2013-14 Season

Timberwolves 100, Thunder 81: Smiles and Sobriety

Rubio Smile

Late in the Wolves’ blowout victory over the Thunder, Alexey Shved was whistled for a blocking foul. The look on his face indicated he thought the call was questionable, to say the least. Shved looked to the bench, a wry smile on his face, where Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio were smiling and laughing. After a second or two, the usually sullen Russian, his mood lighter, subtly flexed his muscles, causing the Minnesota bench to crack up.

Having avoided the mental relapses that allowed the Orlando Magic to crawl back into the opener, the Wolves had plenty to smile about. Eight different players scored seven or more points, with Kevin Love notching 24 (and 12 boards) in 28 minutes to lead the way. Nikola Pekovic had 15 points, 10 rebounds, and stepped in to defend Ricky Rubio in an on-court dustup with Kendrick Perkins. In the locker room, Pek commented, “It’s a man’s game,” drawing chuckles as he shrugged it off. Corey Brewer played indefatigable defense on Kevin Durant, and flashed his own pearly whites, satisfied with a night’s work well done. And Ricky, having put the exclamation point on the rout with a three-pointer at the end of the third quarter, was his usual, bubbly self.

But no one got carried away. The mood was happy, but businesslike. “It’s early, it’s two games,” Rick Adelman said at the podium. “We played a really nice game tonight. It’s going to show them that when we play together as a team, at both ends, we can play with anybody. But it’s got to be constant effort.” Love echoed this sentiment when asked about the potential of his team: “I’ve learned not to look too far into the future. We just want to take it day-by-day… it’s just two games. We just want to live in the present and continue to get better.”

One area in which the Wolves got better from the first game to the second was scoring off of baseline cuts, a staple of Adelman’s corner offense (when it’s functioning properly) that was lacking in the victory over Orlando. Some of their success can be attributed to deviating slightly from standard sets, surprising defenders and leading to easy looks. One example came with 2:40 to go in the first quarter:

Martin Cut One
Ricky holds the ball on the left wing, ready to veer towards the free throw line. Jeremy Lamb (top left, in blue) is assigned to Kevin Martin, who often begins offensive sets camped out above the break.
Martin Cut Two
With Lamb’s eyes on Rubio, Martin is free to cut towards the hoop, diverging from the norm. Notice all the space he has on the left side of the floor.
Martin Cut Three
From there, all it takes is a nifty bounce pass from Rubio…
Martin Cut Four
… and Martin is free for the easy two.

While it’d be nice to say the Wolves’ terrific night was spurred purely by offensive wizardry, the reality is that the Thunder were atrocious on defense for long stretches of the game, particularly when it came to rotations. To Minnesota’s credit, they made Oklahoma City pay for their shortcomings, moving the ball to the open man rather than settling for jump shots. An example of an easy bucket aided by abysmal defense, from early in the second quarter:

Derrick Williams Cut One
Williams (bottom left of the frame) begins the possession by catching a pass from Barea and waiting for Dante Cunningham to clear out of the lane, freeing Ronny Turiaf to facilitate the play.
Derrick Williams Cut Two
Turiaf catches at the elbow and Williams makes his move, heading around the screening J.J. Barea.
Derrick Williams Cut Three
The Thunder have communication issues. Collison (#4 in blue) doesn’t rotate, Fisher doesn’t deflect the pass and Perry Jones can’t get around Barea in time to disrupt the play. The result?
Derrick Williams Cut Four
An easy dunk for Derrick Williams.

Conversely, Minnesota’s defense was terrific while they were trying (read also: the first three quarters). Corey Brewer played 21 energetic minutes on Durant, denying touches, forcing him to catch the ball in unfavorable places, and hounding him if he found a way to get it. It wasn’t a solo effort, however: Timberwolf defenders swarmed Durant, bodying him or clouding lanes, forcing passes to teammates that were ill-equipped to do much with it. To wit: Serge Ibaka took four threes, while Durant managed five. They each made one. Kendrick Perkins attempted a couple of jump shots. The Thunder shot 34.9% as a team, were 7-for-31 (22.6%) from beyond the arc and made it to the free throw line a total of 19 times. Rubio made Reggie Jackson’s life a living hell (he turned it over seven times).

It was a damn shame that Ronny Turiaf left the game with (what appeared to be) a nasty arm/shoulder injury, and that’s the part that sobers you up when you’re drunk off a night of enjoyable Wolves hoops. He would’ve been a joy to watch in a blowout, leading bench celebrations as the Wolves pushed their lead to nearly 30 points or cheering emphatically for rookies (Dieng, Hummel, Shabazz) getting their first taste of NBA action. While Turiaf’s absence (however long it’ll be) won’t alter Minnesota’s season in a meaningful way, it’s sad to think he could miss extended time. His enthusiasm provides much needed levity.

Injuries rob teams of their identity — we are all too familiar with that reality — and the Thunder, bereft of Westbrook’s playmaking ability, looked completely lost tonight. So while it’s tempting to dream big dreams, and to keep the smiles on our faces, it’s probably best to file this one away, satisfied with the result but aware of its context.

If bigger things are on the way, it starts with day-to-day improvement — that’s the refrain coming from Rick Adelman — and while the Wolves were better tonight than they were against Orlando, there’s still plenty left to do.

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0 thoughts on “Timberwolves 100, Thunder 81: Smiles and Sobriety

  1. It almost seemed like Scott Brooks was forcing his role players to step up with how they involved Durant. Either that or they really lack creativity in finding ways to get Durant open shots against double teams. Going back to even Rambis’ first season, the Wolves have always had spirited efforts against OKC that were thwarted by the individual excellence of the Thunder’s stars. It’s a lot easier to build a big lead and hold it when the D has to focus on 1 All-Star (or 0 when he’s resting) instead of 2 or 3. The Wolves have allowed a lot of 3s in the first 2 games, though, and I’m curious why that’s happening and whether it’s an acceptable outcome for their D. They clearly didn’t care about Ibaka in the corner.

  2. Great writeup. I think this game was the first glimpse into the team the most optimistic wolves fans thought we could have. The three double doubles were great but through just two games I’m most impressed with the leaps Corey Brewer has made since he left town. What a beast! My only negative so far is that, while watching the game, I can’t drop the nagging feeling that someone’s going to go down with another injury (which you captured with the sobering from the Turiaf injury). I feel like an overprotective mom at a kids soccer game worrying about poor Tyler’s asthma. I hate this feeling. But a few more games like this and I can probably get over it. Keep up the good work.

  3. Agreed gjk! I don’t like Scott Brooks as an x’s and o’s guy. You’d think he would be able to figure out some way to get Kevin Durant more touches. The Thunder have never had a very good team offense. They live and die by the individual brilliance of Durant and Westbrook. With Westbrook out, Kevin Durant has to be superman for the Thunder to beat a good team like the Wolves.

    Shout out to Corey Brewer though! He really looks like the perfect addition to this team. His defense and transition offense are going to be huge all year!

  4. I disagree. The wolves were brazenly ignoring Perkins and Fisher (and Ibaka once he drifted too far from the basket) in order to deny Durant the ball. I don’t think there much more Brooks can do than to expect his role players to hit wide open shots (Fisher) / pass to the open man (mostly Jackson’s sticky hands).

    Here’s an example of what i mean: http://postimg.org/image/k8dx9g8kj/
    Brewer is fronting Durant to deny him the ball while Pekovic covers the backdoor cut. He does’t even care about Perkins.

    The entire sequence has Pek wandering over to his spot in the lane, Jackson passing to Perkins, Pek slowly walking back over and Perkins attempting a free throw line jumper despite having the lane wide open. To his defense he hit it – but he seriously is no threat at all.

    So I don’t think Brooks strategy is to blame that Durant didn’t get the ball. His rotation probably is though.

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