Timberwolves 109, Knicks 100: This team is… good? Really good?

Zach Harper —  November 4, 2013 — 13 Comments

WolvesKnicks

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.

Zach Harper

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13 responses to Timberwolves 109, Knicks 100: This team is… good? Really good?

  1. I know the feeling. I’m a little in disbelief myself. I watched the first quarter and then the last 7 minutes of the game. I think we finished pretty strong, not giving in to the knicks. But I don’t want to celebrate too much. I don’t want to jinx anything before I am more confident in our abilities.

  2. only beef right now is adelman’s rotation. don’t agree with keeping love in so deep into the 2nd quarters, particularly with turiaf out.

    would like to see him get pulled at the two minute mark in 1Q ala MJ. let rubio and martin run with 2nd unit. not sure if this is cause of offense bogging down, but we sure seem to get stagnant early in 2Q.

  3. Pooh Richardson November 4, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Through three games this team is, I think, meeting the lofty expectations I have at the start of every Wolves season, before my October optimism sours to early December pessimism. Yes, they’ve seen double digit leads fall apart in two games, but they’ve fought off late game rallies and responded. And they’ve responded with long range shots, a weapon that was missing from the wolves’ severely depleted arsenal last season. I’m aleady surprised at how much I’m enjoying the beginning of the Kevin Martin era. His shot is hideous, but it seems to drop every time he gets an open look. Too early to call him the team’s best free agent signing in a decade? Maybe, don’t judge me.

  4. I was looking at ESPN Team roster statistics (very well presented by ESPN). Rubio and Barea’s numbers are next to each other’s row. Rubio Plays 17 minutes per game more than Barea, so most all of Rubio’s statistics that are better than Barea, is because of the fact that he plays much more minutes. But the most important number: Player efficiency, has Barea winning by over 3 points, slightly greater that Kevin Martin, who we all agree is a sensational player. Also, the Assist-Turnover Ratio is very much better for Barea. A player with a high assists to turnover ratio is a player who is highly skilled at handling the ball and making the right passes. This is even more significant considering that Barea plays in the second unit.
    I agree Rubio is a flashy player. His steals and assists numbers are among the best in the league, and this is noteworthy, but his A/TO Ratio must improve quick. And he just can’t shoot right, especially when its most needed, and that worries me. We all keep talking about his potential, his potential, and again his unfulfilled potential ( frankly don’t see the hype!), while a proven, championship-winning aggressive and fearless pointguard is sitting doing backup work, unnapreciated (short guys never get respect! LOL!). Barea needs to be unleashed. I think a time will come for the team in which the coach will have to balance out the play time for both of its Point Guards (Barea and Rubio). This is key for the success of the team, because the last 3 games have shown that the team is basically Kevin Love. If this guy gets injured (I hope not, Lord keep him healthy!) there goes the team, if we don’t recognize the need for a strong consistent leader playing Point Guard. Just my humble opinion.

  5. The thing i found most interesting was the end of the game two man play with Love and Martin. I have been of belief Wolves are 44-46 win team probably.The glimpse i saw of an efficient end of game ability could make them a 50-52 win team.
    As much as I love Rubio’s game, I have never been a fan of how he has handled the last 2 minutes. Desire and cojones are there, ability to finish one on one is not developed enough. That to me was a best takeaway from game in my opinion.
    Thanks for all the articles. big fan.

  6. Zach, I know you love JJ Barea but man that dude just pisses me off. I would so much rather have had Luke as the backup PG. JJ just tries to do too much on his own. and dribbling the the air our of the ball helps no one and involves no one. And I am telling you now, Alexey Shved will be back in Europe after this contract is up. He’s not an NBA PG or SG.

    On the bright side. I am glad all of the guys pissing me off this year are on the second team. That right there is a sign of improvement.

    Side Note, after watching the game last night, Who would you rather have Shabazz Muhammad or Tim Hardaway Jr.? That dunk was just WOW!!!

  7. I wish Williams had a better combination of explosiveness and finishing ability. He’s shown flashes of being pretty good around the rim, but last night he had some terribly awkward attempts around the hoop. Being a lifelong Celtics fan, there’s no reason I should hold my breath watching him try to finish around the hoop the same way I did for Big Baby and for KG since 2009. It’s one thing to not have post moves, but it’s another entirely to be able to jump the way he does and have no idea how to maneuver around the rim to his advantage and still be able to get a shot to fall.

  8. I am a little concerned about the starters playing too much. I just do not want them to break down or get hurt. Great start to the season. This team is for real.

  9. farnorth, give Shabazz a break. We all knew going into this season that he wasn’t going to be a part of this team’s success this year. He’s got more potential than Hardaway, and it’s up to Adelman to figure out how to bring it out of him.

    If we had Hardaway now, he would be a better bench player at this point in his career, but I don’t think that Hardaway gets much better than he is now. Sure, he’ll get more minutes, but I don’t see him becoming a much better player in the next 5 years.

    As far as Shved, I agree. He looks utterly confused every time he gets the ball, and I think the pressure of playing in the NBA is getting to him. I think he needs to take a seat on the bench beside Shabazz for a while and let AJ Price in the game, at least to see if he can make a difference right now. Shved’s got a lot to learn, and it will depend how hard he’s willing to work for it.

    JJ, I can’t really argue with. Sure, he doesn’t get many other players involved, but Adelman wants him to be the spark plug for the bench. His main duty is to score, and that’s how he knows how to. It just feels weird on this team because the starter is a pass-first type guy. As long as JJ stays effective and keeps scoring, I can’t really argue with the results.

    And what about Derrick Williams? This season I see a player that is slimmer, quicker, and more athletic out on the floor. He’s not taking as many bad shots as he did last year, and he’s getting to the glass and rebounding better. I like his development thus far and hope he continues to be a smart player for the Wolves this year.

  10. farnorth, I totally understand why people get frustrated with JJ. But there’s no way in h*ll I’d take Ridnour over JJ. Sure, JJ can dribble the air right out of the ball, but on a second unit that struggles to score at times, he’s not afraid to take a big shot (and make it fairly often) or drive to the hole and draw a foul, hit a layup or find a teammate. Ridnour shoots jump shots. That’s pretty much it. He didn’ t create anything, and didn’t have the ability to do so even if he wanted to. JJ will have a game every now and then that makes you pull most of your hair out. I may be alone here, but I’ll take those games in exchange for the energy and aggression he brings to the 2nd unit.

  11. I don’t want to read too much into anyone’s success or failure at this point. Overconfidence from the fast starts have led to more turnovers and rushed shots later in some games. At some point, someone might have to end the opponents’ physicality, for it’s the default option to turn the tide against this team. The final outcome to the season will determine how good they are, not anything before it.

    I disagree that the Knicks are “really incredible.” They’re the Joe Johnson-era Hawks w a better top scorer, a worse big 3, and more vets. It’s good the Wolves were able to beat them either way.

  12. This team is so amazing(ly frustrating) to watch. There are periods of time (most notably the first quarters, the OT against Orlando, the defense during the first 3Q’s against OKC) where this team doesn’t just look great. They look elite. Combine that with wanting desperately for the Wolves to be a top 4 team out west, and it makes for a constant nail-biting viewing experience. Even when we’d push the lead back to 18, 19, 20 against the Knicks, old-viewing-me was just waiting for it to collapse. This is probably the feeling Zach describes with a bad team becoming good. I WANT to expect them to win, especially after those periods of elite level play. But I’m afraid to.

    Or, at this point, I’ve already committed to the Wolves being a playoff team, to them fighting for a division title, and I’m simply afraid I’m wrong. Keep proving me right, boys. It’s fantastic to think my caring might not result in abject misery.

  13. Nick, what in Shabazz’s college playing career makes you believe his potential is any better than any other first round rookies? He’s a volume shooter that has no other skill. Look at the OKC blowout when Rick emptied the bench. That’s the guy we got, he was the exact same guy he was in college.

    And as for JJ being a spark plug, yeah every once in awhile it works but at what cost? One of the reasons you can’t count on the second team is no one gets the ball with any time on the clock after JJ has dribbled the ENTIRE floor (I mean he needs to make sure every square inch of the arena has had a shot at seeing the ball too bad the same can’t be said for his team) and he either puts up an off balanced prayer or tries to get somebody leaning. If those two situations don’t happen some lucky teammate gets the ball with 3 to shot and it’s their fault if nothing goes in. I HATE THE GUY the Mav’s can have him back. We need a backup PG not the world’s smallest SG.

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