Timberwolves 120, Trail Blazers 109: PF’s the Best Position They Is

Steve McPherson —  December 19, 2013 — 17 Comments

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This was a game that could best be described as a fever dream, a disorienting mix of lightheadedness, unreasonable giddiness and unmoored feelings of unease. In spite of all that, this is more or less the house where Wolves fans should reasonably expect to live. Most of the things that are supposed to happen did: a stuffed stat sheet from Kevin Love, Brobdingnagian numbers from the Brobdingnagian Nikola Pekovic, effective and efficient scoring from Kevin Martin. Oh and Ricky Rubio did this, stirring feelings of pure joy that don’t seem to happen as often as they once did with him:

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Other things that can be expected but that we don’t have to like happened: 19% shooting from Ricky Rubio, a similarly rocky night for Corey Brewer.

But the ball whipped around the perimeter more often than not and Pek stayed mobile and caught the ball in good position en route to 30 points, just shy of his career high of 31. Things that are not supposed to happen did, too: J.J. Barea scored 21 with 5 assists and took (and made) a bunch of shots that had no right to go in. Alexey Shved appeared to be aware of what a basketball is and how to dribble it. But all this brings along problems. The Wolves, even at something approximating the Platonic ideal of their approach to basketball, are not championship contenders. I actually think that’s fine, but more on that later.

Facing a team that in-arena host B-Wright crowed about as “the best team in the NBA” after the victory — which, OK, technically because they have the best record, but I’m not ready to crown them yet — who were playing their fourth game in five nights, the Wolves had to jump down their throats and attack them from the duodenum out. “We talked about it,” confirmed Rick Adelman in his postgame conference. “We wanted to come after them.”

And boy howdy they did. When the Wolves hit 62 with 4:52 remaining in the second and the Blazers sitting at 30, it was delirious. Kevin Love was two assists shy of a triple-double at the half (a triple-double he ended up missing by a single assist). The thing is that they poured an immense amount of energy into building that towering edifice of a lead and they needed almost every bit of it to hold off a Portland team that made a couple strong pushes to nearly get them back into the game. When you’re at 62-30 in the second half, it’s unlikely you win the game 165-80. In spite of that first quarter and a half of effort, the starters ended up mostly negative in plus/minus (Love had a +5) while it was the bench who came out smelling rosy by that metric (+23 for Luc Mbah a Moute, +24 for Dante Cunningham, +22 for Barea and even a +11 for Shved).

SIDEBAR: Special shout to Mbah a Moute, whom I’ve already seen getting slagged in some places after only being with the team for a little over three weeks. Dude was 2-2 from the field and 2-2 from the line while grabbing 5 boards and not turning the ball over in 14 minutes. That’s almost 13 boards and 15 points per-36 and that’s precisely what you want from a guy off the bench.

Part of what was unusual about the Wolves building out such a big lead was that they did almost without the 3-pointer. They didn’t make one in the first quarter and were only shooting 25% from deep at the half. Instead they went inside, where they positively ate Portland’s lunch like a delicious Pine State Biscuit to the tune of 72 points in the paint. Fortunately for the Wolves, the Blazers looked even worse from the arc, managing only 15% at the half, and this for a team that’s leading the league in 3-point percentage. And they took A TON of threes. A Grinnell-esque 40, in fact. The Wolves know all too well how punishing the second game of a back-to-back and the fourth in five nights can be — maybe that’s part of what got them going at Portland so hard.

The big talking point going into the night was the matchup between Love and LaMarcus Aldridge and who is the better power forward. During the regular season, this kind of thing gets a lot of play because what else are we going to do? Neither player seemed that into it, with Aldridge saying of the matchup afterwards, “We didn’t really go at each other the whole game. I had Dante and a little bit of Pek on me, so I didn’t feel like it was [a straight matchup].” Love sang Aldridge’s praises respectfully before angling it back to the Wolves’ accomplishments: “He’s an unbelievable player and has played unbelievable this year and we were just happy to get off to a great start because we know what they are capable of in the 3rd quarter and 2nd half of really closing out games so we did a good job.”

I preferred Corey Brewer’s answer: “You can check the stats and you’ll see who the best power forward is AND we got the W. That’s the way I feel about that. Everybody talks about the best power forward. As far as night in and night out: K Love, best power forward in the game. Gets his numbers, passes the ball, should’ve had a triple double tonight, that’s what he does. Play with a guy like that, makes the game easy for all of us.”

So does that count as the swagger that Brewer alluded to the team needing to develop after a bad loss to Denver in late November? Hard to say, and this is where we come back to some of those problems I alluded to earlier. This Wolves team doesn’t have to play their perfect basketball to win — this game demonstrated that. And even if they did play their perfect basketball, I remain unconvinced that their utopian understanding of themselves is enough to get them deep into the playoffs unless a matchup is wildly favorable for them. You hear it all the time: a team has to be top ten in both offense and defense to seriously contend and after last night the Wolves are 12th in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating.

And frankly, I don’t much care. Some of you are going to say I’m being too hard on them. And if I had just sung their praises after this win, some of you would have said I’m being too soft. That’s fine with me. I’m actually more interested in the process, more interested in seeing this team grow into themselves, even if who they grow into is only a tremendously fun and enjoyable team that loses in the first round or even doesn’t make the playoffs. I don’t believe this was a signature win even if it was against the “best team in the NBA.” I don’t believe in signature wins. I believe I’m enjoying this team, and I believe that’s enough.

 

Steve McPherson

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17 responses to Timberwolves 120, Trail Blazers 109: PF’s the Best Position They Is

  1. Perspective! How DARE you, sir! how dare you!

  2. Easiest bet I ever made was on the Wolves last night. The Blazers have been crazy overrated this year, and 4 games in 5 nights, and back to back road games, this was an obvious win for us. I’m actually disappointed in the major let down though. Up 30 points, and at one point with 2 minutes left the Blazers get it down to 5 points? That is a bad let down.

  3. I don’t know, from about 8:30 remaining in the 1st the blazers never took the lead. I am not to worried about Lillard hitting 3 3′s in about 2 minutes to make the game seem closer than it really was.

  4. The best part was, many of Lillard’s made 3′s were well contested and he would just knock them down. If we can contest other teams like that, they can’t all knock down those 3′s.

  5. This game makes me think the Twolves can turn it around and contend in the West this year. Lillard is the truth, and should be an All-Star. Kevin Love is better than ever, and Pek is in a groove. Ka-pow! Big money guys need to keep stepping up.

  6. Shabazz should go to the D-League and gain the opportunity to improve his game. It’s not the end of the world for him, just a better opportunity for him at his age.

  7. About the Wolves contending, I’d be interested to see you weigh in on the Hollinger rankings at ESPN. After last night, the Wolves are ranked 7 in the league behind the Heat. I’m not an Insider, so I don’t know the method behind his RAT stat, but it’s some combination of advanced stats.

    http://espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/powerrankings

    Earlier I was pessimistic on the Wolves, but then the in-game crew some games back was talking about the back-to-backs, and the Wolves have had a ton of them. Quite a few of the players just don’t seem to have the constitution to nail back to backs. There aren’t any back-to-backs in the playoffs, and I think the Wolves could surprise some people.

  8. Man, they were panicking with a 20 point lead in the third quarter! I got the sense that Lillard was actually feeding off their fear. This team needs more confidence and toughness if they want to contend.

  9. @Bonks: It’s true the Wolves have had a rough schedule, and it will continue to be bad (they travel the most of any team in the NBA — 9,000-odd miles, I believe). It’s true that there aren’t back-to-backs in the playoffs, but there’s also less surprise, and at least some of the Wolves success is based on pace and catching teams off guard. As I said, with a favorable matchup, I could see them causing trouble in the playoffs. I think they’ve often played the Thunder very tight for instance. Sometimes there are blowouts either way between those two teams, but they’ve also played a lot of very competitive games. I think if they tun into the Spurs or Clippers they’ll be in trouble. If you look at Hollinger’s playoff odds (http://espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/playoffodds), the Wolves currently have a 77% chance of making the playoffs, which is good, but also a 23% chance of not making them, which is not insignificant. Their projected record (48-33) would be good for the third seed in the East right now, which is hilarious.

    I just don’t like their chances in a 7-game series against any of the Spurs, Clippers or Blazers, in spite of last night’s game. It cuts both ways, the not-having-back-to-backs.

  10. Being 500 while having the second most difficult SoS is not a terrible place to be in, but it is not a great sign for being a title contender either. Thunder have the 7th highest SoS and have the best record in the league. I am not worried about being a threat to be go deep into the playoffs though. No team goes right from lottery to real threat in one year (unless three elite players make an agreement while at the Olympics). I do think that making the playoffs is very important this year for a few reasons:
    1. Appease Kevin Love, who has said several times how important it is to him to be there
    2. Get experience for the future when they can become real title threats
    3. Help shake the losing culture
    I think this is a year that will define where the Twolves end up over the next couple of years. Missing the playoff would be a disaster.

  11. The Hollinger ratings are similar to Basketball Reference’s Net Rating (http://tinyurl.com/l8kn5mh), which has the Wolves at 8th in the league and 6th in the West with the schedule included or not.

    At this point, I’m most concerned about sharpening the lack of focus that’s cost them wins; if they play recklessly fast (as they have several times), that’s losing with pace, and they’ve lost more games due to not taking their opponent seriously than won them because the opponent didn’t take them seriously.

  12. @Steve: Do you think the local guys like all of you on this site, Zgoda, Wolfson, etc. have a better grasp of the Love situation than the national guys? I was surprised by Zach Lowe’s blurb today suggesting that a midseason trade of him if the team doesn’t get better was even within the realm of possibility. What he said (midseason vs. sometime next calendar year) is open to interpretation, but this and the constant chirping of Bill Simmons make me wonder if these guys have more or less knowledge of the situation than those closest to the team every day.

  13. Pine State biscuits are fantastic. Just sayin’.

  14. I would not put too much weight in what Bill Simmons said about trades, I don’t think he is any kind of insider, just a fan of the game. The fact that he would trade Love for Griffin kinda sealed that for me.

  15. @gjk: What Jordan said. More specifically, any trade rumors you actually hear are likely more motivated by what agents and teams want than what might actually happen. Those kinds of rumors are always floated out to try and make a deal happen, and not necessarily the deal that’s being discussed. You can bat them around if you like to think about such stuff, but until trades actually go down, I don’t think many people know much.

  16. Guys it’s time to start thinking about blowing this this up. Right now before we screw ourselves. Rubio sucks and isn’t likely to learn to shoot almost a decade into his professional career.. Pekovich can’t play elite defense and isn’t good enough on offense to not play elite defense with the money he’s making. We have no real trade assets outside of Love. No draft pick unless we finish bottom 13 in which case we didn’t make the playoffs or even finish 9th (the worst case and most likely to happen with the luck this team has) and if we don’t make the playoffs Love will demand a trade unless we win the lottery. If we manage to get the 8th seed and get swept or 5 gamed by OKC I don’t see it being any different other than we have no draft pick in the most Hyped draft ever with 4 possible HOFers in it, and another 5 probable multi-time All-stars. There are about 9 guys who probably would have gone #1 overall last year. I say it’s time to trade Love. Love will never carry us to the Championship by himself and we have no way to get him help. If we trade him now we can still end extremely high in the lottery because the west is so good and the east so bad that they’ll all get wins off each other. We probably end up with another 1st maybe lottery if we trade him to Phoenix. We could get our own first back and few of theirs Gordan Dragic and a Morris Twin or 2. If we want him the East several teams are poised to explode and have multiple picks. Chicago has there pick and Charlottes. jimmy Butler and those picks doesn’t seem unfair. Cleveland has 5 first round picks in the next 3 years. Dion Waiters Zeller and Thompson with several picks. Lets do what Denver did with Melo and trade him this year when we can get a bigger value because he’s still locked in for another year and when the Draft is as good as it will ever get.

  17. This was great win, but it came sandwiched between losses to team the Wolves should beat soundly. The Celtics are plain well, but the Wolves outman them at almost every, if not every, position. Losing to LA (without Kobe, or any other point guard) is a travesty.

    A contender needs to beat the teams they are supposed to beat. During the LA game last night, which I recorded and watched with my suffering kids, Bill Simmons said, “there are five teams vying for the last two playoff spots, and the wolves are fifth.” I have to agree.

    The fact is this one game where the Wolves won that on paper they shouldn’t have, balance that with 3 or 4 losses to teams they should have destroyed. They won’t make the playoff playing like this.

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