Timberwolves 100, Thunder 81: Smiles and Sobriety
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:
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:
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.