Although in our hearts we always suspected it to be true, we couldn’t help feeling a little distressed over Rick Adelman’s admission yesterday that he is considering walking away from the Wolves this coming summer. (Though you certainly can’t blame the guy for wanting to actually live with his ailing wife, especially after a pair of seasons as cosmically aggravating as these past two.) We can talk all we want about Derrick Williams’ development or Nikola Pekovic’s contract, but the truth is that the middle-term future of this franchise rests entirely upon the relationship between Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Take out one vertex of that triangle and, one suspects, the entire spindly structure might collapse.
This is a particularly distressing thought because for a few scattered moments this season, we’ve gotten to glimpse a small flicker of the possibility of what this team might be able to do. The first half of Friday night’s game in Phoenix was an example of one of those tiny moments. But first, let’s be real clear. Its a difficult to extrapolate much from a game against a team as manifestly ready to lose as these Phoenix Suns. Perhaps all you need to know about these Suns is that they attempted to ride a Wes Johnson matchup for much of the first half. (Backstage at NBATV Kurt Rambis is shaking his head wondering why he is not an NBA coach.)
Nevertheless, for Wolves’ fans, that first half was like an eight-dimensional diamond rainbow. It was like a unicorn ride. It was like sharing a hookah with Gandalf. Its not just that they hit a lot of shots and got to the free-throw line (and (basically) made the free throws) and forced 11 turnovers and scored in transition, although all of that certainly felt like taking a bubble bath in the fountain of youth. Its that we actually got to see what this team might look like with a healthy Ricky Rubio and a healthy Chase Budinger and a healthy Andrei Kirilenko (and then imagine what that might look like with Kevin Love who, remember, was third in the league in scoring last season(!)). For the first time in months we got to see this team actually run some corner sets. We got to see Budinger, well versed in Adelman’s offensive schemes from his days in Houston, run off of flare screens and serenely drain some midrange jumpers. We got to see Andrei Kirilenko flex-cutting into the lane and distributing the ball from the elbow. We got to see J.J. Barea in his proper proportion: providing quick, hot flashes of offense in limited minutes off the bench.
And here’s the real magic of that synergistic motion and those made shots and the beautiful spacing they engender. Suddenly there was actually room in the lane for the guards to penetrate and create, or for Nikola Pekovic to duck into the lane. Now, again, let’s not get carried away. It helps very much to play a team that cannot guard the ball and who are consistently late in their rotations to the rim.
And it certainly helps to play a team that can be so thoroughly swallowed up by your basic 2-3 zone. An irony of this game was that the Wolves benefitted from the very same qualities in Phoenix that have doomed Minnesota so many times. It’s rare that the Wolves play a team even close to as bad from outside as they are; in the first half, the Suns’ abject inability to hit from outside (they were 1-9 from three and 17-44 overall) allowed the Wolves to swarm the paint, to wall off dribble penetration and force turnovers inside. In the third quarter, the Suns finally began reversing the ball and cutting baseline against the Wolves’ zone and hitting some outside shots. But by then, the game was already out of reach.
So the Suns are terrible and this late-season blowout means very little. Nevertheless, it was hard to banish the sneaking question from my mind: Could it be like this every night?