You live by the Dante Cunningham midrange jumper, you die by etc. With Pekovic out with calf contusion, this game—for as close as it seemed down the stretch—was yet another lesson in how a steady diet of pick and pop from Stiemsma and Cunningham in the early going doesn’t set the table the way a heart pick and roll from Pek does. It’s not rocket science; it’s just basic nutrition. Look:
Pop might be fat free, but that’s deceptive. Its 140 calories are nearly twice the calories in a basic roll. Plus a roll provides you with 3% of your RDA for calcium and 5% of same for iron. Pop gets you none of that. Plus there’s that fat content. If you’re working with good efficiency, that meager fat content gets burned right out via work. But pop has 36.05 g of carbs, and 33.76 g of that comes from sugars. If you don’t do anything with that sugar, guess where it goes? Straight to fat.
And that’s where it went for the Wolves down the stretch. As unlikely and ill-advised as they might have been, it was hard not to love the back-to-back 3-pointers from Rubio that gave the Wolves a one-point lead with under 4 minutes remaining. But then with the Jazz having a tough time putting the ball through the hoop, Rubio took a bad long runner, Budinger missed a midrange jumper where he was fading to his right, and then we got back-to-back midrange jumpers from Cunningham that he bricked.
Instead of being able to throw the ball into the post to draw contact or create space for 3-pointers, the offense defaulted to open but not great midrange shooting. There was just no groundwork to build on by the time the team needed to shift into the next gear in the fourth. Throw in a career night from Al Jefferson, who tied his career high for points with 40 plus grabbed 13 rebounds and dished a career high 6 assists, and that’s all she wrote.
But one more thing.
In early December I wrote an idealistic post about how Rubio and Shved could work together like Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the early Allman Brothers Band. I can still see that kind of dual ballhandler backcourt working in spots going forward into next season, but at this point, the Wolves are a lot less like the early Allman Brothers Band and a lot more like a bad jam session.
It’s not unrelated to what I said above about how midrange jumpers shouldn’t drive your offense. If that’s what you’re getting, you’re not creating good looks. The parts of the offense aren’t locking in with each other, aren’t feeding one another the way they do for a well-designed team. Instead, everyone’s just kind of standing around and noodling. The drummer and bassist are putting down something for the guitarists to goof around on, but there’s no tension, no drama, no push-pull of dynamic. Sure, occasionally you get an inspired moment where a guitarist or keyboardist steps up and delivers a good to great solo, but it happens in isolation and doesn’t lead to anything else.
This is sort of the most you can hope for from Barea. On a good night, he steps up and kills it for a stretch and ideally, that stretch is long enough to carry you over the soft spots left by the absence of Pek or Love. But when it’s over, you’re more or less back where you started, with Cunningham and Stiemsma thumping away in 4/4 time, waiting for someone to tell them to go to the IV chord.
Like a jam session or a drum circle, the Wolves’ play right now is occasionally inspired, but more generally tends towards a kind of inoffensive middle ground that’s not disastrous, but rarely galvanizing. When the elements come together, it can create moments of genuine excitement, but real transcendence doesn’t get built out of wicked cool guitar solos. I don’t think I really figured that out until I was 27. Let’s hope the still young Wolves get the opportunity to figure it out sooner than that.