Timberwolves 91, Pacers 107: The Long and the Short
The Wolves’ street-clothes squad boasts a pretty impressive resume. You’ve got multiple All-Star appearances, a Defensive Player of the Year, a former Most Improved Player candidate, even some MVP votes. What’s more, whoever has been dressing Nikola Pekovic deserves a firm handshake. That fitted herringbone blazer? the deep pink tie? the open-collar-plus-gold-chain combo? Dynamite.
In contrast, no one would say that the Wolves’ actual active roster is brimming with talent. In essence, you have a future-superstar with a sub-40% shooting percentage leading a crew of backups and D-Leaguers. This is a team that can compete for victories under certain circumstances–like when the Washington Wizards lay a total egg on the road, or when, say, the Spurs rest all of their good players–but that on most nights has very little chance to win. (I should mention: no shame in being a backup or a D-Leaguer. The NBA is much the better for the Dante Cunninghams and J.J. Bareas and even the Chris Johnsons of the world.)
Nevertheless, its remarkable what can happen when a group even this undermanned and talent-starved a) works very hard and b) simply makes its open shots, a skill that ought to be fairly rudimentary for a professional team. In many ways, the Wolves’ shortage of size and individual skill has been less of a limiting factor than their horrendous shooting. Many, many times this season, the Wolves have defended and executed well enough to at least remain competitive but have been undone by their simple failure to make shots.
This game is a case in point. Without a doubt, the Wolves size and skill deficits showed themselves all game. Given their current makeup–that is to say, lacking any frontcourt paint scoring presence–they are completely dependent on perimeter play in order to generate scoring chances. Because of their constant lineup instability, the Wolves have dabbled in myriad playing styles this year, everything from Euro-style motion and ball-sharing to iso-heavy plodding. Right now though, they rely exclusively on creative guard play, full stop. They score off of the pick-and-roll or in transition or they do not score at all. Needless to say, an offensive attack this one-dimensional has little chance to consistently create easy interior baskets against a defense as gritty and disciplined as the one deployed by these Pacers.
And yet, despite their inability to score in the paint and despite even the Pacers’ own hot shooting, the Wolves were still very much in this game at halftime. Why? They simply made those open jumpers. And why did their offense suddenly grow cold in the third quarter? They stopped making those very same open shots. The effect was pretty remarkable: 54.1% from the floor in the first half, 34.8% in the second.
Now, some caveats are in order here. First of all, the Pacers’ defense did ramp up its intensity in the second half. They pressured ballhandlers off of screens, gumming up the Wolves’ execution, causing turnovers and forcing the Wolves into contested shots. Second, the Pacers had clearly made a calculation, as Miami did last week, that walling off the paint and allowing the Wolves to shoot long jumpers would pay off in the long term. Even if the Wolves made a few shots–even if they made a full half’s worth of shots–they were pretty much bound to start missing them eventually. Note to self: if you notice Greg Stiemsma taking a lot of wide-open 15-foot j’s, the defense is probably doing some solid work.
And anyway, its not like shooting was the Wolves’ only problem. They struggle so badly from three and at the line that one sometimes forgets how ridiculously undersized they are. But Roy Hibbert did not forget. Hibbert scored 27 points on 10-15 shooting and grabbed an absurd nine offensive rebounds, all the while disposing of Greg Stiemsma, Chris Johnson, Dante Cunningham or whichever Wolf had the misfortune of attempting to box him out or guard him in the post. Of the above three, only Stiemsma had even a remote chance of containing the very large man. But it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Stiemsma discovered a formula that worked: Stay attached to Hibbert’s body; push him off his spots; deny him aggressively in the post; do not–do not–leave him to go block a shot, even a really soft, tantalizing Lance Stephenson floater.
It is hard to root for a shorthanded, undersized, awful-shooting basketball team. A team like that is going to lose most of the games it plays. A lot of times it won’t have any chance at all. Isn’t it a blessing, then, that we get to see things like this: