Here’s a problem: You watch a game of basketball and you know something about basketball. You might know a little, or you might think you know a lot, or you might even be aware that the rather large amount you know pales in comparison to what everyone who’s directly involved in the game knows. And not in some “You can’t know unless you’ve played” way, but in the way that it’s nearly impossible for you to comprehend the volumetric gap in knowledge between whatever you know about the game — as vast as that amount might feel — and what, say, Rick Adelman knows after coaching 2,794 games. Two thousand seven hundred and ninety-four.
But you see things, still. For example, the Timberwolves looked good — real good — in the first quarter of last night’s 108-97 loss to the Trail Blazers. The Blazers didn’t look bad, and still scored 26 on 50% shooting, but the Wolves were humming on offense, putting up 34 on 58% shooting and — most importantly — moving the ball around on offense for easy open looks. You’ve heard Adelman hammer this point again and again after both wins and losses: The Wolves’ offense works when they move the ball side-to-side rather than just attacking the defense straight on.
To that end, you see Kevin Love slipping screens to pop out and hit jumpers. And cool little wrinkles in the elbow game where Ricky Rubio dumps it into Love in the high post and then curls through the paint and back around Love, letting him take the handoff and go either way around Love back towards the paint. Or else Love fakes the handoff and pivots out to take a jumper. It’s not a huge thing or a brand new way to run the offense, but it’s a little thing that loosens up the floor. And if there’s one thing the Wolves have to do consistently, it’s all the little things.
You see Love do some of those little things an a terrific post play. He’s not generally credited with sweet moves on the block, but you can appreciate the way he touches a foot down outside the paint to reset the 3-second clock not once but twice on this play:
And that finish: Catching it over Thomas Robinson and then taking that one hard dribble to get Robin Lopez off balance for this finish. It’s just pretty. Pretty like the play where Love got his initial outlet pass blocked by Robin Lopez, but then recovered it and got it all the way down to Corey Brewer who smartly gave it up to Chase Budinger at the rim, who managed to finish with a layup even though Brewer’s pass was a little high.
Weirdly, though, looking back at it now, you realize that’s exactly where the wheels started to come off the thing, right there at the end of the second quarter. Budinger’s layup pushed the Wolves’ lead to 16 with 2:27 remaining in the second, but by halftime, that lead would be cut in half. During that stretch, the Wolves went 0-8, the Blazers 4-6.
But that, of course, was not even as bad as it got.
The last time the Wolves led the game was with 3:14 to go in the third after Will Barton made a 3-pointer to pull the Blazers within a point. Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard had been downright assassinous up to that point in the third, going 2-3 and 4-5 respectively and 3-4 from downtown between themselves. Missing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers — who have withered a bit recently after a torching start — had gotten punched early but came back swinging. You had to admire that tenacity, especially from Thomas Robinson, who went thermonuclear in the fourth with 5 points and 7 rebounds to give him 14 points and 18 rebounds for the night.
But so here’s where it gets weird for you, reasonably knowledgeable basketball person. Up by one with 2:10 remaining, J.J. Barea came in for his usual rotation. And Barea had been playing well: 5-8 plus 3-5 from beyond the arc. I mean, sure, just one assist, but he was the team’s second leading scorer with 15 points. You’re going to need that scoring punch down the stretch, right?
Yet scoring isn’t even what he did. Over the last 14:10 of the game (of which he played 12:43 until A.J. Price came in at the end), Barea was 2-8 with 1 assist, 2 turnovers and 5 personal fouls (mostly earned when he got into a childish pissing match with Mo Williams about offensive fouls). During that time, Barea was the only ballhandler the Wolves had on the court, playing his entire stretch with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and most of it with Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Love and Corey Brewer, plus some with Robbie Hummel and Gorgui Dieng.
After registering 15 assists (11 of which were Rubio’s) over the games first 35:50, the Wolves only managed 3 down the stretch to go with 7 turnovers. One of those assists and two of those turnovers were Barea’s. The ball stopped moving around the court.
This is where you start getting conflicted if you’re a generally reasonable basketball person, I would think. There’s likely a little extremist inside you that was yelling at Adelman to put Rubio back in, and probably also a little analyst trying to parse the reasoning behind riding Barea down the stretch. Veteran presence? Concern about Rubio’s shooting? And then there was probably the voice of perspective, trying to explain to you that you can’t possibly know everything that’s going into this decision making process, that whatever is leading Adelman to leave Rubio on the bench is not stubbornness, not blindness, but something you can’t grasp.
And yet. Jerry Zgoda reports that “Adelman lamented how his team rushed its offense and didn’t move the ball in the first half’s final three minutes.” And that little reactionary in you is standing googly-eyed wondering how he can have a problem with the ball not getting moved and then put Barea in charge of moving it. Because Barea has things he does and things he doesn’t do and he’s not going to change. He never changes. Whether the shots are going in (as they were early) or not (as they weren’t late), he’s never going to adapt his game. What can we expect? The guy is maybe 5’11”. He’s one of the least liquid basketball players in the league right now, a Schrodinger’s cat in a box on the bench. Pop open the lid in the first half and he’s batting a ball of yarn around and having a grand old time. Pop it open in the second half and he’s just a dead cat.
The twisted thing about this is that it’s hard to resist the feeling that you’re seeing things better than anyone else at this moment. Maybe you think Barea — for good or ill — is an unstable compound that upends the team and that there’s no way in hell you would give him the duty of running the offense down the stretch. And then you see the Wolves lose. And then you think you’re right, when all you really have is a slim little sliver of information. You might be right about that sliver, but that doesn’t actually say anything about the whole picture.
But let’s let that voice of perspective and experience take over here. This was always going to be a tough road game, even against a Blazers team missing LaMarcus Aldridge. Love was absolutely gassed down the stretch, with more turnovers (3) than rebounds (2) in his last shift. The letdown at the end of the first half and the tussle towards the end of the third where Portland took control were the choke points, but overall the Wolves’ hot start was dissipating nearly as soon as it began — they scored 34, 26, 20 and 17 in each quarter and their scoring averages by quarter are 28.2, 26.8, 26.9 and 23.2 on the year.
But even given all that, the Wolves — from top to bottom — just didn’t handle this game very well. It’s maybe why wrapping up these wrap-ups has gotten more and more challenging; the team is neither cratering nor coalescing, but just kind of adrift in the horse latitudes of the Western Conference.