Timberwolves 109, Knicks 100: This team is… good? Really good?
There’s a certain period of adjustment in expectations when you’ve got a bad team becoming a good team.
You have a time in which the first quarter excellence isn’t such a surprise; it just becomes what you expect. Then the double-digit leads are expected to be kept throughout most of the game. Then you stop telling yourself stuff like, “as long as the other team doesn’t get it below 12 in the next few minutes, we should be fine.” After that, you stop assuming the team is going to not only blow the lead, but the game altogether. It’s such a weird process for dealing with a team going from being perennially bad to being currently good.
I’m not sure the Wolves are officially a good team yet, but the signs are there through the first three games that make me believe they could be pretty soon. Against the New York Knicks Sunday night, we saw everything we’ve expected and feared about this team rolled into one 48-minute contest. It was the same thing we saw when them beat the Orlando Magic, which was more annoying than terrifying because of the caliber of the opponent. But against the Knicks, unraveling on the road sort of became a certainty as the second half progressed and the team panicked before pulling themselves together.
That panic is the period of adjustment with expectations that the team needs to figure out as well.
The Wolves had multiple 23-point leads during this game and yet let the Knicks get it all the way down to two points before they finished the game on a 9-2 run to close out the victory and remain undefeated on the season. There are a couple reasons for that run by the Knicks that made it feel like this game was going to slip away. First, the Knicks are a good basketball team. I know people like to yell about Carmelo Anthony being overrated and that team not actually being as much substance as hype, but they’re actually a really incredible team.
New York had nothing working for it in the first quarter of the game and that was ultimately their undoing. How they combatted the free-flowing offense of the Wolves and the quick change from defense to offense in transition was by getting physical. Metta World Peace and Carmelo Anthony started bumping players on the Wolves and trying to punish them whenever they could. Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, and Raymond Felton started hounding the guards in the second half and tried to get away with as much bumping as they could. The game turned ugly because that was the plan for how to get the Wolves out of their rhythm. It worked too.
Secondly, this team just stopped doing what was working for whatever reason. Adjusting to the expectations of winning games means you take those things in stride and don’t let it get you off your game. Minnesota certainly didn’t do that until the final five minutes of the game. Instead they rushed through muted portions of their offense and couldn’t find any kind of rhythm or hustle on either end of the floor. Schematically, they failed to execute what was proving to be an excellent game plan against the Knicks.
The defense on the floor suffered in the second half because they were slow on rotations. Ricky Rubio made a few plays in the fourth quarter, but his defense was surprisingly awful throughout much of that game. The game plan appeared to be to overload the strong side of the floor whenever the Knicks went into isolation for their wings (primarily Melo). It’s something the Pacers and Bulls have excelled at doing over the years. That works if your rotations around the horn on the perimeter and to the baseline are crisp. The Wolves’ rotations weren’t crisp and Rubio was often left out trying to figure out where the next stop on the rotation would be.
That resulted in a lot of open shots. When the open shots fell, it seemed like the Wolves felt an urgency to get those back quickly. They pushed the pace but were chaotically disorganized in the open floor and secondary transition, rather than being organized chaos to catch their opponents off-guard. Amazingly, they rallied from the big swing and made that cushion they built up in the first quarter work for them throughout the entire game.
Kevin Love was fantastic in pretty much this entire game. 34 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists. That’s not a bad line to take home to meet your parents. Early in the game, Love and Pek dominated the interior. They turned away shots, they pounded the glass, and they provided a fair amount of scoring, even though Pek was missing bunnies like we saw at the beginning of last season. Kevin Martin provided every bit of scoring you might hope from him. This was the Martin game that Adelman raves about. He knocked shots, got into the paint, and had an incredibly efficient scoring night thanks to a lot of trips to the free throw line. That’s what Martin does when he’s at his best. He finished with 30 points on just 12 field goal attempts and nine free throw attempts.
The bench unit in this game struggled and it’s something we’re going to have to watch. We know the starting unit is killer right now. In their 67 minutes together through three games, they have a net rating of +16.3 per 100 possessions. Outside of that, the Wolves haven’t been consistent. Alexey Shved has to give Adelman confidence to play him. JJ Barea has to work to get the team better shots. Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham can’t be scared when they have the ball.
Offensively, the team needs to keep humming as they did when the starters were out there. If they can’t hold leads or extend leads, the Wolves will have to put too much pressure and weight throughout the season on the shoulders of those starters.
But there shouldn’t be much gloom and doom with this game. They figured out how to win it, much like they did against Orlando. It just wasn’t nearly as dramatic. Instead they relied on Kevin Love to save the day and Kevin Martin to do an incredible job in the supporting role. The team is 3-0 and it’s fun to figure out what they are in real time. Heading to Cleveland to face the Cavs in a road back-to-back will be another good test Monday night.
Maybe after that game, we’ll know more on how to adjust our expectations with this team.