Timberwolves 120, Orlando 115: The Long and Winding Road
“One down!” bellowed Nikola Pekovic in the locker room after the game.
“Eighty-one to go,” replied Ronny Turiaf with a bit more reserve. Moments earlier, Shabazz Muhammad had inadvertently knocked a cup of Gatorade over next to Turiaf’s chair, and Turiaf had not been pleased. Gorgui Dieng had tried to calm the waters. “Come on,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We won.”
Head coach Rick Adelman had been a little less sanguine at the podium a bit earlier. Throughout the preseason he’d gotten on the starters about maintaining focus, on not losing concentration, but he saw more of the same against Orlando. “I thought the ball movement stopped,” he said. “We took a lot of quick shots, hero shots, it was unnecessary.” In spite of those shortcomings, he was pleased to see the team respond and get re-engaged after a woeful effort in the third quarter and fourth quarters (they actually scored fewer points in the fourth (16) than they did in five minutes of overtime (17)).
Adelman seemed to want to plant the idea that there’s not as sharp a distinction between the preseason and the early season as we might think, at least not for this team. Although the games have started to count he emphasized that it’s very much still a learning process at this point. Prior to the game he was asked about if the start of every season was a little bit different, and he compared this Wolves team to some of the team’s in Sacramento or Houston where he just wasn’t sure what they were going to have. Some teams he’d coached, he said, he’d known more or less what they were going to look like on the floor, known how they were going to approach the game, but this one is still coming into focus.
But let’s drill down and look at one particular play that showed a lot of promise for how this team can work on the offensive end. Our own Zach Harper put up a post just last week imploring the Wolves to work more with staggered screens, and we saw a beautiful example of precisely that type of play last night at the end of the third quarter.
Zach emphasized how the staggered screen could open up the floor for Pekovic getting to the basket and Love spotting up at the 3-point line, but here we actually see a different kind of benefit: it opens up the lane for Love — one of the league’s best offensive rebounders — to get into the paint unimpeded.
With J.J. Barea handling the ball near halfcourt, Turiaf and Love move up to set the staggered screen. Love’s screen is really more of a slip screen, since he doesn’t actually make contact with Barea’s man, Jameer Nelson. But it does give Nelson the false sense that he’s gotten past the screen, and this gets him into trouble when he runs into Turiaf. Now, Love’s man is Jason Maxiell and Turiaf’s is Kyle O’Quinn when the play begins, but we can see here that these assignments have gotten muddled because of the staggered screen:
Both Maxiell and O’Quinn seem to be tracking Love, which is reasonable given Love’s abilities as a 3-point shooter, especially in relation to Turiaf as an offensive threat. But here’s the key frame:
Barea has slipped around Turiaf, who successfully threw Nelson off his line. As a result, O’Quinn is now trying to close out on Barea’s shot and Love is already in full stride towards the basket to follow it while Maxiell is still turning. Because of this, Love slices in right between Maxiell and Victor Oladipo for the rebound and the putback.
This was a great play, but the Wolves offense was not without its problems. Yes, they bettered their season average of 30.5% from beyond the arc by shooting 32%, but that’s still not great. Love only managed 3-8 (although yes, one of them was a very important game-tying 3 at the end of regulation) and Kevin Martin went 2-7 from downtown. That’s going to have to get better and, as Adelman would no doubt say, more consistent. The offense looked great in the first half before sagging in the second half.
The defense was, sadly, also about as advertised. Orlando outshot them from the field 47% to 42% but lagged behind in other key areas like free throw shooting and fast break points. Also, through most of the game, the Wolves held a decided advantage in turnovers and points in the paint, but both of those gaps collapsed down the stretch.
But listen: we knew the Wolves were going all-in on offense, and I’ve said before that — faced with the options of trying to bolster an already tantalizing offense that featured Love, Rubio and Pek or shore it up with somewhat better defense at other positions — I’m fine with the direction they went. When your frontcourt starters are not fundamentally defensive-minded players, you’re not going to be able to suddenly become a great defensive team by adding a player at a different position or adding a backup at either PF or C.
Competent defense from the Wolves is going to have to come from developing consistency on offense. I know that sounds weird, but I think what Adelman’s trying to do is get them on track and comfortable executing the offense and banking on that driving them to be crispier on defense. For what it’s worth, both Love and Pek looked good and committed on the defensive end early on.
But of course, we’re just at the beginning of a long road. “It’s an 82 game schedule,” said Adelman. “This isn’t a one win game season.”
Thank God. I don’t think I could take another offseason so soon.