J.J. Barea sat in front of his locker reading down a ripped box score sheet after the game. Nikola Pekovic leaned over to look at it and a member of the PR team walking by offered a crisp, freshly printed one to Pek. “I don’t need it,” he said, and returned to putting his socks on.
Barea looked at it another minute, then crumpled it up and threw it on the floor.
What was supposed to be an offensive wonder-display between two of the best offensive teams in the league (112.0 points per game for Golden State, 105.3 for Minnesota coming into last night’s game) turned out to be an often frenetic but generally discombobulated effort. The Warriors were 0-for-8 from the arc in the first half. THE WARRIORS! And the Wolves couldn’t seem to finish anything at the rim, shooting only 39.1% from the field and a very 2012-13 20% from 3-point range. The connection between Ricky Rubio and the frontcourt seemed frayed: passes that should have caught Kevin Love or Pek in stride moving towards the basket bounced a little too low or a little too high or else dribbled off of a Warriors defender’s fingertips. Collectively, the starters for the Wolves managed an offensive rating of just 89.9 while giving up 94.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
(Side note: Nikola Pekovic looks out of sorts. He’s shooting just 48.4% in the restricted area and just 41.9% from less than eight feet. Compare this to the similarly offensively-minded Brook Lopez’s 75% in the restricted area and 69.7% from eight feet and in. I’m not saying it won’t come — and a lot of it has to do with an offense that’s moving out to shooters like Kevin Martin and Kevin Love more than last year — but Pek has to finish those dinkers and dunkers around the hoop.)
All in all, it was amazing that the Wolves were only down by three at the half. It was the third quarter where it started to come apart as the bench reared its ugly head. The tandem of Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea was surprisingly effective in the early going last season and in this season has shown flashes of being the kind of spark off the bench that every team craves. But Shved looked flat-out awful last night: just disconnected and out of sorts.
Because of this, Adelman left him on the bench for the entire second half, leaving Barea as the lone ballhandler in a few different lineups with Love, Pekovic, Dante Cunningham, Kevin Martin and Derrick Williams. With Steph Curry sidelined after a leg injury, the Warriors went big. The result was the 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson getting matched up with the (maybe) 6-foot Barea, and 19 fourth quarter points for Golden State’s shooting guard. Put in that impossible place, Barea did his level best to be that little engine that could, but it was just too much. The bench was overwhelmed.
Adelman pointed to this struggle with consistency of effort — across the whole team and across a whole game — as key to the difficulties the team is having. “We just never sustained anything on either side of the court,” he said. “We played in, like, a frenzy. Like we were going to win the game with one possession; we didn’t have any rhythm. [Golden State] turned over 21 times and we get 10 points out of it. We turned over 19 times and we get 26 points out of it. We aren’t balanced.”
You could see it even in the wins over Orlando and the Knicks: that moment when the team — either the bench or the starters — just sort of wilt and stagnate, not moving the ball around and falling into bad jumpers or drive-and-kicks into situations where space hasn’t been opened up on the floor. That struggle, even in wins, is surely what Adelman was thinking about when he wrapped up his press conference, saying, “Sometimes you have success early in the season and you think you have arrived. It almost gives you false security because you’ve won some games. Now we are playing some good teams and we are finding out about ourselves.”
But let’s talk about something fun we found out about the Wolves last night: outlet passes. We’ve seen them before, but this game began to show the full flowering of the Love to Brewer outlet, as shown below in two sterling examples:
The Wolves are going to need these kind of quick strike buckets if they’re going to succeed this season, but they also have to be aware that it has to keep catching teams by surprise. If this kind of thing becomes a habit more than a shock, other teams will adjust and find ways to beat it, either by shadowing Brewer tighter on defensive rebounds, stepping into Love on the same, or just dropping more players back into coverage (to borrow from football).
Last bit (with over-the-top literary reference): Watching Love against David Lee last night, I couldn’t help remembering John Gardner’s Grendel, a reimagining of the Beowulf legend from the viewpoint of the the monster. You may have read it in school. Grendel is portrayed as an outsider, the scary Other to the Danes. In the book’s climax, Grendel attacks Hrothgar’s mead hall, a place he has terrorized before with impunity. But one of the soldiers is Beowulf, not sleeping but lying in wait. When he grabs Grendel’s arm and wrenches it out of the socket, he begins to spit mystical insanity, an echo of things foretold to Grendel by a dragon earlier in the book. In that moment, Grendel — who has been separated from humanity — sees his reflection, at last, in another. Beowulf is like him, but in that completion also brings about his destruction.
I see the same kind of reflection happening between Lee and Love. Beyond the surface similarities — the emphasis on offense, the bad reputation on defense — I see them both struggling for acceptance and recognition, each feeling shut out from the NBA mainstream in some of the same ways. Much as it was with Grendel and Beowulf, there’s an existential pang to the loneliness created by that situation. Each has been almost equally slagged and celebrated, both underrated and overrated, called a franchise player and deemed disposable in trade.
It expands to the teams as well. Both Golden State and Minnesota are built around specialists, around whatever the opposite of redundancy is. Curry and Thompson are scorers and often awful defenders. Lee is an offensive juggernaut and rebounding machine. Bogut is a defensive anchor. Iguodala is the closest thing they have to a Swiss army knife. For the Wolves, Rubio is the distributor; Martin is the shooter; Love is the scorer and rebounder; Pekovic is the meat inside; Brewer is their utility guy.
Last night, the Wolves were Grendel coming up against their Beowulf and getting their arms twisted out of their sockets. Maybe that’s why I was thinking of the Fever Ray song that heads up this post. It wasn’t the title. It’s not that the Wolves don’t have a heart — they do, although this early in the season it can be frustratingly easy to lose track of. It’s that first line: “This will never end ‘cause I want more / More, give me more, give me more.” That’s what the season is going to continue to demand from the Wolves, and what opponents will take from them. After their win against Orlando, Brewer said you learn more from a win than a loss, but I’m not so sure. Once teams have taken all they can from the Wolves, that’s when they have to find more. They should be hoping that losses can teach them that.