It’s no secret that the Timberwolves’ greatest pitfall this season has been what the kids call a SEGABABA (SEcond GAme of a BAck-to-BAck). Going into last night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers they were 1-5 in such games and had faced and summarily dismissed the Pistons in Detroit on Tuesday night. With Michael Carter Williams sidelined with a … knee infection (yeah, that’s the ticket) and a Sixers team that appeared to be largely made up of created players from NBA 2K14 (“James … Anderson? Sure. Hollis Thompson? Those sound like basketball player names.”), it seemed like this might be the game to start turning that trend around.
Until the game started.
The Sixers grabbed control early and leapt out to a positively Wolvesian 39-20 lead by the end of the first quarter. It was, in short, woeful, and put on exhibit many of the core concerns for this team, including primarily the defense sagging when the offense isn’t clicking. The Wolves shot 30% to Philly’s 77% in the first, and not because they were taking bad shots. It seemed like they kept spinning the ball the wrong direction layups and nothing would go down, plus Kevin Martin was uncharacteristically bricky, going 0-6 from the field.
With the offense sputtering, the defense began to wane as Minnesota focused on willing itself out of a shooting slump. They gave up 15 fastbreak points in the first alone. FIFTEEN. They’re averaging 15.5 fastbreak points allowed PER GAME on the season. Assistant Coach David Adelman wasn’t underselling it when he said that the first half was their worst of the year.
But backing out a little, the box score in broad terms actually doesn’t look awful for the first half as a whole. Looking across the scores by quarter, you can practically see Philly’s youth and enthusiasm succumb to superior raw talent and execution, even if it took nearly the whole game for Minnesota to get back into it. Philly’s points by quarter: 39, 22, 20, 18. Minnesota’s: 20, 28, 38, 28.
In a shocking plot twist, it was the bench that provided the spark, contributing 24 points and ending with a net positive in plus/minus with particularly notable work from Robbie Hummel. The man they (or at least Patrick Fenelon and Jim Petersen) call Jesus Hummelsworth is in an interesting spot right now. Leading up to the Derrick Williams trade, Hummel was seeing a lot of run; in the five games leading up to Williams’ trade on November 26, Hummel played 22, 13, 23, 8 and 10 minutes. In the three following? 1, 0 and then 12 in a blowout loss to the Heat (8.5 of his 12 came in the fourth).
After being held up by Adelman as a model of a good role-player and bench guy (a player who knows what he can do and does just that), what happened to his minutes? It’s possible (and Adelman would no doubt say) that it was about matchups and circumstance, but it did make me wonder how much Hummel was really serving as Adelman’s anti-Derrick, a kind of pawn in an attempt to get Williams to shape up while the front office worked on trade possibilities.
I don’t mean to make that sound as Machiavellian as it probably does; players (especially bench guys) more or less understand that they’re there to be used by the coach as he sees fit, and coaches play or hold back players for reasons that go well beyond utility. Last night, when his number got called, Hummel was ready to jumpstart the offense, even if that’s not the role he usually fills. He was ready to fill a role, and that’s huge, as attested to by Kevin Love here, reacting to a Hummel 3-pointer as the team was clawing its way to the win.
At 11-11, the Wolves are now back to .500 and the NBA season is roughly a quarter over. Maybe they didn’t figure out THE way to fight through these back-to-backs (as Adelman pointed out, they got in at a reasonable hour and didn’t shoot in the morning, so fatigue shouldn’t have factored into the sluggish start), but they found A way, and that’s generally what the season is about: finding way after way after way.
As Adelman said after the game in the context of the decision to call or not call a timeout in response to a run by the other team, “I just felt they had to figure it out themselves. Sometimes something’s going on out there and I tell the coaches, ‘Let ‘em learn what’s going on.’ We can’t keep talking to them about everything — they’ve got to adjust out on the court. And frankly, they just had to get tougher mentally. [The Sixers] just ran it down our throats, like they didn’t even listen to what we talked about. Like, we won last night, we’re home, we’ll win tonight. That’s not the attitude you need.”
That goes well beyond the numbers, beyond considerations of who can give you what at a discrete moment in time. It’s not numbers that go out there and play the game in a SEGABABA. We watch the game and react to what happens, often through looking at it via stats, but the coaches are working on knitting those players together into a team from game to game. A team is “an event, not a thing,” as Richard Ford wrote in The Sportswriter. “It’s time, but not a watch.”