With the Timberwolves welcoming back Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko to the starting lineup after nearly three weeks on the shelf, last night’s win over the New Orleans Hornets was a case study in shaking off the rust.
So let’s start by looking at some of Pek’s play on the defensive end in the first quarter. Here are several defensive possessions by the Wolves that leave a lot to be desired, particularly from Pek:
There’s an airballed hookshot, poor defensive rotations, apathetic rebounding effort, and lead-footed pick-and-roll defense.
But wait: suspend your judgment for a moment because there’s more at work here than just a lack of effort. First of all, neither Pekovic nor Kirilenko actually got to practice with the team before coming back. Normally, there are a set of steps that a player goes through to work back from an injury that involve gradual steps from conditioning to shooting to contact and eventually to full 5-on-5 work. But with the Wolves only dressing nine players for the last several weeks and a jam-packed schedule full of back-to-backs that isn’t allowing for many practices, they didn’t have much choice.
“They haven’t been playing at all except for some running and individual stuff,” Adelman said after the game. “We’ve got to work them back in and find out how we’re going to play. As I’ve said before, as we go down this stretch, we’ve got to try things and see if we can’t get better as we get people back with what we’re trying to do at both ends.”
Secondly, the Wolves’ defensive strategy to start the game was to switch on defense. This strategy worked to their advantage against the Hornets in their previous meeting on February 2, a game they won 115-86 after jumping out to a 58-31 halftime lead on the shoulders of a switching defensive strategy.
It also might at first blush seem like a sound strategy to conserve energy for and protect players returning from injury because it should lead to less jostling for position because players aren’t being asked to run around screens.
But Kirilenko, who had a rough first half (0-1 with 1 rebound and 2 turnovers in 11:52), explained after the game that switching can in some ways be more physical. “To be honest, I played ten years with Coach Sloan and we never switched,” he said of his time in Utah. “I like to switch—in Europe and the national team, we always switch. We have all five guys at 6-8, 6-9 so we switch everything. Back in Utah we played no switches. If you’re playing your man, you get used to it, but when you switch—unless you’re switching without thinking about it—it’s more physical.”
His explanation speaks specifically to why switching can actually be more difficult on players coming back to the game after time away. Staying with your man might involve more bumping and work, but there’s a consistency to the way you play him that stays constant. You know: if your man’s a threat to shoot, you have to stay up on him. If he likes to drive, you need to deny him the direction he likes to go. But if you’re always being switched onto different players, you have to make constant mental shifts in how you’re approaching the game. This can lead to more over- or undercommitting, which leads to fatigue.
As Kirilenko elaborated, “It will take three or four games to get back in running shape—not even running shape but leg shape. I was feeling tonight I’m really short on some offensive possessions. I was feeling like I could go under the basket but—eh, not right now. Every fifteen, twenty seconds it’s like: not right now, not this one.”
I think that’s what’s happening to Pekovic in the above video. How quickly it’s possible for peak conditioning to dissipate says more about just how high the level of the NBA game is than any one player. What we saw in both Pek and Kirilenko’s play in the early going of the game was a mix of moment-to-moment tentativeness, difficulty adjusting to the switches on defense, and being just a step slow. The combination of those things led to other players having to fill gaps, which led to other gaps opening up, which led to an overall flatness for much of the game.
But for all that, both Pekovic and Kirilenko came up huge in the closing seconds. When Rubio grabbed the rebound off a missed Eric Gordon stepback jumper with 28.4 seconds left and the Wolves down by one, they made the smart decision not to call timeout, instead taking advantage of Robin Lopez stepping out to defend Derrick Williams on the perimeter:
About that play, Adelman said after the game, “I thought that drive at the end was a terrific play and [Derrick] got hammered. Luckily Pek was there to get the ball. I thought [Derrick] was terrific tonight.” Pekovic’s free throws gave the Wolves a one-point lead and that’s when Kirilenko stepped up with a huge block and rebound on Eric Gordon:
He went 1-2 at the line, but that two-point lead was enough as Kirilenko also got a hand on Roger Mason’s game-winning try on the next possession and sealed the win for the Wolves.
“Andrei’s block was unbelievable—actually, both of them,” said Adelman. “They told me I had to keep his minutes down—I fudged it a little bit. But I had to get him out because I had a feeling we were going to need him at the end of the game for defensive play.”
But if this Wolves win was as impressively gritty in its last seconds as their collapse against the Rockets was exhaustingly familiar, they both point to the same fundamental thing about the league: it’s incredibly difficult to create sustainable, repeatable positive results for any team, much less a team wracked by injuries.
Kirilenko himself put his work in the clutch into perspective. “Don’t get confused: those couple plays were great plays, but I’m not supposed to play those minutes,” he said, referencing the fact that he was supposed to play more like 20 minutes than the 24:47 he did. “With the game on the line and you need those couple defensive stops, you get in that mode where you don’t really feel any pain. Just concentrate on the ball.”
The return of Pekovic and Kirilenko provides the Wolves with players who can be relied upon to step up in those crucial moments. Now the trick is figuring out how to not get into those moments in the first place.
Statistics from NBA.com