Timberwolves 111, Thunder 115: YOLO Contendre
I can’t blame you if you’re hurt. I wouldn’t blame you if you see this game as yet another referendum on this team, on the bench, on Kevin Love, on Kevin Love shaving his beard, on Rick Adelman, on whatever. I’m probably not going to talk you out of anything right now, but please and try to remember: This was an absolutely awesome game of basketball to watch.
Kevin Durant, who started cold and shot 3-10 in the first quarter, ended up with 48 points. Nikola Pekovic bullied and bruised his way to 31 points and 11 rebounds — the kind of stat line that’s becoming relatively commonplace for him. (The last time he had less than 15 points was December 16.) Ricky Rubio was on his game: he was aggressive early getting into the lane and finished with 13 points, 10 assists, 5 steals and 4 rebounds. Love was typically great (30 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists) but showed off some impressive shot creation down the stretch, spinning off and around Serge Ibaka for a couple difficult layups that led to foul shots late. Neither team looked great from outside through most of the game, so the result was a ton of grit and heart left on the floor. Comfy blowouts have their own breezy pleasures, but if you can’t enjoy the process of a game like this, you should probably find another hobby.
No, the Wolves couldn’t get over .500 for the seventh time this season. But keep in mind that most preseason predictions had the Wolves finishing over .500 but not that much over .500. 45 wins or thereabouts. And a quick peek at Hollinger’s Playoff Odds page on ESPN still envisions their final record as 47-34 (which is one game short of 82 and I don’t know why) and the Wolves as the eighth seed. (Which, incidentally, would mean — according to the seeding here — a first round matchup against the Thunder which would be amazing based on the great games these teams have had against each other.)
Yes, everyone’s going to point to Kevin Love missing all three of his free throws after getting hit on the arm on a potential game winner. And it was indeed awful and felt impossible. “First time in my career in a situation like that: missing four [free throws] in a row,” Love said afterwards, including his missed free throw on a previous and-one opportunity. “[I’m an] 85% free throw shooter most of the time, but they didn’t fall. I bet people will say different sh–, but this league you come back and fight the next day.” He admitted to possibly being a bit fatigued, and therein lies the rub.
The root of this loss lies with the bench, who once again only managed 5 points on 2-10 shooting. Although the Wolves entered the fourth quarter with a 87-77 lead, I could already see that they were going to have to play the bench and take their lumps or else ride the starters and pray they had enough gas in the tank.
After Oklahoma City cut the lead to single digits with 9:41 remaining, Adelman started bring back his starters. When J.J. Barea missed a 3-pointer and then a layup, Adelman brought Rubio back in at the 8:19 mark with Minnesota up 92-90 and from there on in it was essentially the starters except for some defensive and offensive substitutions at the very end.
Yes, Kevin Durant’s fourth quarter was a neon insanity of amazingness: he went 7-11 and scored 23 of OKC’s 38 points in the fourth, plus hit an absolutely heartless dagger with 4 seconds remaining. But to be honest, the sequence that really spelled Minnesota’s doom as far as showing how gassed the starters were didn’t directly involve Durant scoring.
Following a timeout and with the Wolves up 107-103, a bad Love pass led to a Reggie Jackson layup to make it 107-105. An offensive foul on Love sent the ball the other way and Rubio fouled Jackson who sank both: 107-107. A bad Rubio 14-footer missed and Jeremy Lamb put back a missed Durant jumper to give the Thunder the lead. Time out Wolves. That right there was a 6-point swing timeout to timeout, and it was full of poor decisions and lackluster execution. You can’t tell me that Love playing over 43 minutes didn’t have something to do with that. Kevin Durant notched nearly as many, but aside from Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb (who had 26), no other Thunder player played more than 25 minutes. All the Wolves starters played more than 30, and four out of five played more than 38.
So what does it all mean? It means this team is plenty good enough to win leaning heavily on the starters so long as the bench can muster more than almost nothing. This is why the imminent returns of Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf are good news. I’ve seen at least one person say that if you’re waiting on Budinger to turn your season around, you’re not a contender. And to be frank, the Wolves are probably not contenders, nor were they ever going to be. Hell, people are reluctant to consider the Blazers legitimate contenders and they’re tied with San Antonio for the second best record in the Western Conference.
But at base, this team is kinda weird: always losing games decided by 4 or fewer points and nearly always winning games decided by 20 or more. Budinger and Turiaf should provide some scoring and defensive stability off the bench, respectively. They should provide a buffer or margin for the starters that Barea, Shved and Cunningham simply can’t. In doing so, they may just lighten the load enough on the bench as currently constituted that they’ll improve as well.
I know that’s optimistic and I know it’s possible Budinger and Turiaf don’t make that much of a difference. I know it’s stitched into Minnesotans’ DNA to react two ways to a loss like this: 1.) by panicking 2.) by embracing a nihilism so deep it attempts to transcend panic and thereby lift the suffering party into a kind of Nirvana-esque void. (I know a lot about option #2 because that’s how I treat the sub-arctic cold here.)
But if you worry too much about whether Love is or isn’t clutch or how the bench is killing this team, you might just miss out on some of the beautiful subtleties of the game that aren’t attached to anything as bluntly objective as wins and losses: The way Love stepped into the high post on the last possession of the first quarter and then watched the shot clock for a few beats before turning to initiate the play with Barea; the swimming little rhythm of Rubio’s in and out dribble; the individual ludicrousness of either Brewer or Barea when they’re on and making shots that you know in your heart are awful but that keep going in.
Before the Thunder’s last game against the Wolves at Target Center, Kevin Durant talked about how these teams seemed to only have two kinds of games: blowouts either way or really tight games. I’ll happily take the occasional blowout win over the Thunder from time to time, but this game was a resounding reminder that while the ending comes in a moment, and the repercussions could last days or more, the inside of a game like this, as it’s happening, is absolutely one of the best places to be.