Going into last night’s game against the Houston Rockets, the Wolves were in a flat spin and headed out to sea, losers of five of the last six and facing a team they match up with exceedingly poorly. Consider: without Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin, their biggest impact players are at the point guard and power forward positions, while the Rockets’ most essential positions are shooting guard, small forward and center. The result, then, was to be expected—especially with Rick Adelman’s absence from the bench for personal reasons—against a team that’s not yet in the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but is still pretty damn good.
Not that the Wolves didn’t have their moments. You can see below that they actually ran a play:
They took advantage here of the Rockets’ sleep defense by running some nice action away from the pick and roll between J.J. Barea and Ronny Turiaf at the top of the arc. As that unfolds, Corey Brewer crosses the paint to set a screen on Kevin Love’s man while Love pops out to the 3-point line. The screen is actually sort of beside the point, as it turns out: Love gets enough separation from Omer Asik all on his own and then neither Chandler Parsons nor certainly not James Harden are clear on what to do so they stay with their men rather than rotating.
Sadly, though, this was the only 3-pointer Love made out of six attempted.
There was also this stunning and totally unexpected Alexey Shved dunk midway through the second quarter:
That dunk gave Shved eight points in under eight minutes on 3-for-5 shooting, including a perfect 2-for-2 from the arc. Sadly, though, from that point forward he was 1-for-5, including 0-for-3 from the arc. But more on that in a moment.
Although Ricky Rubio had a lackluster shooting night to go with nine assists and seven boards, he did have a couple straightforwardly great plays that are worth pointing out because of how direct and effective they were.
In the first part of this clip, Rubio grabs the defensive rebound and guns the straight beautiful bullet pass to the streaking Shved, who finishes with contact. Sadly, though, that’s the one from that 1-for-5 I mentioned above, the last shot he made in the game with 3:06 left in the first half.
In the second part of the clip, Rubio goes away from the screen set by Love and drives directly to the hoop for the layup. No contact, no attempt to draw the foul, just straight to the hoop. It doesn’t hurt that he’s being guarded by Jeremy Lin, obviously, but it often seems like Rubio’s forays to the hoop are 60% hoping to pass, 38% looking for a foul and 2% actually trying to put the ball in. It’s good to see him be direct in his action sometimes.
But enough with small parcels of praise. Let’s get to where the wheels came completely off the vehicle. With 5:18 to go in the third quarter, the Wolves were down 15 but over the rest of the quarter, they managed to cut that to just a four-point deficit. How did they do it? A couple Luc Mbah a Moute shots, a couple Chase Budinger free throws and a couple free throws and a bank shot from Kevin Love.
And then a crucial thing happened: Shved and Barea came back into the game. Shved’s tenure actually overlapped with the tail end of the Wolves’ good run, but he didn’t help much. He hacked Asik and sent him to the line (which isn’t terrible) but Asik going 1-for-2 briefly pushed the lead back to six before that Love bank shot got it to four again. And how did the quarter end? A Shved turnover. (Foreshadowing: DUN DUN DUNNNN.)
So going into the fourth down four the following sequence of possessions happened for the Wolves: Shved, missed 3-pointer; Barea, missed layup; Shved, turnover; Barea, missed layup; Shved, missed 3-pointer; Barea, missed 3-pointer; Shved, turnover; shot clock violation; Shved, missed jumper; Barea, missed 3-pointer; Love, missed jumper; Cunningham missed jumper. When Barea and Shved were subbed out for Rubio and Brewer, the Rockets had pushed the lead back to 13 and would never lead by less than 12 for the rest of the game.
Guys need rest, obviously. You can’t run your starters out there for the entire game, but it can’t get much clearer: Barea and Shved absolutely killed this team through a stretch when they just needed them to hold serve. After the game, Terry Porter, in his capacity as acting head coach, seemed completely unfazed. “Guys that normally have good shots: Alexey he struggled, J.J. obviously,” he said. Yes: obviously. “I can’t fault guys in regards of our execution, moving the ball,” he continued. He must have been watching a different game.
Does that look like good ball movement? Like good execution? I understand that with Dante Cunningham, Gorgui Dieng and Mbah a Moute on the floor in addition to Barea and Shved there aren’t a lot of offensive options, but if anything that should mean MORE ball movement to get open looks.
I get it: There are injuries; the All-Star break is coming; they’ve been on the road. And regarding the mood in the locker room, Love insisted, ““The mood is fine. We know that we’re just a little banged up right now. We just need to grind out this one on Wednesday, give ourselves the best shot and get the win.”
But nobody on the Wolves cares right now. Some guys are trying, some aren’t. Some are playing well, some aren’t. But to a man, they don’t care right now.
But here’s the thing: I’ve come to distrust caring. I don’t think the Wolves caring is the magical key to turning a disappointing season around. You can care an awful lot about something and still watch it fall apart right in front of you. The not-caring doesn’t usually precede the thing falling apart, in my experience, provided it’s something you did actually care a lot about at some point. No: what happens is disappointment and then dissolution and then distancing yourself from it because caring becomes too painful. It’s just easier to mouth clichés like Love or watch it all burn while you throw kerosene on it like Barea and Shved because actually caring is risky.
Like so many before it, this season is shaping up to be over before it’s really done. That’s a tough pill to swallow for both the fans and the players. But only the players are in a position to do something positive about it.