There was a point early on in the Wolves’ win over the Chicago Bulls in which Kevin Love was struggling. He wasn’t playing poorly but he was having trouble finding his way to the free throw line against Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed. The struggles against Taj Gibson aren’t anything new for Love, or anybody around the league really. Gibson is one of the top defensive players in the NBA and rarely gets his national due because he’s a role player off the bench.
Taj is familiar with Love’s game too. They’ve played against each other on every level of play — high school, college, and in the NBA. Along with his defensive prowess, his familiarity with Love may be a big reason he’s had such great success defending the Wolves’ big man throughout their respective careers. Before Monday night, Love was 0-5 against Gibson at the NBA level. Love’s had three pretty awful games against the Bulls in this time, one decent game, and one Kevin Love game.
Overall, he was shooting 40% in these match-ups and attempted just 19 free throws in five losses. The Bulls have been a great defensive team during this run (analysis!) and part of the reason they’re so good is they know the angles to take, when to take them, and use their incredible frontcourt to slow guys down. Even Carlos Boozer is a plus-defender in Tom Thibodeau’s system, or at least enough of a plus-defender to hold the fort as Joakim Noah and Gibson protect his back.
So what changed for Love during Monday’s game to finally give him a big advantage against Gibson, Boozer, and Thibodeau’s system?
Color commentator superstar Jim Petersen pointed out during the broadcast that Love started figuring out the angles against Gibson and Mohammed during the game. It helped him not only make shots inside against the longer defenders (Gibson has a 7’4″ wingspan, Mohammed is much bigger than Love) but it also helped him find his way to the free throw line, where he shredded the other team. Love couldn’t find a way to knock down 3-point shots, something that happens every once in a while. He got a lot of good looks from beyond the arc but they just didn’t fall. He made up for it with shots inside and freebies at the charity stripe.
He finished with 14 free throw attempts and connected on all of them. He nearly matched his five-game total against Taj Gibson in the previous five games and it allowed him to finish with 31 points. The Wolves badly needed this one too. Getting back to .500 before a little pseudo-home stand (Pelicans, Grizzlies, at Hawks, Lakers) for the next four games was big. It doesn’t ensure anything for them in terms of getting back over .500 since they were 8-7, but you have to be at .500 before you can get over it.
A seemingly ominous road trip in the midst of questions about team chemistry turned into a 3-1 trip that has people smiling again. Is it a turning point in the season? It’s far too early to know just how important this road trip may have been. It’s possible that it will be a little ray of sunlight in a confusing season. It’s possible it will end up being the starting point of this team going on a run to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. It’s possible that it will mean nothing more than a 3-1 road trip in the middle of the season.
With Nikola Pekovic missing the majority of the game with what we now know is ankle bursitis, Love needed to step up and provide all of the interior scoring. Luckily against the Bulls these days, you just have to not be horrible on defense and adequate on offense to pull out a victory against them. It’s easier said than done but with them missing Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah (also they received nothing tangible in return for Luol Deng), it makes the task a lot easier. Love gave the Wolves 36% of the Bulls’ point total for the night. The bench ended up making the biggest contribution of all in helping secure the victory.
The bench is where even more geometry fits into this game too. Confusingly, the Wolves still have one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This is mostly due to the fact that they force a lot of turnovers. They force a turnover 16.7% of their defensive possessions, which is good for fourth in the NBA. They also have the lowest free throw rate given up in the NBA. These two factors sort of offset the fact that they give up the fourth highest effective field goal percentage in the NBA. I mean… they don’t really “offset” the percentage given up but they’re tied with the Miami Heat for 11th in the NBA in defensive rating.
While the offense may suffer without Pek for the next… let’s just call it two weeks, the defense is sure to pick up with Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng getting more minutes. We saw it with the Wolves Monday night against the Bulls. These guys have a much better understanding of cutting off defensive angles. They need help from the entire unit playing team defense but they do a great job of keeping guys away from the rim. If those opponents get to the rim, they’re very good at challenging shots.
People have been clamoring for Dieng to get more time because this team gives up the highest percentage of makes in the restricted area and he was drafted to be a defensive role player for this team. Stopping shots at the rim is what he does. The problem with that is while he has inherent skills that he excels at (cutting off pick-and-roll angles, protecting the rim), he’s still so raw in other areas that he can really screw up the offensive end of the floor. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t play at all, but I’m not sure him playing heavy minutes is a great idea either. If he gets around the 15 per game Turiaf gets as the backup, that could be a nice amount to get him acclimated.
While we’re likely to see a decrease in offensive efficiency with the Wolves sans Pek, the interior defense should pick up quite a bit. The Wolves give up 102.8 points per 100 possessions with Turiaf on the bench; that number improves to 99.6 when he’s on the floor this season (although the offense takes a huge dip by 10.5 points). The Wolves give up 102.7 points per 100 with Dieng on the bench and that number improves to 97.1 with him in the game. We see an offensive drop-off of over 30 points per 100 possessions, but he’s also played the majority of his minutes in garbage time so the numbers are a little skewed both ways.
Over the next two weeks, we’re going to see Love, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, and Ricky Rubio need to pick up their aggressiveness on offense. Turiaf will have to be better at catching Rubio’s drop-off passes. Chase Budinger will need to be the fantastic bench shooter we saw against the Bulls in which he was taking better angles off of screens, finding the open spots on the floor, and adjusting his shot when he needed to in order to knock it down. JJ Barea will have to be a more controlled player on offense too.
But in turn, we’re going to see pick-and-rolls cut off before we’re near the restricted area. We’ll see a much higher foul rate because Turiaf and Dieng challenge a lot of shots. We’ll see shots turned away at the rim. We’ll see a different balance of how this team does/doesn’t succeed in games. As long as the team understands the angles better and adjusts their style to the personnel, we should see this stretch of encouraging basketball continue.
The adjustments have to come though and the Wolves can’t go back to complacency.