It was easy to say that the Wolves’ horrifying struggles in close games were a statistical anomaly. In the abstract, we always knew that a few lucky bounces were all that separated the Wolves from a record more befitting their point differential. (Seriously, how strange is it that for all of this team’s problems, they could easily be sitting in the fifth or sixth seed right now?) But after seeing how this team has performed in close games it became much harder to imagine how they would actually manage to win one. This wasn’t just bad luck; there are actual reasons that the Wolves have been so bad in late-game situations. They are short on shooters, which allows teams to trap ballhandlers and collapse into the paint. Their offense relies on getting to the free-throw line and refs tend to swallow their whistles late in games. They are given to moments of insane decision-making. They are simply inconsistent in their execution on both ends of the floor.
It’s not as if any of these things changed on Friday evening in Oakland. In the final three minutes of this impossibly close game, the Wolves did the following: committed a turnover on an entry pass; nearly committed a shot-clock violation; missed a wide-open three; fouled a three-point shooter; committed a foul in the backcourt, up one with 30 seconds to go while in the penalty.
But, somehow, they made just enough plays to win the game, and a road game against a playoff team at that. Ricky Rubio made a midrange jumper after Love fought through a triple team to shovel him the ball. Brewer hit an incredibly cold-blooded, contested corner three. They were able to get the ball out of Stephen Curry’s hands on the final key possessions. Finally, Kevin Martin hit a clutch, last-second jumper, the first such shot for the Wolves, really, since the season’s first game. Make no mistake: this was a huge win for the Wolves and, at the risk of undue optimism, one that could set them on a new path.
Truth be told, I never believed that the Wolves could keep this game close enough to make it a sub-five point loss. The first three quarters were an absolute shootout. There was no chance, I thought, that the Wolves could score consistently enough and shoot enough threes to stay with these Warriors.
They certainly weren’t defending well enough to give themselves any breathing room. The Wolves are an average defensive team with some serious flaws; chief among those flaws is simple, consistent attention to detail. A team like the Warriors, filled with cold-blooded shooters, will exploit those inconsistencies with a vengeance. Backside defenders rotating a step slow to the roll man? David Lee (and even Marreise Speights!) will ruin you at the basket. Try to shoot the gap on a flare screen? A hair slow to navigate a pindown? Klay Thompson will drain catch-and-shoot jumpers like it’s a layup line. (Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved were particularly susceptible to this.) Give Steph Curry an inch of space on the pick-and-roll? Forget it.
It was really this latter issue that undid the Wolves’ D. The Warriors realized early on that a Curry-Lee pick-and-roll defended by Rubio and Love was an unsolvable problem for Minnesota. Rubio could never quite get over Lee’s screens quickly enough to aggressively trail Curry. And Love could never quite hedge hard enough to deter him or buy Rubio time to recover. Curry lived in the paint; he dropped easy mid-range floaters and dished out assists to his roll man or to shooters on the wing. If Rubio ever got too aggressive, Curry crossed him over. If the Wolves chose simply to contain his drives by going under screens or sinking into the paint, Curry would pull up for a three. Many teams, in an attempt to force Curry to give up the ball or turn it over, choose to trap him at half-court or to double team him hard off of the screen. But Adelman never tried this, probably doubting that his backside defense would be avid or athletic enough to rotate to open shooters.
By the end of the third quarter, the Warriors had a ripped off a 10-0 run and held a 98-91 lead; it felt like things were about to get out of hand. But then a strange thing happened. The Wolves bench, led by AJ Price and Ronny Turiaf, started playing some seriously energized D. Price and Dante Cunningham doubled Curry off of a screen (exactly what Rubio and Love had not done) and forced a turnover. Shved attacked the basket. It also helped very much that for much of this early-fourth-quarter stretch, Jordan Crawford, rather than Curry was running the Warriors’ offense. Thanks to his ball-stopping and shot-hunting, the Wolves were able to string together a 16-6 run. By the time Curry returned, the Wolves had a lead.
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Another problem: the Warriors are a great three-point shooting team and the Wolves are a bad one. That’s a mathematical disadvantage that’s hard to overcome if you plan on indulging in a shootout. If you would have told me that Curry and Thompson would be a combined 8-14 from three and that Love would be 1-5, I would have guessed that the Wolves had gotten crushed. But, despite Love’s struggles, the Wolves managed to exactly equal the Warriors’ 9-22 three-point performance, thanks mostly to Martin and Brewer’s combined 6-8.
Yesterday, Bill enumerated a number of reasons for Martin’s recent cold spell, all of them accurate. But another important factor he didn’t mention is that Martin has simply been missing makeable shots. On Friday night, Martin caught the ball on the move and got to the line, but he also just made some shots, including all of his threes. I don’t think anyone expects him to regain his ridiculous November efficiency. But if he can just knock down some open looks, the Wolves will be much better shape.