The myth of Narcissus concerns an impossibly beautiful young hunter who comes upon a pool of water in the forest and falls in love with his own reflection. Depending on the particular version of the story, Narcissus then commits suicide because he cannot possess his beloved, or maybe starves to death looking at his own image, or misses the playoffs. Basically, if Rick Adelman stumbled upon this youth in the woods entranced by his own image, he’d probably inform him that he hasn’t done anything yet.
Whether or not you feel this Timberwolves team has established an identity, the image of the team as currently constructed has been clear for at least two years: Ricky Rubio distributing, Kevin Love corralling rebounds and stretching the defense, Nikola Pekovic abusing opposing center in the paint, and complementary players providing outside shooting, defense and energy — roles filled with varying degrees of success by Luke Ridnour, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, Martell Webster, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer, Dante Cunningham, J.J. Barea, Ronny Turiaf, etc.
In 2011-12, their burst of success was surprising but didn’t feel flukey — at least not until Rubio went down. In 2012-13, similar success was expected — until Love went down early and never returned to proper form. Now, in 2013-14, the team has underperformed, and at least part of the reason seems to be this gap between what they expect to be and the level of effort and focus that’s actually been displayed on the court. Their blowout wins have been beautiful, often begun with torrid shooting streaks and 30+ point first quarters that have shown how deadly a fully operational Wolves team can be. But they’ve lost the close ones and if they’re going to make the playoffs, they need to be a little less Narcissus and a little more Odysseus.
In short, they need to win ugly, and they did just that against the New Orleans Pelicans last night to get back over .500 for the first time since November 23.
Without Pekovic in the lineup because of bursitis in his right ankle, and with New Orleans missing not only Jrue Holiday but Anthony Davis — who had an absolute monster of a game the night before against Cleveland with 30 points, 7 rebounds and 8 blocks — with a dislocated finger, the Wolves needed to adjust but also come in with energy to make up for the lack of Pek. But instead they came out flat and stayed that way. Although Love finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists, he was just 1-6 from the arc. Take out Dante Cunningham’s ludicrously efficient 6-7 shooting and everyone else was 16-49 (33%).
And yet: no Timberwolves player was a negative in plus/minus, with only J.J. Barea coming out even and Kevin Martin (who struggled and managed 18 points but on 18 shots) and Gorgui Dieng ending up at +1.
Of course, the Pelicans were beyond atrocious, shooting a staggering NINE PERCENT from the arc (2-21) and never leading the game, not even in the opening moments. Certainly there were good defensive efforts by Luc Mbah a Moute, Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng, who stepped up his rotational understanding as the game went on, but the entire team notched only three steals and three blocks. The Pelicans just couldn’t buy a basket.
The Pelicans’ difficulties can probably be largely laid at the feet of being on the second night of a road back-to-back without Davis — a tough spot, even following a resounding win. The Pelicans essentially had just two players you could call offensive weapons (Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans) and both shot under 30%.
The Wolves are going to miss Pekovic’s offensive production, but they still boast Love and Martin in the starting lineup and Budinger and Barea in the second unit. (Side note: There was one particularly nice lineup that Adelman ran out: Barea, Budinger, Mbah a Moute, Love and Cunningham. As Britt Robson observed during the game, it’s a balanced group that provides both scoring and defense. Although their five minutes on the floor is a witheringly small sample size, they did manage an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 135.1 and a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 67.6.) Playing without Pek is certainly part of why the Wolves struggled, but Ronny Turiaf had another observation about the lack of energy after the game.
“It was rough out there, to tell you the truth,” he said. “But you know what? It was one of those days when you come off the East Coast — or whatever, [a] road trip. The first game back is always the toughest, because you have to get adjusted to being back home again, for some reason. It might have been a game where early in the season we may not have been able to have the mental toughness to stick with the program. I think it shows some growth.”
And he’s absolutely right. He also talked about whether this recent stretch of winning five out of six means a change in the Wolves’ weather patterns. “It’s not something that just happened now or like 10 days ago,” he said. “I think it’s the results of the adversity that we went through where you had that sour taste that you were trying to get rid of and you just get better at understanding what you are trying to accomplish out there. I think that’s the winning taste.”
Adelman had a similar take in his postgame remarks, and the wording is, I think, significant. “We have to get a feeling of how we win games,” he said. Not just “We have to win” or “We have to get better at closing out games.” In something as complicated and wildly tangled as a basketball game, teams fall back into habit, in both good and bad ways. You can only think yourself out of trouble in a game to a certain extent. Developing what Turiaf calls a “taste” and Adelman calls a “feeling” for the pathways by which the Wolves can win any game — and not just the pretty ones — is essential to turning this so far underwhelming season around.
Another part of that — especially with Pekovic out — is thaat Love is going to have to step up, but not in the way you might expect, as Adelman alluded to. “So much of the time,” he said, “you can use [Love] as a… I don’t want to say decoy, but play through him without really looking for him to score, but looking for somebody else and he did that tonight.” Rather than taking it all on, Love is going to need to draw attention and then deflect it. Using him in that way is crafty, sneaky and very Odyssean.
Sometimes Odysseus gets lumped in with other heroes of Greek mythology like Achilles or Hector. But Achilles and Hector faced each other in honorable one-on-one combat on the open plains in front of Troy. Odysseus never would have gone in for that unless he had some angle on it that would give him an advantage. He was the man of twists and turns, even though he was possessed of nearly superhuman strength. (See, for example, the bow that only he could string back in Ithaca.)
In any given contest, you could find yourself overmatched or even simply not at full power. That’s when you have to pull out the Trojan horses, when you have to sneak past the cyclops with some dead sheep on your back. That’s when you have to win ugly. If you don’t, you could end up starving to death or even missing the playoffs because you’re too busy gazing lovingly at your own reflection.