Maybe that’s a tired cliche, pushed by sports media types looking to fill columns, game recaps and hours of airtime. After all, it seems like a funny concept: a group of individuals, well-compensated and competitive, sublimating their egos to the collective group, only to have the group assume an identity of its own. What function would it serve, other than a convenient talking point, a narrative driven by those outside the locker room?
And yet, it does seem important for a team to have something to fall back on, a support system, a consistent backbone to help them weather the various storms that pop up throughout a six month campaign. It could be defense, a run-and-gun-style, corner threes and free throws. It could be something sinister, like tanking for a draft pick, or dizzying dysfunction. Most teams around the NBA have a personality, whether they’re aware of it or not. Thus far, the Timberwolves are an underachieving bunch being dragged along by a superstar, which feels less like an identity and more like an indictment.
Even their superstar (Kevin Love) lacks a distinct identity – in a good way. He can be both a bruiser (second in the league in rebounds) as well as a finesse scorer (just watch his footwork in the post, or the way he pirouettes as he fakes a hand-off and steps back to launch a rainbow three). He blends into the offense, disappearing into its nooks and crannies, subtly ending up with superb numbers without a second thought from the audience.
Tuesday night, Minnesota’s most unique player played a vital role in their victory over the Phoenix Suns. Shabazz Muhammad’s modus operandi doesn’t fit the mold of most NBA shooting guards – he’s going to post up and crash the boards with reckless abandon. The superstar (Love) nearly notched his second triple double in three games (33 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists) but it was Shabazz’s unique traits that sparked the Wolves’ important win.
That isn’t to say the rookie from UCLA didn’t execute within the corner scheme. He cut hard and made good choices with the basketball. If he wasn’t doing both of those things, Rick Adelman wouldn’t have granted Muhammad 24 minutes of floor time. Two plays in particular displayed Shabazz’s good decision-making, and both came when the game was hanging in the balance. The first came with 3:20 to go in the 4th quarter and Minnesota down by 1 point. Having posted up P.J. Tucker, Muhammad’s initial post move led to a dead end, with Shabazz having picked up his dribble on the left block. Instead of forcing up an awkward jump hook – which rookies are wont to do in the midst of their first big night in the pros – Shabazz calmly dished it back to Ricky, who re-set the offense and found Dante Cunningham for one of his patented midrange jumpers, giving Minnesota a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The second came a minute and a half later, with the Wolves leading by 3 and looking for a dagger:
You might argue that the real dagger came with 30 seconds to go, when Kevin Love drilled a three-pointer to give the Wolves a 10 point lead, and you might be right. But it’s hard to deny the role Shabazz played in this unusual victory for the Wolves.
Instead of folding down the stretch, as we’ve seen time and time again, Minnesota executed, and Phoenix was the team to collapse. Part of it had to do with Goran Dragic committing several imprudent fouls, the last of which disqualified him with 3:46 left in the game. In the two possessions prior to fouling out, the sensational Phoenix point guard single-handedly turned a 92-91 deficit into a 95-92 advantage by making a sweet reverse layup and nailing a midrange jumper.
But after he was gone, the Suns’ offense came to a standstill, and Minnesota’s flourished, thanks in no small part to Muhammad’s rebounding ability. His offensive boards gave them new life on a pair of possessions, and his defensive rebound with 50 seconds left more or less ended Phoenix’s hopes.
Sometimes, being unique can be a bad thing – perhaps Shabazz’s unconventional skill set (for his position) led the coaching staff to hesitate to insert him into the rotation. At any rate, I’d caution against viewing his sensational night against Phoenix as an indictment of Rick Adelman for not giving him more time earlier in the season. It’s entirely possible Muhammad, like Dieng, has improved tremendously in practice. It’s also possible this game was a fluke. Either way, Muhammad’s identity aided the Timberwolves in an important victory, in unexpected ways, and at vital times.
Does it give the Wolves a new identity as tenacious rebounders? Hardly. They were out-rebounded 50-to-38 in this one and ceded 18 offensive boards alone. But in an otherwise frustrating season, Shabazz Muhammad’s big night was a sight for sore eyes. Identity can wait; right now, all the Wolves need are wins.
In non-Shabazzketball news…
– Ricky Rubio’s got 58 assists against just 12 turnovers over his past 6 games, a nearly 5-to-1 ratio. After he was reinserted into the game with 7:57 to go, the Wolves scored on 14 of their final 17 possessions, outscoring the Suns 27 to 10 during that time frame (h/t Jim Petersen). Rick Adelman refused to fall into the same trap he did against Portland – despite stringent protests from J.J. Barea, the coach sat him during the 4th quarter stretch run and let Rubio run the show. The result? Good ball movement, decent looks at the rim, and a victory.
– Ricky also did this:
– Kevin Love has made 22-of-45 three pointers over his past 6 games, snapping out of a cold spell that lasted from New Year’s Day through February 10th (he made fewer than a third of the threes he attempted during that stretch). Love’s also scored at least 30 points in 6 straight games, and 10 of his last 12 overall. He’s good. He’s really good. Hashtag analysis.
– Minnesota is now 11-6 when I volunteer to do recaps, and 17-23 when I do not. I may have to do the rest of the recaps for the season, for the good of the Timberwolves franchise.