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