Its a given that this Timberwolves’ season has been a bitter disappointment. I always believed that prognosticating before the year even began was foolish; the calculus of variables was just too ornate to ever settle confidently on one outcome. I think its safe to say, though, that the year has become something close to the worst-case-scenario. Yes, Andrei Kirilenko returned to his mid-oughts form–at least until fatigue and injury robbed him of a little of his vivacity–and Ricky Rubio has made incredible strides in his recovery. But Kevin Love’s injury, and the plague of injuries to key players that has infected the team all year long, has negated all of that.
Still, it could be so much worse. You could be a Wolves’ fan of four years ago, wondering if Randy Wittman could turn things around, hoping that Randy Foye and Rashad McCants could one day justify their lottery status. Remember that? Or even worse: you could be a Phoenix Sun’s fan right now. If that were the case, you would have endured a recent 10-game losing streak and a road record of 8-32, not to mention an entire season of Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson. You know what that’s like and it’s no fun. The “core” of your team would be Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley, fine players, to be sure, but nothing to build a team around. Your most recent lottery pick, Kendall Marshall, would look, and play ball, like a member of Das Racist. You would be placing your hopes for the future on the only front office with a claim to being worse on draft day than the Wolves. You would be cheering very hard for PJ Tucker and also for the Morris twins.
You would be cheering for a team that seems to expect itself to lose to the Timberwolves and then, in an act of self-fulfiling prophecy, drops an incredible 28 turnovers, allowing itself to lose by 12 despite shooting over 50% from the floor. You would be the team that allowed the Wolves to dream of a better future, to see the possibilities of what could be. The last time these two teams played, the Wolves came as close as they have all year to fully actualizing their potential. And although this game was not the comprehensive beatdown of a few weeks back, we still got a nice glimpse of this team’s ideal proportions.
Specifically, we saw the ideal relationship between Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea. I’ve been pretty vocal in my critiques of Barea as a floor general. But the truth is that this is not so much an indictment of Barea as a player as it is of the role he’s been forced to fill this season. Because J.J. Barea is not a point guard, he is a bringer of chaos. If a point guard’s job is to weave the game into a coherent fabric, Barea’s job is to tear great holes in that fabric. In strategic doses, these violent, anarchic bursts can stun a defense and provide your team with surges of inspiration. Just look at his role on the Mavericks’ title team. Jason Kidd gave the Mavs’ offense an overarching structure and harmony; Barea was the demon who provided the dissonance.
Tonight, we saw how that dynamic might work for the Wolves. When his shot is falling and the opponent must reckon with him as a scorer, Ricky Rubio can be the great organizing principle of the Wolves’ offense, the player who gives everything shape and coherence. The formula is pretty simple. We all know that Rubio is a genius-level passer, and that he will find and exploit any sliver of passing lane that the defense grants him. And we are seeing now that as Rubio’s knee has gained strength, his ability to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line has improved dramatically. But he is, of course, a terrible shooter; right now, defenses have the luxury of sinking to the basket to prevent dribble penetration and clog passing lanes. Ricky needs to be able to do exactly what he did last night: When the defense grants you wide open 15-footers, get your feet set, rise up nice and strong, give the ball even just a bit of arc, watch that thing go in maybe half the time. (Sounds so easy, right? Until I remember how game situations turn my shooting mechanics into a wobbly hash of splayed feet, drifting elbows and aborted follow-throughs.)
I know that Rubio hit his career high of 24 points and that last night’s shooting efficiency is no the norm. And I know that fixing shooting mechanics is a long, arduous business. But if Rubio can force opponents to defend his shot, the combination of Rubio with the ball, Kevin Love popping, Nikola Pekovic rolling to the hoop and a couple of shooters on the wing (I’m looking at you Victor Oladipo) will be effing nasty. Place this within the structure of Adelman’s corner sets and you’ve got yourself a coherent offensive idea. And that is exactly the context within which J.J. Barea can sow serious destruction, as he did last night. Take some deep threes; hit some ridiculous falling reverse layups; attack any slow-footed big unfortunate enough to get in his way. In short, be his freestyling, over-caffeinated self for 15-20 judiciously deployed minutes.
(Also, in this future utopia, we will never again be treated to the spectacle of Luke Ridnour guarding players six inches taller than himself, an arrangement that causes guys like Wes Johnson to appear as if they are viable NBA scorers, even if only for a few minutes.)
In many ways, this game was a typical mid April fatigue-fest between two lottery bound teams. Phoenix defended very much like a team with little to play for. During the first half, the Wolves looked every inch the squad playing its fourth game in five nights. As Zach remarked in the third quarter, “both teams look like they’re down by 15.” But despite all of that, for the Wolves at least, the game clearly meant something more. Ricky got his career high. The team reached the 30-win mark without Kevin Garnett for the first time in its history. This win also gave them a chance at their first home winning season since 2005-2006. Most importantly, this game and many of their games over the past month, have pointed a way to a better future. A lot can go wrong, to be sure. But for the first time in years it feels like there’s a chance that something could go right.