Last night, Ricky Rubio, regarded as an offensive wizard and a defensive nuisance, came out of the game at the end of the third quarter and was a healthy scratch for the entirety of the fourth. His replacement, J.J. Barea, played pretty good defense (on the much bigger) Kyrie Irving in his stead. Derrick Williams, who sat out more than a third of last season’s fourth quarters, played all 12 minutes of this fourth quarter, contributing big buckets (9 points on 4-of-6 shooting) and adequately handling his defensive assignments. The Timberwolves closed a 23-point lead to 9 points, then watched the Cavaliers push it back to 16, only to find themselves with the ball, needing one basket to win the game. And on the game’s final possession, Kevin Love got a good look from his usual sweet spot, the left wing three, and failed to connect, sealing the Wolves’ loss.
In short, some really weird stuff happened in Cleveland last night.
While the game’s ultimate period provides plenty of fodder (which will be addressed later), there were signs in the first three quarters that pointed to a losing effort by the Timberwolves, no matter what kind of late rally they mustered. Minnesota again struggled with wing defensive rotations early in the game, and perimeter defense in general, allowing easy drives by C.J. Miles (19 points in 18 minutes) and Alonzo Gee (9 points) from the arc to the rim. Kevin Love followed up his tough three-point shooting night in New York (2-for-8) with an 0-for-7 clunker, despite getting decent looks for much of the game. Nikola Pekovic, again, had trouble finishing putbacks near the rim.
The offense, shepherded by Rubio for 25:36 of the game’s first 36 minutes, was oftentimes stagnant. Part of it had to do with the Cavs’ efforts on Minnesota’s guards, trapping them along the wings and forcing cross-court (or otherwise difficult) passes, interrupting the flow of the Wolves’ attack. At other times, Love, Martin and Rubio spent time swinging the ball back and forth, each unable or unwilling to pull the trigger on a shot until the 24-second clock told them they had to. An example, from around the 5:30 mark of the 3rd quarter:
While a single play doesn’t tell the whole story, the one above was indicative of how Minnesota fared in halfcourt sets for much of the game, even when the starters were on the floor. Kevin Martin kept the Wolves afloat by starting out 4-of-5 from three and getting to the line repeatedly, schooling Dion Waiters and C.J. Miles and tricking them into ticky-tack fouls. Watching the veteran shooting guard manipulate young, inexperienced defenders is a real treat. Occasionally, Martin’s offensive philosophy results in ugly possessions — especially when he commits to an awkward shot, counting on a whistle that never comes — but it’s nice to know that he’s capable of carrying the offense during stretches when the overall scheme isn’t functioning right.
The second unit, afforded more minutes than usual because this was the second night of a back-to-back, did not make the most of the opportunity. Gorgui Dieng, expected to play a bigger role in the absence of Ronny Turiaf, committed three fouls in 2:38 and was taken to school by Andrew Bynum, who is clearly working himself back into game shape. Alexey Shved failed to make a field goal in three attempts, turned the ball over once and drew the ire of Rick Adelman by leaking out prematurely, resulting in an easy Cleveland three. The bench allowed the Cavaliers to extend their lead from 4 to 16 points, which proved too big a hole to crawl out of.
But damn it if the Wolves weren’t going to try. Instead of sending in the kids (Bazz, Dieng, and Hummel) to play out the string, Adelman kept his foot on the gas pedal. It paid off, as Minnesota nearly found a way to steal the victory despite their first half woes. It was tough to tell, even on a second viewing, if the Wolves’ defense was particularly praiseworthy for their efforts in the final five minutes, or whether the hotness of the Cavaliers’ offensive mess was the real story. (It was probably some combination of both.)
Here are the Cleveland’s’ offensive possessions after the 5:00 mark of the 4th quarter, at which time they led 91-75:
|4:40||Missed Shot||C.J. Miles|
|4:10||Missed Shots||C.J. Miles, Tristan Thompson|
|2:45||Made Shot||Kyrie Irving|
|2:17||Missed Shot||Tristan Thompson|
|1:56||Turnover (Offensive Foul)||Kyrie Irving|
|1:25||Missed Shot||Jarrett Jack|
|0:56||Missed Shots||Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson|
|0:18||Missed Hero Ball Shot||Kyrie Irving|
The results of all those turnovers and missed shots were leak-out opportunities by Corey Brewer, who scored six points off of transition chances, including a huge layup with 1:16 left that made it a one possession game (93-90). Brewer’s ability to run the floor, catching outlet passes from Kevin Love in particular, is becoming a staple of the Minnesota attack. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
From the get-go, it looked like a loss was in the cards for the Timberwolves, who started flat, sleepwalked through the first half, and only began to play inspired basketball near the end of the third quarter. That they showed the resolve to fight back, and nearly snatched the victory on the road on the second night of a back-to-back, speaks to the talent on the roster and the motivational acumen of Rick Adelman. They won’t have much time to regain their bearings, however – the juggernaut known as the Golden State Warriors pay a visit on Wednesday night, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll afford Minnesota as many easy opportunities as the Cavaliers did.