Timberwolves 94, Trail Blazers 109: Pattern Recognition
The Timberwolves were playing without three of their four essential players and therefore faced an insurmountable talent disadvantage. They missed many free-throws and even more threes. They labored to salvage tiny scraps of offensive production. They lacked the personnel to seriously impede their opponent’s offensive execution. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. Once revealed, the patterns are relentless. Nevertheless, some observations on this loss in Portland:
They Shoot, We Score
“If you can’t score in the post and you can’t score from behind the arc, where can you score?” So asked Dave Benz in the second half of tonight’s game. The answer, obviously, is the only thing remaining: you score in the open court and off dribble penetration. This equation becomes even trickier when you remember that the Wolves aren’t a particularly effective open-court team and that, in their weakened state, they boast only two genuinely creative perimeter players (those being Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea). Given all of that, its a wonder, and a testament to Rubio’s abilities, that they did actually manage to generate some action at the basket. Running their radically simplified offense–essentially giving the ball to Rubio and Barea and asking them to create–they scored 40 points in the paint and got to the line 36 times (compared to just 21 for the Blazers). This was their only real advantage in the game–an advantage they naturally squandered by missing nine of those free-throws.
In addition to the daunting talent disparity between the teams, the Wolves faced size mismatches all over the floor. This is because the Blazers are a long team but mostly because the Wolves are playing literally without their entire starting frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge towered over Derrick Williams at the four. Wes Matthews used his size and strength to overpower Luke Ridnour and everybody else who guarded him at the two. Nicolas Batum was both taller and longer than Mickael Gelabale. Ironically the worst mismatch of all was one in which the Wolves actually had a height advantage. Greg Stiemsma is many inches taller than J.J. Hickson, but he was no match for him in terms of strength, mobility and energy. Hickson ran Stiemsma all over the floor, overpowered him at the rim, beat him to lose balls, left him looking lost.
And things only got worse when the reserves came in the game. Portland is not known as a deep team, but they can bring size off the bench. Out of sheer necessity, for much of the game, the Wolves found themselves in three guard lineups, with Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham alone in the frontcourt attempting to protect the basket and grab rebounds from the likes of Hickson and Meyers Leonard. Not cool.
Given this situation, its all the more important that the Wolves play disciplined perimeter D. Rubio, as always, brought a desperate energy to his perimeter defense, but you can tell that the strain of the Wolves’ predicament is wearing on him. That very desperation–and the knowledge that the team’s best chance to score is off of turnovers in the open court–is causing him to overplay for steals, often allowing his man to break down the Wolves’ defense. This is a problem because without Kirilenko and Pekovic, the Wolves’ interior rotations are a shambles; Williams and Cunningham are game, but undersized and, in the case of D-Will, inexperienced paint defenders. The Blazers crushed the Wolves with 55 points in the paint and 17 offensive boards.
Derrick Williams in Space
Speaking of Williams, I continue to be impressed by the young guy’s improvement. Williams missed quite a few midrange jumpers tonight, but very few of them were the forced, last-resort j’s of last season. He seems actually to be reading the floor, shooting only when open and in rhythm, attacking when there are lanes to attack. His body appears more relaxed and balanced, as if he is beginning to anticipate the flow of play. What’s more, he seems to be learning the essential lesson of playing with great passing point guards: if you move into open space the ball will find you. Where he once awkwardly haunted the perimeter like a 13-year-old me at a middle school dance, he appears to be slowly cultivating an intuition for off-the-ball movement. Many of the Wolves’ best moments of the past week have involved Williams smartly cutting to open spots on the floor and catching the ball in good position to score or get fouled. More of this please.
Alexey Stop Spleening Me
You know that feeling you get when you’ve been playing pickup for like four hours? When your body is out of sweat and your feet are blistered and your legs feel like empty husks? When nobody bends their knees anymore and everybody shoots immediately upon getting the ball and that drugged silence descends on the game? That’s how Alexey Shved looks all the time. It looks as if fatigue has atrophied his muscles and poisoned his brain. Its not as if he’s making poor decisions, its as if he has ceased making any decisions at all. He just floats along in the game’s chaotic wash, scattering flat, heavy shots at random intervals. Which is unfortunate since the Wolves desperately need scoring wherever they can get it.