Before we get started, look at this:
LOOK AT IT. OK, cool.
I can make this pretty simple: This is a game the Wolves were supposed to win and they did, even though they weren’t terribly great at any point, really. Yes: The Celtics got as close as 5 points at the end of the second quarter after Avery Bradley sunk a 3-pointer at the buzzer shortly after Jordan Crawford sank one (because hey: if your last name is Crawford and you’re playing the Wolves you should probably go ahead and just fire up threes at the end of quarters). But it wasn’t really the full-on kind of swoon we’ve seen from the Wolves before and Minnesota put the hammer down in a 34-point third quarter.
You want a good sign about how they closed it out? Their largest lead was 21 and they won by 18 points. This was not one of those games where it felt like they won by a lot more — it pretty much felt like they won by 18 points. Most of that can probably be attributed to Adelman leaving his starters in until well into the fourth, far beyond the point where the lead was all but secured. This is what was most interesting about a game whose lone bright point for the Celtics was the play of Avery Bradley, who scored 27 points and accounted for a full 30% of Boston’s points.
It’s interesting because Adelman has essentially three sets of guys to manage: the starters, the bench and the deep bench. At this point, the bench is Dante Cunningham, J.J. Barea and Robbie Hummel. These are the guys Adelman trusts to get into the game and work with the starters. The deep bench is Alexey Shved, Derrick Williams, A.J. Price and Gorgui Dieng, with Shabazz Muhammad consigned to some kind of deep, deep level of bench Hell, at least for the time being. Dieng is a rookie, so his minutes are naturally fleeting, and Price is a training camp signee, so he’s really just here for spot duty.
The plights of Shved and Williams are more troubling. Shved played minutes early on and did little to nothing on the court, going 0-for-2 and grabbing 1 rebound. When it came time to start switching the bench in late in the third, Adelman actually put Barea in for Martin with 2:17 left, then brought Martin back in for Rubio to put him next to Barea with 1:17 left. At the time, the Wolves had a 17-point lead and Adelman still didn’t trust Shved out there. Troubling.
And then there’s the fact that Hummel is eating up whatever minutes Williams likely thought were going to be his, and it was clear in Adelman’s postgame comments why he’s valuing Hummel so highly at this point. “He’s a solid player,” he said. “He’s been that way since the first day of camp. He’s always in the right spot. He understands — really — how to play the game. He doesn’t force anything, he stays within himself. He does what he can do and doesn’t do anything else. That’s why he’s effective.” I’m not convinced Adelman was consciously throwing Williams under the bus, but I think it’s pretty clear that he wants Williams to play more like that: to understand what he can do and just do it. Time and again last season Adelman said how Williams had to be more decisive with the ball, had to be ready to pull up and shoot or else drive or kick it around the perimeter, rather than standing with it and thinking.
Now some of this is not precisely Williams’ fault: what Adelman wants from him is the solid workmanship of a bench guy and what Williams has been working towards being his whole life is a starter with freedom. It’s this kind of clash — more than any question about Williams’ basketball abilities ot IQ — that make me think he’s going to be stuck for as long as he’s on this team. I firmly believe he could make a contribution for another team somewhere as a starting, smallball power forward if he’s given a chance to discover his game. But the quotes about Hummel show that this is Adelman’s world and the bench is just living in it. Adelman is never going to let the leash out enough for that to happen, and I don’t blame him because what he’s doing is more or less working.
Which brings us around to why Adelman put Rubio and Love back into the game with 7:50 remaining in the fourth with the Wolves up 17 and then put in Martin and Brewer with 5:22 to go and the lead at 18. He started pulling them out with about three minutes left in the game, but it seemed like he was trying to send a message on the second night of a back-to-back where they lost a bad game the night before: expect work. Adelman knew he had a cushion provided by two days off before the next game against Washington on Tuesday, so he decided to push the starters a little harder, and they responded by holding serve and keeping that lead intact.
I can’t say I disagree with the approach. If this team is going to go into the playoffs and make some noise there, the starters have to be accustomed to playing big minutes. There’s a certain amount of conditioning you can do with drills and cardio work, but there’s also game conditioning, a lot of which is mental. So pulling the starters with a big lead late in the third and then putting them back in is a way to get them used to be called on whenever the need arises, a way to keep them from getting comfortable, from getting complacent. Prior to the game, Adelman talked about the bench and said, “If someone doesn’t play one night and then they play the next night, how are they going to respond? Are they ready to go or not? It’s about getting your team established. It’s hard on players: they don’t play or they don’t play the minutes they’d like and they’re going to be upset. But you’d really rather have them upset than not.”
But that could just as well apply to anyone on the team. Players need to be ready to respond to so many different situations throughout the season: to play when they’re tired, or sick, or nursing an injury, or when their girlfriend broke up with them, or whatever. The situation is not always going to be ideal so it helps to push them. That has to be weighed against injury concerns, obviously, but there’s something to the idea of playing to win and not simply not to lose. Adelman is trying to instill the former in this team and move them past the latter.