Timberwolves 112, Mavericks 106: Flash and Grind

Steve McPherson —  December 1, 2013 — 10 Comments

After Wednesday night’s 117-110 loss to the Denver Nuggets at home, Corey Brewer said, “We’ve got to get some kind of swag, or energy. I was in Denver last year, and we thought we were the greatest team ever, even when we weren’t. We need to get an identity. We don’t have an identity yet.”

An identity can be hard to come by for any individual, much less an individual player defined largely by the thirty or so minutes he spends playing a game a couple nights a week. Multiply this by the nine or ten guys that get regular minutes on an NBA roster and the struggle for an identity becomes exponentially tougher. It took the Heat — a nearly overwhelming collection of talent — a season and a half to figure out how to define themselves on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

For the Wolves, the greatest impediment to self-definition might be how long they’ve been working towards that identity.

For the last two seasons, their failures have not been systemic, but rather happenstance. In 2011-12, it was the lockout and then Ricky Rubio’s torn ACL that robbed them of the playoff berth they were on pace for. Last year it was Kevin Love’s injury, mostly, but then also their weirdly awful 3-point shooting, which didn’t seem attributable strictly to things like not getting open looks or a lack of shooters. The result is a team beset by problems they couldn’t directly address, and so they instead focused on problems they couldn’t be sure were exactly problems.

Consider: Had Love not gone down last season, had the team been more or less healthy and had they still not made the playoffs, they would have had a clearer sense of where to go — stouter defenders, better slashers, better pedigreed shooters. But instead they were left to address poor shooting that might not have needed to be overhauled. They were, after all, missing two of their best 3-point options in Love and Chase Budinger for most of the season.

So when Brewer says they need an identity, he doesn’t mean they need to conceive of who they could be and change who they are to fit that. At least, I don’t think that’s what he means. What the team needs to do is understand what they have and forge an identity out of that. And last night’s win over the Mavericks gave a glimpse into what that might be, a team built on what I’m going to call flash-and-grind.

You’ve heard of grit-and-grind? It’s the principle the Memphis Grizzlies are built on and it’s fairly straightforward: everything is tough. You make the game as tough as possible on the other team with relentless, soul-sucking defense and then accept that you’re going to have to make your own points in the same tedious, clunky way.

Flash-and-grind means getting everything on offense to work as easily and seamlessly as possible and then accepting that it means spending a lot of time doing every small thing right on defense because athleticism is not going to save you. The Wolves are not athletic on either offense or defense. Corey Brewer has a bottomless reserve of energy, but he’s hardly what you would call physically imposing. And while Nikola Pekovic is physically imposing, he can barely get off the ground. Love, Rubio and Kevin Martin are more finesse players, with games predicated on timing, vision and positioning. On offense what this means is beating the other team with ball movement and in transition; the outlet pass is the most obvious emblem of this approach. This is the part that should come naturally to this Wolves team.

The hurdle seems to be that the same approach on defense means making the other team use as much of the shot clock as possible before forcing a bad shot. From time to time, a player like Rubio or Brewer is going to be able to force a quick turnover, but the overall defense has to frustrate, not demoralize, the opponent. This is the grind part.

The good news is that players like Love and Pek are already doing some of this work. Neither is a stopper on defense, nor will provide rim protection, but their rotations are solid and getting better, it seems. The addition of Mbah a Moute shores up this approach on the bench, where it’s already exemplified by Dante Cunningham.

Against the Mavericks, you could see it in the lineup of J.J. Barea, Brewer, Mbah a Moute, Cunningham and Love, which played the second-most minutes (which means six — we are, after all, talking about one game) behind the starters, who played 20. That lineup had a defensive rating (or points allowed per 100 possessions) of 57.6 while putting up an offensive rating of 152.6. That’s a net rating of 95, and that’s pretty good. In such a small sample, though, concrete examples might fare better than numbers. A pair of plays from Mbah a Moute should suffice:

In the first, you can see Mbah a Moute (#12, in case you didn’t) make a cut to the basket after Love vacates the paint to set a pick for Barea. That’s not only a good cut in and of itself, but it also pulls the defender off Brewer in his favorite spot for 3-pointers, the left corner. Barea doesn’t make the layup, but the foundation of smart off-the-ball movement is there.

On the flipside, watch Mbah a Moute play defense on Vince Carter. He fights over Blair’s screen and stays on his hip into the paint and Carter eventually takes a well-contested midrange jumper over two defenders since Brewer has let Jae Crowder go — wisely — in order to trouble Carter.

Neither of those plays were things that Derrick Williams could be relied on to do, and that kind of activity means that Mbah a Moute will likely do more to solidify the Wolves identity as a team than Williams ever could. That’s not a knock on Williams, who looked great in his debut for the Kings, but more a thing that points to how a successful team isn’t only everyone realizing their full potential, but everyone’s full potential fitting together into something cohesive.

The Wolves still have a good ways to go when it comes to maintaining this flash-and-grind identity night in and night out. These things don’t happen overnight. But when the foundation looks solid, as it did last night in Dallas, the margins on the game get softer, more flexible. Near the start of the fourth, Cunningham made two shot-clock beating shots on back-to-back offensive possessions. The first came out of a broken post play for Pek followed by a broken pick-and-roll by Barea and Cunningham. The second came out of near turnover on a dribble handoff and a messy drive-and-kick. Neither should have worked, nor should have a couple of last-second Kevin Martin shots. But last night they did. Any team needs a couple breaks to go there way, and no amount of planning can force those things to go your way. But a solid sense of who they are will give this Wolves team fatter margins for error and suddenly the lucky breaks look like talent and the bad ones won’t hurt as much.

 

Steve McPherson

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10 responses to Timberwolves 112, Mavericks 106: Flash and Grind

  1. The top 3 most productive players on the Wolves are: Love, Martin, and Pekovic. They’ll be around .500 – need more horsepower.

  2. Berdj – it’s early but the wolves are top ten in offensive and Defensive efficiency as well as point differential. That’s not the profile of a .500 team, it’s the profile of a 50+ win team. Take into account the Coach, and hopefully prolonged minutes as a team and I think those numbers will at the very least stick…and the wins will come as a result.

  3. I think it is reasonable to think the Wolves will win between 48 and 52 games (which is about what the tenth best record is in the league most seasons) but that it is also reasonable to say they need more firepower if they are ever going to be more than a fringe playoff team. The sheer number of wins the Wolves should be able to rack up in a league where half the teams appear to be tanking or just plain awful don’t concern me, the distance between the Wolves and the real upper echelon teams and between Rubio and the real secondary superstars on such upper echelon teams bothers me more because it probably bothers Love more.

  4. That’s true about the stats. The Wolves are #8 in both Offensive and Defensive rating right now, and are surrounded by heavy hitters.

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2014.html#all_team_stats

    The Spurs, Thunder, and Nuggets are all ranked below the Wolves in offensive rating, but they rank above the Wolves in defensive rating. The Wolves at #8 in defensive rating are really on the fringe of the good teams, and will need to improve that rank if they want to win. Indeed, they keep getting bounced by the better teams.

    If flash and grind means surrendering 106 points per game, the Wolves have no chance of getting out of the first round.

  5. Agreed about Rubio, Mac, but he’s still improving as a player, and Love hasn’t looked like a primary superstar either.

  6. Bonks: An overwhelming majority of teams are eliminated in the first round when they were not in the playoffs the year before. Notable exceptions like the 01-02 Nets or 07-08 Celtics are usually the result of swinging for the fences by acquiring players like Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen.

    If the Wolves make the playoffs, they’ll likely be facing the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder. No matter what they do this season, I don’t like the chances of them beating any of those teams 4 times out of 7. I’d rather see them become all they can be with what they have than continue to try to chase some ephemeral goal of being this kind of team or that kind of team.

  7. I have harped on this in my last several posts but last night against OKC proved again that the Wolves could compete with those “upper echelon” teams with a decent supporting bench. They were right there last night but the starters ran out of gas and there was no reserve from the reserves.

    I would love to hear some speculation on who may be available and what it might cost. Can we get Kyle Lowry from Toronto a guy who knows Adleman’s system? Could we get a guy like Jordan Crawford out of Boston a good combo guard?

    What would our bench look like with those two instead of Shved and JJ?

    We might have to eat a contract back from Boston but they have a nice trade exception to let us do that. We may need to give up on Muhammad early in his Wolves tenure but aren’t we done with “potential” as Wolves fans? Isn’t it time to at least try to take a shot now while we do have Love for two more years and Martin while he can still take over a game?

  8. I think Crawford would present a lot of the same problems as JJ. He’s playing well right now, but he’s a gunner at heart on a bad team that’s being given a lot of freedom — not ideal for a bench role. And everything I’ve heard about Lowry would seem to indicate that he would bristle at a bench role and likely be problematic.

    Sadly, this is really the situation where Ridnour would have been perfect — as the backup point guard, rather than the starting two guard. But with Williams now gone for a piece that makes more sense in the construction of the team, I do wonder if Barea is next up on the hot seat as a guy who could really help another team more than he can help the Wolves right now.

  9. I agree Steve and I even said it on one of these blogs that I would have rather had Ridnour as our backup PG over JJ. JJ isn’t really a PG. People get lost in his numbers and he can put up a good game from time to time, but even in those games he gives back more than he returns. at his best he treads water. At his worst the other teams backup PG has a career day and JJ is 3 of 11.

    There needs to be some continuity on the floor. Lowry is in a contract year, but I think (I do not know for sure) that getting out of Toronto to play for his old coach he might take a bench role until he can move on next year. Don’t look at Crawford as a comparison to JJ ask yourself who you would rather have on the court a young gunner with some athleticism and swag, or Shved, who brings nothing.

    Also grats on the nod from Jim Petersen last night. He brought up this very article during his commentary during the OKC game.

  10. Remember when we drafted Trey Burke last summer and then traded down because we were stacked with too many awesome guards? That was cool. This is also sarcasm. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like bringing him off the bench…

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