Timberwolves 107, Pistons 101: A Grand Don't Come for Free
In many ways, Rick Adelman’s 1,000th win resembled his 703rd loss. As in Friday night’s game against Toronto, his team enjoyed spells of real ease, in which an overmatched opponent appeared ready to fold the tent and cede the game. In this one, the Wolves cruised to an 11-point lead in the first quarter. They dropped a 12-0 run in the second quarter and a 10-0 run late in the third. But as in their loss to Toronto, they repeatedly gave those leads back with stretches of unfocused play. That is what young teams do I guess, especially one whose primary ballhandlers include an emotional, turnover-prone 22-year-old, a 5’8″ shot-chucking black hole and the fourth Karamazov brother (the skinny, depressed-looking one with the wildly inconsistent shooting mechanics).
The Wolves brought some real advantages to bear in this game that ought to have translated into a much easier win than they ended up with. Spurred by Ricky Rubio’s will to attack the basket and Nikola Pekovic’s prehistorically massive inside presence, the Wolves attempted 38 free-throws to the Pistons 21. Paced, again, by Pekovic, they grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and converted them into 22 second-chance points. And they forced the ragged Pistons into 24 turnovers, a number that, on its face ought to be enough to doom any team.
But despite forcing all of those turnovers, the Wolves had some backcourt problems of their own. Most significantly, they were unable to prevent Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey from penetrating the paint, breaking down the defense and creating easy inside scoring chances, be they dunks at the doorstep for their bigs or short-range floaters for themselves. The more frustrated Ricky Rubio becomes with his own or his team’s offensive game, the more he gambles for steals defensively. Oftentimes he is able to balance this impulse with solid on-ball defense, but on Saturday night his freestyling came at the expense of the grinding, un-romantic work of preventing dribble penetration. I don’t want to minimize the effect of he and Andrei Kirilenko’s 12 combined steals; the two long-armed Wolves disrupted the Pistons’ offensive continuity all game. But Rubio struggled to summon the effort and ingenuity to work his way around ball screens, often allowing himself to be taken out of the play and not putting in the effort to recover back to the ball.
None of the Wolves’ other perimeter defenders fared much better. Kirilenko was called on to use his length on Stuckey; despite his seven steals, AK couldn’t match Stuckey’s quickness on the perimeter. As for Luke Ridnour, he was just not athletic enough to stay in front of Knight or recover from ball screens. Some of the blame should go to the Wolves’ bigs too, who were unable to challenge the Pistons’ guards shots once they got inside. But the failure of the Wolves’ perimeter defenders to impede ballhandlers on the edge forced the bigs into an impossible position, caught in the no-man’s land between containing the ballhandler and staying with their own man. All of this helps to explain why, despite Pek’s work down low and all of those turnovers, the Pistons still ended with a 50-38 edge in paint points.
Here, though, is my favorite of the Wolves’ attempts to slow Knight down. I especially like Jim Petersen’s attempt to blame Knight for being inelegantly crushed by Big Pek:
At least a coffin didn’t land on him.
The Wolves’ had some struggles offensively, too. Although J.J. Barea posted his best scoring game in recent memory, hitting nine of 13 shots and two of three threes, the offense was visibly less fluid and efficient when he was running the show. Barea’s four turnovers in 21 minutes are telling. For much of the first half, the Pistons were playing a chaotic, ragged offensive game; Barea, especially during his second-quarter stint at the point, allowed the Wolves’ offense to be dragged into that chaos.
And although the Wolves’ offense was much more elegant and free-flowing when Rubio and Ridnour were in the game–thanks largely to the attention paid by the Pistons to Pekovic–and although Rubio did the hard work of getting to the free-throw line, its hard to overlook a 2-19 shooting night by your starting backcourt.
And yet, despite it all, Rick Adelman got his 1,000th career victory. It certainly had nothing on the Blazers’ epic Finals battles with Detroit and Chicago, or even on the hyperactive spectacle over on CBS–but such is the NBA. Sometimes your 1,000th victory is a desultory April grinder between two lottery-bound teams. Sometimes you win that 1,000th game just because your team plays marginally less poorly than your opponent. Here’s hoping Adelman sticks around for a couple more.