Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So it goes with basketball as well. The search this season for some kind of overarching sense to the Minnesota Timberwolves has so far been fruitless. They have destroyed teams, have eaten them whole, bones and all. Ten times so far this season they have led the other team by 30 or more points (and led the Jazz by 26 in last night’s game). The next closest team to that is San Antonio, who have done it six times, or just over half as many times.
And then, of course, there’s the flipside of that, where they are (say it with me) 0-11 in games decided by four points or less. Trying to reconcile these two things leads to a lot of furious narrative building: they don’t beat the teams they’re supposed to beat; they only beat bad teams; they need to execute down the stretch; they’re fundamentally flawed; it’s all on Ricky Rubio’s shooting; it’s all on Kevin Love’s defense; it’s all on Rick Adelman’s age; it’s all on the bench.
This is just a difficult team to know, as highlighted by MinnPost’s Britt Robson in the waning moments of Minnesota’s authoritative home win over the Jazz on Saturday:
Final curmudgeonly thought. If Wolves don’t beat this same team on road in 3 days it will be same ol’ attitude dysfunction
— brittrobson (@brittrobson) January 19, 2014
Fortunately, they did beat this same team, and they never trailed after being down 4-2 with 10:38 to go in the first quarter. Of course, they were facing a very depleted Jazz team that’s already at the bottom of the Western Conference; Derrick Favors’ sidelining with a hip injury coincided with Gordon Hayward’s return from two weeks on the shelf. Hayward looked good (27 points with 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals) but if anything, the Jazz were in even worse shape than when the Wolves beat them at home just three days before.
So what can be said about a game that looked a lot like the same song, second verse? Well, let’s do our best to throw out the overarching narratives and look at a couple little things.
After the Wolves’ win on Saturday, Adelman was asked about Kevin Martin’s mini-slump and he reported that he’d told him at halftime of their loss to the Raptors, “You’re not going into your shot, you’re just kind of cruising into your shot.” He added, “He’s the kind of guy that when he gets an opportunity he has to take the shot, I don’t care if it’s bad or good, he has to shoot the ball.” Although Martin had another off game last night (5-16 from the field for 18 points), there were at least signs that he’s getting more aggressive with his shot selection. Early in the first he pulled up over Richard Jefferson (because Richard Jefferson) and drained a 3-pointer. The next time up the court, he did the same thing on the opposite wing. Then he went for a heat check and missed. But like Adelman said, he has to keep testing his game and being aggressive with his shot selection.
There was a nifty little play about halfway through the first in sem-transition where Love and Pekovic both went down the middle of the floor as Rubio brought the ball up. Love barely set a screen before slipping it and dropping into the paint with Pek a couple steps behind him. Marvin Williams had let Love go, forcing Enes Kanter to at least step in Love’s direction while Williams plays the entry pass from Rubio. But as a result, Kanter is kind of deep in the paint to protect against Pek on the move, and Rubio hits Pek near the free throw line and he has a good bit of momentum going forward as he makes contact with Kanter and shrugs it off to drop in the hook.
Normally, having both your frontcourt players rolling to the hoop would be problematic as far as spacing, but the slight stagger to the spacing as well as Pek’s ability to catch the ball on the move, hit the defender and finish makes this a good option. It jostles the defense just enough to open up wiggle room down there, and that’s very important for the Wolves, who work much better on the move than attacking a set defense.
Rudy Gobert, who has a 7’9” wingspan and a 9’7” standing reach, registered three blocks in his 12 minutes of play, and I think all three of them came in about a three-minute span early on. He’s still raw, but he’s looking like a real D-League success story after spending time with the Bakersfield Jam before coming back up to the Jazz in mid-January.
Now back to the attempt to assign some kind of broader meaning to last night’s game. In addition to going 3-5 (60%) from the field and scoring 11 points to go with 13 assists, 5 steals and 5 rebounds, Ricky Rubio played some catch with a cute little girl while the arena crew cleaned up the mess from Alexey Shved’s broken nose (feel better, ‘Lexey).
Here’s the thing about that: We tend to ascribe success in sports to intensity, but we often mistake anger for intensity, or at least think that if someone gets real angry it will make them a better player. We learn this, I’m pretty sure, from stories and movies, especially ones about revenge. From The Three Musketeers to Taken, we’ve learned that if his (or her) cause is noble and your fury righteous, a hero’s already considerable skills will suddenly leap to another, almost superhuman level.
But we’ve seen Ricky Rubio play angry this season, and it just doesn’t work that way for him. Rubio’s useful intensity comes not from anger, but from joy. His game is at its best when it’s fluid, but he’s been pressing. Maybe this is from sense that he has to shoot to be effective, or maybe it’s because of something else. But whatever it is, it’s been putting him off his game and his attempts to will his way back have not worked. Instead, it seems like taking it a little easy is maybe the way to go.
But this is where we start to fall into traps. Down the line, if the Wolves start looking better, start racking up some wins — including some close, even ugly ones — we’re probably going to look back at this two-game decimation of the Jazz as a starting point. They bottomed out, falling a couple games under .500 just prior, and then they started talking on defense, Rubio started playing with a little more ease and looking like the fun-loving guy he looked like when he set the team on fire his rookie year.
Or these back-to-back wins could evaporate in a storm of frustration if they drop two or even three of the next three to the Warriors, Blazers and Bulls. This hunger to make sense of something RIGHT NOW is hard to sate. We’re stuck looking backwards while this thing keeps moving forwards.