Timberwolves 97, Trail Blazers 108: The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine

Steve McPherson —  February 24, 2014 — 12 Comments

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.

Steve McPherson

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12 responses to Timberwolves 97, Trail Blazers 108: The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine

  1. I leaned something in this game, all this time I judged Love for complaining to the officials, when what I should have been doing is blaming the rest of the wolves for not complaining with him. Watching the Refs buckle to the loud fans and the constant barrage of bitching from the Blazers was interesting. It was not the difference in the game, but I was still bothered by it.

  2. Barea worked in Dallas because the bench had a great shooting guard(terry), Rarely injured center and a deep bench.

    Barea has to be the most critisized player on this team but I see players who play it safe and are more of a disaster than anything else.

    No one is saying that Barea is the greatest. But pointing fingers at the guy who gives 100% while not pointing out shved, budinger, etc. just makes you a hipocrite.

  3. I don’t understand why Adleman pulls Rubio out so often. So what if he can’t shoot that well. His movement and control of the game is far better than Barea’s. Rubio had 6 assists in the first 6 minutes of the game (only finished with 11), and the Wolves were scoring like a machine. Rubio sits, Barea in, and the Wolves eventually lose. Rubio is a better defender as well.

    But the refs were terrible, as pointed out by Jordan. They were definitely sick and tired of Barea being sick and tired of Mo Williams hitting him on every possession. After Barea got called with the offensive foul Williams came right back down the court and put a shoulder in Barea, and Barea was called for the foul. They were just terrible and letting everything get out of hand.

  4. “Barea has to be the most criticized player on this team but I see players who play it safe and are more of a disaster than anything else.” <– Money quote. JJ had an exceptional first-half and even when the wheels completely came off in the second half, he still had a more statistically significant game than Rubio or Shved. I'm on team Rubio and would love to see him play a full 30mins every game, but there is no Good JJ/Bad JJ — he is simply dagger with a Napoleon complex that has an equal chance of ending up in your own back as the other team's.

    On the other hand, Barea is a poor fit for this team. This team operates best when it playing transition offense and when it relies on ball-rotation to get good looks in the half-court. Neither are strengths of Barea.

    The Blazers won this particular game because they had an exceptional game plan that worked over the long run. By having Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson blitz the offensive glass and everyone else get back on D, they simultaneously took advantage of injuries to Pek and Turiaf on the glass while neutralizing Corey Brewer. The Timberwolves also trotted out 5 small forwards who are all league average or worse 3pt shooters that played a total of 115 mins in this game and Batum, Claver and Robinson ate them all for breakfast at both ends of the floor.

  5. 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.”

    Rubio was the one playing those last three minutes to keep the record straight.

    I agree about Barea is like a love hate relationship. I honestly believe shved would do a great job at back up PG. He played PG last year for the team at times. He has good passing skills and obviously wants to shoot from beyond. Also his height Wil better serve the second unit. But Shved should be utilized and growing. Sucks Adelman doesn’t nature young talent. Just like derrick Williams

  6. Barea is becoming problem, He is not a bad player just simply a bad fit for the offense that the Wolves are trying to run. when he goes into the game all of the ball movement stops completely and he ends up dribbling around or passing it to someone so that they can go 1 on 1. I would almost like to see what would happen if Barea was the starter with the other people that are better at creating for themselves and have Rubio run the second team because he is better at getting other people open shots and would encourage him to look for his own shot more… Just my 2 cents.

  7. This game frustrated me more than any other this season. I appreciate the Schrodinger’s cat reference, that’s something I’ve been saying about JJ for a long time, and really the Wolves as a whole.
    So, rather than blame JJ for getting into the “pissing contest” with Mo Williams, I’m going to put the blame on Adelman. The head coach has to be accountable for his players that HE puts out on the court, and after the offensive charge/defensive block sequence happened, he should have put Ricky back in the game. Ricky is ready to run this team in the end-of-game moments, and Adelman just seems scared to put him in.
    At some point, the front office has to look at the talent that we have on the bench and how little Adelman’s playing them, and get rid of good-ol’ Rick. Bring in a young guy that can get this team excited and energetic, because their youth is a strength that Adelman has yet to harness.

    I hate to formally call for our coach’s job, but playing it safe with a young team is a good way to stay mediocre.

  8. Let me clarify that I’m not blaming JJ for being JJ. But I think JJ is very much a known commodity and I would agree that with the team the way it is right now, he is not fitting in well.

    And to further clarify, I’m aware that Rubio played the last three minutes of the first half. I was just saying that I don’t think the remedy to that problem is to ride JJ hard when you need a stop or an offensive boost at this point.

  9. Alderman is to blame for the poor subs. But how many times did he tell Rubio not to go under screens when lilliard kills you on the 3 point line? I’m guessing way too many times. Lilliard massacred Rubio from the 3 point line last game and he did it this time too.

    Blaming Barea for not having a superior and consistent starting point guard is stupid. I agree that Barea shouldn’t have played the 4th quarter but we honestly DO NOT have an answer for Lillard.

    The game was over when budinger started getting beat on defense, Rubio couldn’t guard Lillard, the crowd got into the game with that NASTY block to brewer, Barea got into a pissing contest and love got in foul trouble. This wasn’t a “Barea loss”, the whole team screwed this one.

  10. Rubio is a terrific point guard in terms of running the offense and setting people up. Even though he gambles too much on defense, he is an above average defender and you have to like his hustle there. However he is an abysmal scorer and that’s putting it mildly and it’s the #1 reason, why Rick Adelman is hesitant to rely on Ricky, no matter what the game situation is. The Wolves have played 25 games in 2014 and Ricky has only scored 6 fieldgoals in those 25 4th quarters. And it’s not his lack of scoring production that is bad, it’s his predictability when looking to pass instead of putting pressure on the defense by trying to score.

    The Wolves lost the lead and played from behind the entire 4th quarter. In a game, in which they didn’t have their 2nd and 3rd leading scorer. With Rubio being too afraid (unwilling? unable?) to score in a tough environment on the road, it’s rather easy to see, why Rick Adelman went with JJ over Ricky in the 4th. If you watch the 3rd quarter again, you can see Rubio had no trouble dribbling and driving the lanes and getting the team into sets, but whenever he drove he looked to pass and it’s obvious and predictable. It’s astounding to see how great a passer Rubio is, because there were few deflections and most passes found it’s target.

    Also, the game was a hyperventilation in the third and the Blazers took advantage of an undermanned team on a back-to-back. The referees unwillingness to actually referee the game didn’t help the Wolves either and a few of those calls were just mindboggling.

    After the Phoenix game, there is a stretch of 8 games against (very) bad teams. The Wolves need to win all of those, without excuses. I hope Pek or Martin can be back soon,..

  11. I am also sympathetic to JJ, like many here. Criticizing JJ for being lousy in his current role is like a baseball team signing a middle reliever who gets lefties out, making him the closer because they don’t have anyone better, and then getting mad that the guy can’t consistently close. Don’t fit a square peg into a round hole and get mad at the peg.

    This team reminds me of the Clippers pre-Chris Paul a few years ago. When everything is going right, it’s a fun team that can be borderline unstoppable. But sometimes when not everything isn’t going right, and then the team doesn’t look merely stoppable but downright clueless. It’s a frustrating team to watch, precisely because they are so good when they are good, but the wheels can come off at any moment. I don’t know if it’s a personnel issue or a coaching issue, but for a team with a ton of high IQ players the consistent energy and execution just isn’t there for 10-15 games in a row, let alone an entire season.

    I think people are hard on JJ because they prefer to think he is the problem, and hope he is not merely a symptom of a larger problem. However, I think we all know the reason why the “not good enough” backup PG costs us games in the fourth quarter against good teams is because the coach thinks the starting PG is even more likely to cost us games in the fourth quarter against good teams. We can make Shved and JJ scapegoats for Ricky this season, but next season? At some point we may have to get a second opinion on where in the depth chart the Wolves point guard problem lies.

  12. Also, if they don’t beat the Suns tomorrow they’re toast, points differential be damned.

    The Suns would own the tiebreaker based on the season sweep and Wolves would be 8 games down in the loss column. Assuming Suns go a pedestrian 13-13 the rest of the way, the Wolves would have to go a scorching 21-4 the rest of way to pass the Suns as the eighth seed. If the Suns play slightly better than .500 ball but well short of their current .600 rate and go say 15-11, the Wolves would have to go 23-2. Likewise Dallas has eight more wins in the bank than the Wolves. If the Wolves can win the season series (still up in the air) Dallas still would only have to play .500 ball and the Wolves would have to win at a .800 clip (66-16 over a full season) to catch them.

    So while it is fun to talk about how the Wolves should “really” be 33-20, there is only a quarter of the season left, and unless the Mavs and Suns suddenly go into free fall, they practically have to run the table to make the playoffs if they lose to the Suns tomorrow.

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