There are plenty of reasons why the Timberwolves lost to the Nuggets on Wednesday night. Denver scored 60 points in the paint, exploiting Minnesota’s questionable perimeter defense and lack of a rim-protecting big man to compensate for it. The Nuggets erupted for a 36-point second quarter, extending the halftime lead to nine (64-55), a difficult hole for any team to crawl out of. Ten (10!!!) different Denver players logged 18 minutes or more, keeping fresh legs on the court at all times, their capable bench unit outscoring the Wolves’ bench players 47-10. Minnesota’s assist-to-turnover ratio was 19-16. Shall I go on?
A loss causes fans, coaches, media members and players to look beyond the box score an into the realm of the abstract for explanations. Postgame, Rick Adelman repeatedly stressed his disappointment with the team’s effort, especially early in the game, and hinted that his players may not be handling their early-season success very well: “There’s been all this talk about what kind of team we can be. I don’t care what people talk about… we have done nothing.” Corey Brewer, candid as always, echoed his coach’s sentiments and elaborated on the mental state of the Timberwolves: “We’ve got to get some kind of swag, or energy. I was in Denver last year, and we thought we were the greatest team ever, even when we weren’t. We need to get an identity. We don’t have an identity yet.”
Kevin Love’s assessment of the loss, on the other hand, was practical (and succinct):
“We just need to play some f—–g defense.”
It’s impossible to quantify energy levels and difficult to identify what, precisely, “swag” is. So instead of focusing on those lacking aspects of the Wolves’ loss to the Nuggets, I’ll focus on a couple of plays that offer concrete examples of problems on the defensive end, namely, lack of communication and knowing when (and when not) to gamble on the perimeter.
The first play is from early in the fourth quarter – the Wolves, trailing by 6, need to start getting stops in order to close the gap.
The Wolves cleaned things up long enough to go on a run and make a game of it. Their 10-0 spurt from 5:45 to 3:57 of the fourth quarter was characterized by tough defense and transition buckets. Minnesota forced Denver into contested Andre Miller jumpers, a Nate Robinson three-point attempt from somewhere out in the suburbs, and turned perimeter steals into Kevin Martin layups on the other end of the floor. 44 minutes into a game plagued with (largely self-inflicted) problems, Minnesota was down by a point (103-102) and had momentum on their side.
They gave it all right back, unfortunately, which brings me to point number two: knowing when to take a gamble. In the example below, the Nuggets are holding the ball with a five point lead (107-102) and 2:40 to go.
Despite all the Wolves’ problems – low energy levels, the rough second quarter, the lack of defensive execution, reliance on Ricky Rubio jumpers early in the third quarter, the poor shooting night from the perimeter (5-for-20) and few fastbreak opportunities for much of the game – despite all that, it was a one possession game with 1:10 left to play. If the Wolves got another stop, they’d be in business.
As Jim Peterson says in the video, it does no good to complain about officiating… but this was a tough pill to swallow at the end of a close game. Pekovic’s block on Lawson was clean – it was rather apparent live, and while the video isn’t the greatest quality (my apologies), replays showed Big Pek getting all ball. The officials aren’t the reason the Wolves lost the game – see the first 800 words of this column for an explanation why – but they certainly didn’t help matters.
It’s tempting to start drawing grand conclusions about this year’s team from their recent difficult stretch (they’ve lost five of six) but – at the risk of sounding like a homer – everyone should relax. Rick Adelman’s still figuring out his rotations, and will use practice on Friday to integrate his newest piece (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who dressed but didn’t play) into the mix. The schedule, which has been brutal for the past week, stays that way through the month of December. (Combined 2012-13 winning percentage among December opponents? .561. Sheesh…) It takes time for pieces to gel, for a team to come together and become the truest version of themselves.
The box score offers plenty of explanations for why the Wolves lost. If you watched the game, you’ve got plenty others, I’m sure. If you look at the big picture – the Wolves have managed to hang around on nights they’ve failed to play anywhere close to the top of their game. Denver could end up being a very good basketball team, which would make this defeat look like less of a blemish and more like a learning opportunity.
The same applies to Minnesota.