“I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim,
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge, lustre or name.”
- H.P. Lovecraft
If the lowly Bucks, owners of the worst record in basketball (now 13-51), didn’t have the Timberwolves’ full attention prior to tip-off, they certainly did when their 12th consecutive shot found the bottom of the net to start the game. By the midway point of the first quarter, each of Milwaukee’s five starters had recorded a field goal and the team held a nine-point advantage. Guards Nate Wolters and Brandon Knight led the charge – between the two of them, they were responsible for the Bucks’ first seven buckets. Center Zaza Pachulia had 4 1st quarter assists, en route to 10 for the night (a career high).
Fortunes turned, volleys ceased, the tide abated – after all, the team with the league’s 4th-worst Offensive Rating and 6th-worst True Shooting percentage wasn’t going to shoot at a 71% clip (as the Bucks did in the opening quarter) all night long. But for awhile, things were very strange inside 600 1st Avenue, North, and even stranger things spurred the Wolves’ comeback victory.
Despite the Bucks’ hot start, despite being outshot from the floor, free throw line and perimeter in the first half, the Wolves trailed by just 6 at the break. Why? For the most part, J.J. Barea was the good version of himself (maybe even the best possible version of himself) in the 1st half, as opposed to the evil clone we’ve been accustomed to seeing lately. He entered the game having made 13 of 57 field goal attempts over the Wolves’ previous six contests; yet, true to his polarizing nature, he came out on fire, knocking down his first 6 shots en route to 17 first half points (and 19 overall).
He was helped by playing alongside Ricky Rubio, a lineup luxury afforded to Rick Adelman due to Milwaukee’s tendency to play 2 point guards at the same time. When J.J. shares the floor with another point guard, particularly Rubio, his PER is 47,023 points higher* than when he’s tasked with running the offense by himself (*I made that up, but you get the point). Free to roam, and cut, and feed off the chaos created by another ball handler, Barea can attack without worrying about involving others. It’s happened very infrequently – Barea’s shared the floor with Hummel, Turiaf and Budinger more than he has with Rubio this season – and seeing it was a refreshing sight.
Also strange: Kevin Martin was dominant in the second half of this one, scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the 3rd quarter to spark the Wolves’ 31 point outburst. For the season, Martin shoots 45/40/90 in the 1st halves of games, and drops to 40/36/86 after the break. Is it his age? Perhaps that’s part of it, but his second half field goal percentage has been 4 or more percentage points worse than the first half in each of the past four seasons. Like Barea, Kevin Martin reversed a trend – for whatever reason – and it was important to the Wolves’ win.
We’ve seen Minnesota destroy weaker Eastern Conference foes this season – Detroit and Charlotte by 27, Cleveland by 29, Brooklyn by 30, Philadelphia by 31 – but on this four game home stand, against the dregs of the East, it wasn’t a cakewalk. The Wolves fell to the Knicks, had a tough time slamming the door shut on the Pistons, lost to the (clearly superior) Toronto Raptors, and allowed the Bucks (on the second night of a home-road back-to-back) to be within 2 points entering the final quarter of play.
It’s a somewhat disappointing stretch for a team that’s fighting for their playoff lives. Minnesota’s failure to capitalize on the recent favorable schedule hearkens back to their failure to do so earlier in the season, as well; for every blowout win, there are losses that make you shake your head. Such is the fate of a .500ish team.
One important thing to remember about fate: it could always be much, much worse. O.J. Mayo, who the Timberwolves once drafted 3rd overall (and traded away for Kevin Love), has now played 7:01 over Milwaukee’s past four games, including a one-game suspension for sucker-punching Greg Stiemsma and was a healthy scratch Tuesday in Minnesota. The Bucks’ other healthy scratch was Ersan Ilyasova, who recently served a suspension for a sucker punch of his own. Milwaukee’s healthy DNP-CD’s are owed a combined $31.8 million through the end of the 2015-16 season.
Think that’s bad? It gets worse for our dear friends to the east. Larry Sanders, whose 4 year, $44 million extension hasn’t even begun yet, also has problems when it comes to punching people (and keeping his footing on dance floors, apparently). Giannis Antetokounmpo, hyped as a culture-transforming franchise savior, may only ever become a very good role player. And everyone’s cool airing their dirty laundry through the press. Dysfunctional? Yes. Heartbreaking? Absolutely. Hopeless? Sure as hell feels like it.
Maybe it’s silly to draw parallels between the situations in Minnesota and Milwaukee, but for about 12 hours on draft night, 2008, it looked as though the Wolves’ future would be built around O.J. Mayo instead of Kevin Love. Nowadays, Mayo’s feuding with his bosses and can’t get on the floor, and Love’s one of the best players in the NBA.
The victory over the Bucks gave the Wolves 32 victories, more than they’ve had in any season since Kevin Garnett was still around (way back in 2006-07). At this point of the season, the significance of individual games gives way to what they mean for the playoff race. Minnesota got the win; file it away, and look ahead to the next one.
The postseason is still a long shot, and for many people, that means the season is a failure, and that’s okay, though it’s important to keep some perspective. Occasionally, the schedule affords us opportunities to look into the dark universe, to see what may have been. Kevin McHale once dealt away a hot shooting guard prospect for a chunky power forward from UCLA, and six years later, every Minnesota hoops fan is better off for it.
Whatever happens the rest of this season, as hopeless as you may get about the prospect of Kevin Love bolting, and as annoying as this summer is going to be (especially when it comes to speculative nonsense), just remember: the Wolves are not the Bucks, rolling without aim, rolling in horror unheeded, without knowledge, lustre or name.