Oh, the Minnesota Timberwolves, as vexing and perplexing as ever, up one night and down the next, from one half to the next, one quarter to the next, one possession to the next. If anything is consistent, it’s their inconsistency. They haven’t lost more than three in a row, nor have they won more than three in a row. They blow out bad teams on the road and fail to hold serve against mediocre teams at home. They shoot 7 free throws as a team one night, and 39 the next. Their rotations are an ever-changing, ever-controversial sea of head-scratching decisions and perfect harmony. In short, no one’s sure what to expect, and each evening provides a unique, yet eerily familiar, story.
When Kevin Martin finally sank the Timberwolves’ first field goal – 5 minutes and 22 seconds into the first quarter of Saturday night’s visit to Atlanta – it seemed to awaken his team from the sleepy doldrums commonly associated of with the second night of a back-to-back. Prior to Martin finishing at the rim, thanks to a nifty baseline cut, the Wolves were 0-for-8 on field goal attempts with 4 turnovers. Friday night, Minnesota had opened its contest with Memphis in much the same fashion. The difference on Saturday night, however, was that Minnesota self-corrected before the halftime buzzer. From the Martin layup through the end of the 1st half, the Wolves shot better than 50% from the floor (20-for-39) and managed to turn a 9 point deficit (they trailed 18-9 at one point) into a 6 point halftime lead (54-48).
Ricky Rubio’s night ended early against Memphis, despite the fact that he was playing terrific basketball (Zach covered that, beautifully, in yesterday’s recap). Saturday he picked up right where he left off. Kevin Love was the best player on the floor in the first half, Paul Millsap was the second, and Ricky Rubio was undoubtedly the third. His stat line through 24 minutes belies his effect on the game – 2 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals. He pestered Jeff Teague into 1-of-5 shooting and denied the dribble penetration the Hawks’ point guard uses to spur their offense. On the other end of the floor, he did several pretty things, but none was prettier than this:
As far as the second unit’s concerned: missing Nikola Pekovic for the third straight game enabled Rick Adelman to fiddle with unusual lineups – including long stretches of Dante Cunningham at the five, which was kind of weird, but also kind of worked. Every Timberwolves’ bench player finished on the ‘plus’ side of the plus/minus ledger – a rare showing for a much-maligned unit. No one on the second unit was great offensively in the first half – they combined to make just 6-of-18 shots – but they played terrific defense. Two of those bench field goals came from the aforementioned Cunningham, and they were fun, so I put them in a video for you:
The first half ended on a rather ominous note: Corey Brewer fouling Kyle Korver, who had barely crossed halfcourt and was ready to heave a three-pointer with less than a second left on the game clock. The past few games haven’t been Brewer’s finest; sure, he’s shooting over 50% from the floor, and 35% from three, since January 15th, but his propensity to gamble defensively when he shouldn’t has hurt him (and the Wolves). This latest example turned what would’ve (almost certainly) been a nine-point halftime lead into a six point halftime lead. Oy, vey, Corey.
The bad juju introduced to the Wolves by Brewer’s end-of-half escapade lingered throughout the entirety of the final 24 minutes. The Wolves surrendered 72 points in the 2nd half, including 38 in the third quarter alone. Eight Minnesota turnovers led to easy transition buckets for the Hawks, who went on a 27-to-8 run from from the 8:39 to the 1:33 marks of the third frame and led 84-68 by the time the onslaught was over. Kyle Korver, who’d been held in check during the first half, went bananas, nailing three three-pointers and a midrange jumper to lead the Hawks’ surge.
But a funny thing happened at the end of the third – instead of laying down, as many road teams would do on the second night of a back-to-back, the Wolves began to fight, but could never seem to get over the hump. Whether it was lingering frustration over being unable to close the gap, or whether the officials grew weary of his bickering, or whether Barea finally said the magic word (or words), he was hit with two consecutive technicals with 6:43 to go and was tossed from the game. J.J. had spent two solid minutes seething, jawing at officials on both ends of the floor, nary a teammate about to settle him down. It played out like a bizarre sideshow – a child throwing a tantrum in a crowded place, his parents (the coaches) and brothers (his teammates) too apathetic to step in and take charge.
With Barea gone, the decision of who to play at the point was out of Rick Adelman’s hands. Ricky Rubio stole the ball twice in Atlanta’s first three possessions (once he got back on the floor) and had five assists in the final frame. Four of those assists went to Kevin Love, who was magical. He crashed the offensive glass with reckless abandon, repeatedly hit big shots, and fought through the physical defense Atlanta (Gustavo Ayon, in particular) was throwing at him. Without Pekovic, Love’s been forced to find his points in a variety of ways – teams no longer have to respect an inside presence and can disrupt any attempt at a Love/Martin two-man game on the perimeter. Gone, also, is the Love-Pekovic high-low action, as Ronny Turiaf lacks the offensive feel (and soft hands) to effectively pull it off. So Love had to improvise – he got to the line 18 times (sinking 17 of them) and scored on midrange jumpers, putbacks, three-pointers, turnaround hook shots out of the post, and even driving to the hoop:
Love’s brilliance got the Hawks’ lead down to three with 1:26 to go. On the ensuing Hawks possession, the Wolves forced Mike Scott into an awkward, contested shot in the paint, but failed to track down the defensive rebound, which was the beginning of their ultimate undoing. Atlanta’s Jeff Teague fed Gustavo Ayon, who extended their lead to 5, and a bad Alexey Shved turnover on the other end of the floor sealed Minnesota’s fate.
It’s hard to understate how brilliant Love was. It’s also hard to argue that his supporting cast played very well, at times, considering the result, but they did. Alexey Shved had some nice moments, Ronny Turiaf blocked five shots, Dante Cunningham played great defense, J.J. Barea was a sparkplug before he blew a fuse, and Kevin Martin had 17 points in just 23 minutes. The Wolves played beautifully for stretches in each half, but lapses early and late cost them a victory.
What the past two games signify is a team that truly lacks the ability to close games. Both were there for the taking, if only Minnesota could execute, and both times, the Wolves failed to do so. Kevin Love’s carrying a tremendous load – especially with Pekovic out of action – and it’s fair to wonder if he feels alone out there. He bails them out on so many possessions – whether it’s fighting for an offensive board or nailing a tough jumper late in the shot clock – but it’s not enough. It never seems like enough.
Instead of gaining ground in the Western Conference playoff race, the Wolves are digging themselves a deeper and deeper hole to climb out from.