On the surface, the Nuggets and the Wolves in their current state of frontcourt decimation seem to share a common profile. Both teams run radically simplified half-court offenses and generate many of their best looks off of opponents’ turnovers. Both teams rely heavily on the energy and wiles of their backcourts and depend on dribble penetration to create looks. Neither team shoots threes well; both teams require on heavy outputs of energy to play their game.
But two crucial differences make those commonalities merely superficial. The first is that while Denver is absurdly deep, rich with players who fit the profile of their team’s game, the Wolves are down to their last nine ragtag dudes, many of whom are not what you might call All-Star material. Its a lot easier to sprint up and down the floor when you know that a breather is right around the corner and that your team won’t be the worse off for it. The second is that the Wolves play that way by necessity, out of desperation, while the Nuggets do so by design. When you play with such simplicity, chaos and pace, you are in the Nuggets’ wheelhouse. And nobody does it better; if you get drawn into their game, particularly on their home floor, where the thin air seems to corrode your lungs and turn your legs into noodles, the Nugs will run you through the thresher.
And so, even after the Wolves came into halftime down just one point, it was hard to be too optimistic. For one thing, the Wolves had hit nearly 49% of their shots in the first half, many of them midrange jumpers; if you know our Wolves like I do, you knew that trend was not likely to continue. For another, the Wolves had been unable to contain Denver’s guards. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller didn’t put up awe-inspiring scoring numbers in the first half, but they lived in the paint. Since the entirety of Denver’s half-court offense spins off of their guards’ ability to get into the lane and collapse the defense, the repeated inability of Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved and even Ricky Rubio to stay in front of the Nuggets’ ballhandlers was an ill omen indeed.
Sure enough, in the second half the other shoe dropped. The Wolves, predictably, started missing shots. They began turning the ball over. Their always fragile discipline in defensive transition began to erode. Most damagingly, as Denver started to roll in the open court, the Wolves began to be drawn into the chaos. By the time that Derrick Williams had blown three out-of-control fast-break layups in less than a minute and J.J. Barea had bricked a pull-up three and heaved a ten-footer off the top of the backboard in consecutive possessions and JaVale McGee had ripped Ricky Rubio at half-court and sailed in for an uncontested dunk…well, you knew the Wolves had lost their minds. The rest of the game was a blur of Nuggets’ three-on-ones and Corey Brewer dunks and casual Ty Lawson threes. Things were completely out of hand.
Mostly, this game revealed the problems inherent to relying almost exclusively on the skill and transcendent effort of one player. Because tonight it seemed that the sum total of energy he expended over the past week–not to mention the thin mountain air–finally caught up to Ricky Rubio. Whereas against Washington Rubio played with a fevered intensity, in Denver he just looked exhausted. The ultra-aggressive ball-hawking that had resulted in so much disruption for opposing offenses looked more like simple, lead-legged reaching. Rather than pressuring Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, or even resulting in a fast-break in the other direction, Rubio’s gambles tonight just opened up driving lanes for his opponent.
Rubio’s level of effort against Miami and the Wizards was clearly unsustainable. The comedown had to happen sometime. It seemed appropriate that it came on a night in which the Wolves as a group seemed to have reached their wits end. And now, the beauty of the NBA schedule: hop on a plane, get some bad sleep, do it all again tomorrow.