After contributing a paltry five points — a total so low that MLA style would ask you to please write it out rather than use numerals — in Monday night’s difficult loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Timberwolves’ bench came startlingly to life against the New Orleans Pelicans, pouring in 42 points with double-digit totals for J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved and Dante Cunningham. With media crushed around him after the game, Love praised the bench he had called out on Monday night.
“Nobody’s ever going to like [getting called out],” he said. “But it wasn’t me being down on them. It’s just me asking for more because we’re going to need them in 2014. What are we, 16-16 now? They’re going to have to help us if we want to win. It was just a challenge more than anything. I wasn’t mad at them, I wasn’t saying they were bad. It was just tough love and sometimes that’s the best way to do things.”
I was standing half-turned away from Love in the scrum, doing my best to keep my recorder close to him, so by chance I caught sight of Robbie Hummel sitting across the way, in front of Shved’s locker, arms folded across his knees. The gaggle of bodies clustered around Love meant there was no way for Hummel, who only got in the game for about four minutes and went 0-2, to get to his locker.
I mouthed, “Sorry” to him and he smiled and mouthed, “It’s okay” back while everyone listened to the team’s star talk about the reserves.
The bench is a weird place.
It’s not that nobody is interested in what the bench players have to say. Barea is almost always on everyone’s radar when it comes to the postgame, regardless of whether we got Good Barea or Bad Barea. (For the record, it was Good Barea last night: 7-9 plus 3-5 from distance and perfect from the line for 10 points, with 2 assists and 3 rebounds.) He’s always going to start one or more answers with “Oh no question …” and for all his chaotic play, he’s thoughtful about the game and how it’s played.
Although any of them are nothing less than forthcoming should you ask a question, Dante Cunningham rarely speaks, Alexey Shved dips out of the locker room quickly most nights, and Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and A.J. Price are so far down on the depth chart right now it doesn’t even count as the bench.
Then there’s the aforementioned Hummel, who got some brief shine when he started his first NBA game against Cleveland early in the season, but is now content to wait on some other dude’s chair while Love addresses the media with his standard and cultivated careful reserve.
As much as anyone, I’ve often trotted out the team-is-a-band concept as a way to understand how a group of people make something together, but that’s usually concentrated around how the starters make up a unit. The bench complicates it: they’re almost like an opening band — either young, unseasoned and looking for a big break or older and settled into a role that suits them — that comes on after the headliner has set the tone for the night.
On a night when Love wasn’t spectacular (7-19, including 1-7 from the arc for 21 points and a very muted 6 rebounds and 3 assists), there was a lot of interest in how Love felt about the bench doing well, and not as much interest in how the bench felt about it. Maybe no one expects the bench to have much say in it: they’re the bench because they’re not good enough to be the starters, right?
But these are guys who have been the number one or number two option on most every team they’ve been a part of for much of their lives. These are guys playing among the top one percent of people in their profession in the world and getting paid pretty, pretty, PRETTAY well to do it. They’ve excelled at this rather difficult thing their whole lives to get to a point where the comparatively few people who actually care directly about what they do on any given night is still probably larger than the number who ever cared before, yet still dwarfed by how many people care A LOT about the starters.
This is why the bench is a weird place.
A couple other notes, both bench-related and not.
Consistency continues to be the watchword for this team, especially as dispensed by Adelman and it’s not hard to see why. I looked at some splits and some strange things pop up. Not surprisingly, they shoot a worse field goal percentage in every quarter in losses versus wins, but in fourth quarters, the disparity goes from the six to nine percent range to a staggering 14.6% difference — from 52.1% in wins to 37.5% in losses. They also allow more points per 100 possessions (in other words, their defensive efficiency rating) in the third quarter of wins (105.5) than they do in losses (100.3). They also score more points per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency) in the fourth quarter of losses (96.9) than in the fourth quarter of wins (94.8), plus allow more points than they score per 100 (98.2) in those wins.
Part of that is likely down to the fact that they lose close games and win blowouts. Even last night’s game, which they won by 12, should have been a bigger blowout. So in spite of the W-L record, they’re still top ten in the NBA in terms of net rating, or difference between offensive and defensive efficiency. There’s a school of thought (largely spearheaded by now-Grizzlies VP of Basketball Ops John Hollinger) that this differential is a better indicator of a team’s overall potential for success than straight W-L record. If so, that’s good for the Wolves and should at the very least be interesting to keep an eye on going into the rest of the season.
It’s no secret that the Wolves’ struggles for consistency have had something to do with exactly how all the pieces on the court mesh, given the very specific skillsets of Love, Pekovic and Rubio, especially. Like: Rubio works best improvisationally in pick-and-roll situations, yet is often reduced to dropping the ball off to Love in the high post while he curls around the baseline as a generally ineffective decoy since he’s not much of a threat off the ball. But against the Pelicans you saw the Wolves force another team to put their best rim defender (Anthony Davis) on Love, effectively pulling that defense away from the rim and opening things up for Pekovic to grind his meat down low with impunity. Pek hitting his stride on offense is going to be huge for this team going forward.
On the flipside, you really saw a team that has trouble meshing in New Orleans. Foul trouble and that matchup of Ryan Anderson on Pek early meant they never got their rhythm, but all these various pieces that have looked good in isolation — Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis — just aren’t turning into something more. Before the game I was jealously eyeing the way New Orleans can bring Tyreke Evans off the bench in order to have a real scorer who wants to get to the rim on the second unit, but even that didn’t go great for the Pelicans. I think they’ll be a good team eventually, but it might not be this year.
Speaking of Evans, Corey Brewer went hard on him whenever he had the chance and there was some great jawing going on during the game. (This even earned Brewer a tech on the bench.) The best part? When Brewer was tossing the ball back to the referee and Evans just happened to be directly in the way. Brewer didn’t even peg him, but just threw it in a Simpsons-esque “I’m just going to start swinging my arms and if you get in the way that’s your fault” kind of way. The Wolves aren’t one of the real physical teams in the NBA generally, so it’s kind of fun to see them get chippy.