Note: The title of this post should not be construed as a statement that it’s time to blow up the team. Just read this poem by Jack Gilbert called “Tear It Down.”
Man, what happened? I mean, let’s be honest: The Wolves — in spite of getting Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger back, in spite of being on their home court, in spite of facing a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back after losing in Chicago and only two games into a five-game road trip, and at the beginning of a long road trip — never grabbed this one away from the Phoenix Suns. Their biggest lead? Nine points, while the Suns’ biggest lead was eight.
On the macro level, it begins with poor shooting. The Wolves’ three main scoring options — Kevin Martin, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic — ended the night just 16-52. Love was 4-20 and though Pek got it going a bit in the third quarter, he was 1-8 in the first half. Kevin Martin started torchingly, scoring 7 points in the first 2:11 of the game, a pace that would have yielded roughly 168 points, had he kept it up. Sadly, he did not.
The shooting woes early on were exacerbated by some dubious calls from the officials and — more significantly — the Wolves’ churlish reaction to said calls. It should be instructive that at the end of the first half, the Wolves had been called for eight fouls while the Suns had been called for nearly double, yet it was the Wolves who seemed off their game and pouty because of it. By the end of the game, Phoenix had been called for 30, Minnesota for 18. I’m about as forgiving of a basketball fan as you could find, more interested in the human nuances and dynamics of the game than straight wins and losses, but when it comes to this persecution complex the Wolves have, they just have to grow up. Refs gonna ref. Get over it.
But let’s just fast forward to the last 2:44 of the game, because that’s where the wheels completely came off. It was a strange moment, because when Miles Plumlee fouled Pek and Pek’s free throws gave the Wolves a 7 point lead, I thought maybe this was where they would seal the deal. It was Plumlee’s sixth foul and he was gone, plus Plumlee had played Pek about as tough as I’ve seen anyone play him this year. With Plumlee gone, the Suns ran out Channing Frye and Markieff Morris in the frontcourt — not an awe-inspiringly physical tandem.
But Gerald Green — who was just 4-10 at the time — curled off a simple downscreen and caught Corey Brewer scrambling, leading to a lazy foul by Brewer, who hit him on the top of the head from behind on a long-ish midrange jumper. Green’s free throws cut it to five.
With the comparatively willowy Morris on him (Pek outweighs him by 45 lbs), Pek should have had a big physical advantage in the post, but on the next possession, P.J. Tucker’s smart double off Brewer flustered Pek and Frye corralled the rebound. Green missed an ill-advised pull-up 3-pointer, but there was Tucker to grab the offensive rebound. And just an aside: What’s not to love about P.J. Tucker? Dude’s built like a tank, a throwback small forward who never stops working in spite of being 6’5”.
After a Suns timeout, a high pick and roll with Goran Dragic and Frye got busted up by Pek dropping down to cover Dragic’s drive until Rubio caught back up to double and force a turnover. A trademark crazy foray to the rim by Brewer led to free throws, with Brewer making 1 of 2. The Wolves held a 6-point lead, but this stretch, just before it started going downhill, sowed the seeds. This time should have been an opportunity to put it away, but instead the Wolves seemed stuck in neutral.
Then, they went into the ditch. After a missed Dragic 3-pointer, there was Tucker again, getting his hands on another rebound and getting fouled by Love, then hitting his free throws. 4-point game. Love missed an at best optimistic long hook shot and Dragic took it back to Eurostep it in. The Dragic layup was troubling for two reasons: 1.) It’s really cool to watch a point guard who can finish confidently on the break at the rim, where he shoots 68.5% and 2.) Even though Tucker wasn’t flaring out to the wing, thus leaving no one in the corner to threaten, neither Martin nor Brewer stepped hard to Dragic to bother the shot. I know the Wolves’ lack of fouling is often touted as a good thing, but I’m beginning to get on the bandwagon that says sometimes you have to punch back on the other team. They didn’t right here. 2-point game.
The Suns’ full-court pressure bothered Rubio, but he set the play up, looking for Love in the post after Brewer was supposed to curl around and clear his man out. But Love and Brewer got weirdly tangled up, like they didn’t know exactly what they were supposed to be doing.
Rubio picked up his dribble and then had to throw it over to Pekovic who bobbled it and eventually Morris got a hand on it and took it all the way back, forcing Rubio to foul him on the shot attempt. Morris made just 1 of 2 at the line and it was a 1-point game, 103-102.
The Wolves set up a double screen for Rubio at the top of the arc with Pek and Love, but it just didn’t work out. Dragic slid around Love and then under Pek, untroubled by the threat of Rubio pulling up, and then the Suns’ defenders built a nifty little wall around Rubio, denying him the pass to Pekovic on the roll and sagging off Brewer in the right corner, where he’s a definite liability, shooting just 26.3%.
Morris plays it smart the whole way, sealing off Pekovic and then catching the pass intended for Pek as Rubio fell out of bounds.
And that was basically it. The Green jumper that got Phoenix the win was not a great shot, nor was there a great possession leading up to it. Dragic drove and left his feet to pass — always a no-no — and Green was falling to his right and having a not great shooting night. You live with that look or, indeed, the look that Martin got on the other end right at the basket that wouldn’t go. Either one could have fallen or not.
Had the Wolves won this one, it would have been an emotional lift, but the problems down the stretch would have stayed problems. As it was, the air just got sucked out of the building. It seemed like people leapt to their feet to get out of there as soon as the horn sounded, unwilling to even be inside the Target Center any longer. And, as you can see right here thanks to Jon Krawczynski, things got a little chilly in the Wolves’ locker room. I’m not going to dwell on that; I’ll just say that I can see it going two ways. This kind of locker room friction could either be damaging in the short term and beneficial in the long term, if an airing of grievances is something that needs to happen to clear the air, or it could be just plain damaging. Maybe if it’s the latter, there are simply some deep-rooted problems with this team that would have kept being problems no matter what.
A lot of very smart people (including Kevin Pelton at ESPN and our own Zach Harper) are sanguine about the Wolves’ upcoming schedule, but we shouldn’t take that as meaning they’re going to win every game they’re supposed to. This was a troubling one, no doubt, but sometimes something needs to get completely broken before it can be fixed. If that’s what we’re seeing with Love and Barea/Cunningham, let’s hope it’s getting completely broken down so this team can start working on rebuilding.