Before you do anything, take a moment to enjoy Ricky Rubio’s 60 foot alley-oop to Corey Brewer. Go ahead. Admire it.
C.J. Fogler, who spends his time doing the Lord’s work on Twitter (he’s a must-follow for any Timberwolves fan), also gave us a slow-mo version for our viewing pleasure, via YouTube:
Why open with this? Because it was beautiful, and because Ricky Rubio was the best thing about this Timberwolves’ loss. This spectacular first half play aside, what was really encouraging was the way he attacked throughout the game. There was also a seven minute stretch to open the second half – during which time the Wolves erased an eight point halftime deficit – where Ricky repeatedly ran pick and rolls to perfection, deftly dropping passes through defenders to Nikola Pekovic for easy dunks.
A week ago, Rubio wondered where the joy had gone; he wasn’t himself. He wasn’t having fun, wasn’t comfortable on the floor or off of it. During the past four games, however, he’s averaging 9 points, 11 assists, 3 steals, is shooting 50% from the floor and sports a 45-to-9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Over the past week, Rubio’s been confident, aggressive, and most importantly, successful. If the Wolves are going to do anything meaningful this season, the third year man from Spain must play an integral role. The cynics (realists?) will point out that Ricky’s ran into the perfect slump-busting “defenders” over that stretch – the swinging gates known as Trey Burke (twice), Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard – but I’ll argue that it doesn’t matter. He needed a boost, no matter what form it came in, and hopefully, Ricky’s back on the right track.
Thus concludes the touchy-feely portion of tonight’s recap. Below is a GIF breakdown how Minnesota’s bench played on Saturday night:
The second quarter began with the Wolves clinging to a 29-27 lead. Three minutes and sixteen seconds later, the Blazers had charged in front, 43-33, due in large part to the Timberwolf bench mob’s reluctance to hold onto the ball or make shots (two turnovers and three missed shots in six possessions during that span). Chase Budinger, who earns his keep as a jump shooter, doesn’t have his legs yet, so he doesn’t have his jump shot. J.J. Barea was abysmal – 0-for-4 from the field with a turnover in 11 minutes. And Dante Cunningham, whose leash is longer than Terry Stotts’ neck, continues to earn minutes over Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (who’s played 7:46, combined, on the three game road trip) for reasons that are becoming very hard to understand.
Collectively, the Timberwolves’ reserves were 3-of-19 from the floor in non-garbage-time shooting, which is 16% (mathematics!). Garbage time is the only place A.J. Price and Gorgui Dieng got to stretch their legs – a decision that’s becoming difficult to defend. Recently, Rick Adelman’s shown a willingness to put Price into more meaningful situations, but is unwilling to commit to the idea of him as a primary backup ballhandler. Though Dieng’s a foul machine, which seems to be the reason he’s glued to the bench, why would it matter if you only need him for 10-to-12 minutes per game?
Plus/minus is a terribly misleading statistic much of the time, but it tells the tale of this game rather succinctly. The Wolves’ primary bench players – Budinger, Turiaf, Barea, Shved, and Cunningham – finished minus-17, minus-19, minus-17, minus-12 and minus-12, respectively. Minnesota’s starters – Brewer, Love, Pekovic, Martin and Rubio – finished plus-6, plus-7, plus-5, plus-3 and plus-3, respectively. Minnesota’s starters actually handled Portland’s terrific starting five rather nicely. The much-ballyhooed matchup between Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge failed to deliver on the hype; each was solid, neither was spectacular. Despite a few emphatic blocks late in the game, Robin Lopez had a tough time with Nikola Pekovic (who had 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting). Damian Lillard was just 5-of-17 from the field, but Wes Matthews (18 points) and Nicolas Batum (who did a little of everything) picked up the slack for the Blazers.
Kevin Martin’s effort encapsulated the gulf between the starters and the reserves. In 41 minutes, Martin put up 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including 6-of-10 from beyond the arc), and his jumper with 1:55 left in the 3rd quarter gave the Timberwolves an 81-80 lead. By then, however, Minnesota had to give an exhausted Corey Brewer and Nikola Pekovic breaks. At the end of the third, Love and Martin had to come out, too, and the writing was on the wall. The vastly superior Portland bench sparked a 27-to-12 run that iced the game.
Last year, the Blazers’ starting five was felled by a historically weak bench, and they won only 33 games. Improvements in that area – Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, and Thomas Robinson in particular – have helped them begin this season 33-11. The Wolves are saddled with the same issues. Their bench isn’t atrocious every night- they’ve actually been decent, of late – but the drop from the first unit to the second is a problem, nonetheless. It’s be nice to think of the Blazers as a team further along on the long road to contention, and that the Wolves can follow their road map. Whether Minnesota’s front office has the creativity (nevermind the cap space) to pull this off, no one knows.
Staying within the moment: the loss in Portland was disappointing, but hardly cause for alarm. It was Minnesota’s tenth attempt to climb back over .500, and it was their tenth failure. Some of the Wolves’ problems won’t be magically solved – their bench and defensive issues, in particular – but at least some new ones aren’t popping up. Ricky Rubio has his mojo back, and Kevin Martin’s out of his funk. If the Wolves can defeat the Bulls in Chicago on Monday night, they’ll finish the road trip 3-1 – a positive result, no matter how you slice it.