Timberwolves 111, Thunder 115: YOLO Contendre

Steve McPherson —  January 5, 2014 — 9 Comments

Thunder

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.

Steve McPherson

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9 responses to Timberwolves 111, Thunder 115: YOLO Contendre

  1. I actually think (or rather hope) that fans will see this game as a missed opportunity and not a blow it out of proportion. The reality is that K-Love is usually a good free thrower and he played insane minutes. As a fan I was extremely frustrated at the loss, BUT a lot of basketball just comes down to a couple shots that have between a 40-45% chance of going in. We just happened to lose a game because we missed a couple shots that statistically should’ve gone in and will in the future.

    I’m not panicking and I hope no one else is, this team is incredibly fun to watch and extremely talented, once we have chase back to bolster the bench a bit I think all these 3-4 point losses will start going our way. When you really think about our 5 in the final minutes we only have 2 players on the court that are league average or better three point shooters. Sub chase for brewer in those situations and shots should come more easily both for Love and Pek.

  2. I’ll say it again. The reason the Wolves are under .500 is because they fail to beat bad teams. Losing a close one to the Thunder is not a big deal, losing to the Lakers and Denver is a big deal. It seems like they play to the level of their competition. I like Adelman, but this seems like a coaching problem. The team has to get fired up to beat the teams they need to beat.

    It’s kind of interesting to note that a single player goes nuts in the fourth quarter in both the Lakers loss and this game. I thought that was what Brewer was for. We can contrast these games to the loss to the Spurs, when Diaw decided to make Love disappear and succeeded.

    Yes the bench is underperforming big time and it is obvious. My ten year old thinks that getting rid of Luke and keeping JJ was a mistake. I am not sure I agree. I am a big fan of Cunningham and I was exceptionally fired up about Alexei when he joined the team, it’s got to be frustrating for all involved to feel like the game is going to fall apart when the second unit is in.

    As a side note, it’s interesting we have an article about how everyone but Love is a problem, to a game where Rubio and Pek play so well. The answer is individual matchups. The Thunder have no one who can matchup with Pek, and if Westbrook is out they don’t really put pressure on Rubio. It seems there is a game by game matchup by matchup problem. Maybe there is little to gain by generalizing.

  3. Hollinger’s count is one game short because the cancelled game against San Antonio hasn’t been rescheduled yet.

  4. It’s hard to not expect to lose close games these days. We seem to always find a way. It is tough not having a guard or wing that can create their own shot off the dribble. Hopefully we can get a down-to-the-wire win soon and get some late game confidence going! And there is no excuse for giving up 23 points in one quarter, even if it is Kevin Durant.

  5. K-Love playing 43 minutes shouldn’t be a big deal. If Love wants to be a franchise player – one that wants the next level of stardom – he has to dig deep and play 40+ minutes like franchise players do in big games. We shouldn’t look at how Love carries this team as a negative every game, after all, he is our MVP level talent. If Love only averaged 20 points and 10 boards he wouldn’t be in the MVP conversation, (LaMarcus Aldridge may lead his team to a top 3 seed in the West and a deep run in the playoffs with those stats, but he’s lucky if he gets any MVP consideration).

    What I like most about the team is the evolution of Pek. As the season moves on, Pek’s brutal style of play will wear down opponents quickly. He’s underrated by many because his game isn’t flashy, but he does all the “little things” extremely well. Aside from Love’s play, Pek would be the reason we can upset a team like the Spurs/Thunder/Trail Blazers if we sneak into the playoffs. We just have to stick to the game plan and be mentally tough after losses like this.

  6. Steve McPherson January 6, 2014 at 8:20 am

    @Brian: AH HA! Perfect and thanks.

  7. I initially freaked out about this loss. As a Detroit Lions fan especially I have seen this kind of thing often. I thought about it more and it bothered me less for one reason, Durant happened, he took over that game in a way that only 2 people could. Love is a true franchise player, but Durant is still on another level.

    I would still like to see an extended winning streak for the Wolves; they have yet to win more than 2 games in a row.

  8. I’d really like to see the Wolves get a better SG for the bench. Someone who is a good perimeter defender and can shoot the 3. Couldn’t we get Courtney Lee from Boston? I’m not a Barea basher, but I think someone like Lee would provide more cure for our ails than the scoring spark that JJ (sometimes) provides. We could really use a tough perimeter defender. Corey has great energy but we need some focused meanness. Could probably even then bring Kmart off the bench, which would certainly cure the lack of scoring from the bench.

  9. I knew you were to blame Barea for the loss as you always do, but reality is that the starters especially Rubio and Love cannot perform at the end of close games. They botch the designed plays every time,but you always overlook that or blame somebody else. For your knowledge Barea only played 14 minutes 2/5 for 5pts and 3 Ast,not bad ?

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