Over the years, most Timberwolves fans have had their share of moral victories, and most have likely grown sick of them. If you’ve been a fan for more than this season, you know what I’m talking about: although the team loses, they keep it close, or maybe at least show some teeth somewhere in there. But any long-suffering fan is ready for moral victories to be replaced by actual ones, and now that the team is actually winning games they’re supposed to win and looking pretty damn strong — both on offense, where they’re second in pace, and defense, with the league’s sixth best defensive rating at 98.1 — maybe we can begin to accept that there are ways to be successful without necessarily winning, and not feel like we’re just trying to talk ourselves into it.
Last night’s close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, which came down to three opportunities to score on the final possession and a Kevin Love tip-in that came up just short, showed us a lot. On a basic level, it reinforced something we already know: the Timberwolves bench is in trouble. But even this is interesting because the bench seems to be poorly understood by a lot of people. Almost by definition, your bench is going to be flawed in some ways — if the players there were closer to flawless, they’d likely be starting.
But take Dante Cunningham: last season, he provided great energy off the bench, did sterling work on the glass, and could hit that elbow jumper at a pretty decent clip (he shot 47%, to be precise). This season, he’s only shooting 38%, and that’s enough to turn him from bench gold into bench garbage in the eyes of some. Likewise, J.J. Barea has drawn a lot of fire for looking overmatched and frenetic in that second unit, but the way he’s struggling is intimately connected to Alexey Shved’s complete lack of anything resembling reasonable basketball ability right now. Without another creator/facilitator on the floor, teams are free to focus most of their energy on shutting down a guy who’s already at a distinct physical disadvantage. Derrick Williams is the other lost cause out there, and not because he’s an awful basketball player, but just because he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do most of the time. He’s still showing that hesitancy when he catches and too rarely makes the hard cuts that Adelman demands of players in his offense.
One of the beauties of a well-balanced starting unit is how they can pick up each other’s slack. Nikola Pekovic is beginning to show flashes of the form that got him a big contract in the offseason, but while he’s been struggling, Love has looked like a world destroyer. In spite of his triple double against the Lakers, Ricky Rubio has looked off a lot so far this season, not only with his shooting, but with passes that have been just off enough to become turnovers. But Kevin Martin has made the offense look easy (he’s shooting a frankly obscene 58% from 3-point range). In essence, a good unit like the one the Wolves are starting gives you a margin, a little buffer to allow for out-of-control Corey Brewer lay-in attempts and Pekovic missing dinkers around the hoop.
The bench has no such margin right now and it showed last night. Individual game plus/minus is a notoriously touchy stat, but when all your starters are positive and all your bench players are negative, that’s a problem. Against the Lakers the night before, Adelman never ran out his entire second unit, instead opting to put Barea out there with Cunningham and three of the starters for 14 minutes while the starters played 24 minutes together. Adelman had been trying this out for a couple of games, but against the Clippers he went with the entire bench unit and the results were disastrous. The Barea / Shved / Williams / Cunningham / Gorgui Dieng unit was -64.5 in net rating during their four minutes on the floor, and although that’s only four minutes, you could see it when they came on.
Cunningham came in for Love at the 4:22 mark of the first when the score was 22-17 in favor of the Wolves. As the bench rotated in, the tide turned. When Love came back in for Dieng at the 8:26 mark of the second quarter — the first starter to return — the score was 34-32 in favor of the Clippers. By the time Rubio came back in for Barea, completing the return of the starting lineup with 5:41 left in the half, the score was 42-37 Clippers. By halftime, the Wolves starters had battled back to 59-58.
The bench acquitted themselves better in the third and start of the fourth, but when the starters came back with 7:02 left in the fourth, the story shifted again. It was clear by this point that the cost of not putting the Lakers away early the night before was going to be a supremely tired starting unit as the lead swelled from 6 to 11 over the next few minutes. This, however, was where it actually got kind of encouraging.
Over the next couple of minutes, Martin’s 3-point shooting and some hard work by Rubio on the defensive end and Love on the offensive end brought them to within 4 and kept them there through to the very end, when Love couldn’t quite tip in a last second shot to send it to overtime. And that’s when something striking occurred: Love smiled.
Now, you could cry about how superstars lead their teams and he needs to take this seriously and whatever other tired tropes of sports and heroism and masculinity you want to trot out. But dammit, people: this is a GAME. To be that close in a game on the second night of a back-to-back against a stronger opponent after getting off the shnide with the Lakers, to miss a chance at free basketball by just not tipping that ball up a LITTLE harder, that’s exactly the part where you say, “My bad” and smile. Yes, it was cute when Rubio told Shved to change his face and smile. But it’s actually important. If anything, this team has been overly serious, has taken things way too hard because of being snakebitten by injuries last season. It was a terrific game of basketball and I think the Wolves knew that, and that’s good.
A couple sidenotes on the game:
A lot of people are likely to talk about how the end of the third quarter and Jamal Crawford’s ludicrous ¾ court bank shot was a huge swing in the game, but I don’t buy it. It’s true: what could have been an 82-82 game if Cunningham had put back a missed Martin 3-pointer turned into an 85-80 game because of that heave, but if that’s what you’re going to pin winning on, you may as well start divining the future with bird entrails.
Another play people are going to point to as a turning point is Chris Paul’s steal on Corey Brewer driving to the hoop late in the fourth. I saw a lot of Minnesota fans cry foul on Twitter over that one, but I will say I don’t think it’s cut and dried. To my mind, in that moment it’s a 50/50 call and that’s a good time to decide on a jump ball, but hey, that’s just me.
The above dovetails into the entire issue of officiating, which is something you’re not supposed to blame a game on. And I fundamentally agree with that. The officiating is part of the environment of the game, just like fatigue or untied shoes or people with giant pictures of cat heads in the stands. It’s going to change and for fans, it’s usually going to feel inadequate if it feels any way at all. You won’t often catch casual fans applauding the officiating. For the players, they just have to put their heads down and keep playing, hard as that may be. Kevin Love is never going to stop squawking about calls, but so far this season I think he’s been comparatively restrained, which is a good thing.
Doc Rivers walking onto the court at the end of the fourth to call a timeout should have been a technical foul, though. No question.
Last note on the bench: It’s so Minnesota to be extra-concerned about the Wolves bench now that the starters are so good. You didn’t hear a lot about the bench last year because most of them were starters at one point or another. You know why the Lakers’ bench has looked so good? At least partly because their starters are atrocious. The Wolves’ starters have played the most minutes together of any lineup in the NBA right now (191 in eight games). You know who played the most minutes together last season? The Thunder’s starters. Second most? The Pacers’ starters. Those are two teams that made the conference semifinals and the conference finals, respectively. I believe the Timberwolves coaches need to be concerned about the bench production, and need to be assessing how best to get Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf back into the lineup and effective once they’re ready, but fans being overly concerned about it right now is just sowing worry and reaping nothing.
Statistical support by NBA.com.