting team. We did not want Westbrook to get to the basket. We wanted to control the tempo and have it in our favor.
“I was proud of the way we played for the whole game,” he added. “We never had one of those dry periods that we have in the past.”
And that, right there, is really the thing. This was an end-to-end burner for the Timberwolves, solid evidence that when this team has intentions and follows through, they can perform at a high level. And for that, I have an anecdote.
I teach a class at McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul called Composition Ensemble. The basic goal of the class is to have songwriters work on original material in a collaborative, group context. It’s not hard to get students to write songs, even with one another; I’m often stunned at how willing they are to write words for each other’s songs or play an instrument they’re unfamiliar with to help out.
Here’s what’s hard: getting guitarists to play fewer than six strings all the time; getting keyboardists to play with one hand; getting acoustic guitarists to play rhythmic palm mutes like their lives depended on it; getting bassists to play something in between the roots of the chords and a complicated, melodic bassline.
There are many reasons for this. It has to do with age and experience and understanding; it has to do with seeing yourself as part of a larger thing, and not the whole thing in and of yourself. In that sense, it has to do with self-awareness and also patience. But the way it relates most closely to the Timberwolves is in knowing exactly what you’re about and going out and doing exactly that thing.
It is, in essence, why Williams continues to be problematic as a part of the team (he had 6 pts on 2-8 shooting and 9 rebounds last night). He’s improved, certainly, and has room to improve more, but a large part of what he’s lacking is that directionality, that unerring sense that this—whatever this is—is exactly what he should be doing at that exact moment.
Despite the rust and a lack of strength in his surgically repaired knee, Budinger has shown that sense. When he curls around a screen he knows just how to hit the cut hard. When he catches the ball in the corner on the weakside, he goes up for the shot.
And as a whole, that inerrant sense of self is what the Wolves showed last night, with Pekovic catching the ball in the post and moving with purpose (it was amazing to see him body right through Perkins, who himself is tremendously hard to move) and the ball moving crisply from side to side and into the post and back out. Budinger is a large part of what makes that possible by creating more space on the floor with his outside shooting. Seeing all this click—and without Love in the lineup—is bittersweet, making you realize what could have been this season.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said as much in his postgame remarks praising Rubio. “I think the ball was getting where it wanted to go tonight and Ricky is a terrific point guard and he’s getting confident as the season has gone along. Unfortunately for them, they’ve had all these injuries. Otherwise, they would be right in the thick of things. But he’s an exciting player. You want to play hard if you’re with him because he moves the ball, he always looks for a better shot than the shot that he has.”
Good basketball at this point in the season isn’t going to get the Timberwolves to the playoffs. But a win like this can make you remember that good basketball can be an end in itself.