Timberwolves 104, Clippers 114: Lesson Learned
“They’re all getting paid. They all have a job to do. Not only our organization – the whole league is going to judge them by how they finish out this season. And that’s what they have to understand. They’re a select group of people that get to play in the NBA.” – Rick Adelman
Ever since the final nail was hammered into the coffin containing the Wolves’ playoff dreams (back on March 5th), much of the discussion about the Timberwolves concerns expectations for the rest of the dearly departed campaign. Would Minnesota devolve into zombies, morbidly sleepwalking until the final buzzer sounds on April 16th? Would the starters exude professional pride, or fall into bad habits, knowing their futures are secure with guaranteed deals in place for next season? Will the team begin tanking? Would the bench, full of (mostly disappointing) parts, show signs of fight and life, hoping to leave a lasting impression on the front office, working earnestly for their next contracts? Has Rick Adelman checked out, or is he at least invested until the season’s done?
The answers are never black or white, never the same from night to night. The Clippers’ 114-104 defeat of the Wolves at Target Center on Monday had a little bit of everything – some good, some bad, some new developments, some familiar flaws, and comments from the coach about professional pride, effort, and finishing what you’ve started.
Some of the good included the Wolves’ bench scoring 60 points on 24-of-44 shooting (55%). Gorgui Dieng scored 14 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, dished out 3 assists and was perfect from the field (4-for-4) and the line (6-for-6). Shabazz Muhammad scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in just 12 minutes. Robbie Hummel hit 3-of-4 three pointers en route to 11 points of his own. J.J. Barea shot poorly, but distributed nicely (8 assists) and made the second unit look like competent bunch, even against the Clippers’ starters in the 4th quarter.
Conversely, the Wolves’ starters scored 44 points on 17-of-52 shooting (33%). Kevin Love had more shots (21) than points (20), and so did Kevin Martin (14 and 12, respectively). Ricky Rubio continued his struggles against the Clippers, going 1-for-6 from the floor with 5 turnovers. Rubio’s now made 21% of his field goals in 10 career games against the team from Lob City. Nikola Pekovic’s ankle issues flared up again, and he exited 6:53 into the game, never to return.
The game’s big swing happened early in the third quarter, with Minnesota’s starters still on the floor. Kevin Martin missed a three, and the Clippers hurried it down the floor, hustling into their set, where Darren Collison utilized a pick for a quick midrange jumper to give the Clippers a 61-59 lead, which they wouldn’t relinquish. Following a Corey Brewer miss on the next possession, Collison again attacked the Wolves in transition, exploiting an uncharacteristically slow-footed Rubio for an easy layup. Paul, Collison, Jordan and company smelled blood in the water.
There are many ways to break down the ensuing Clippers’ run, but I choose to look at it like this: From the following play through the end of the 3rd quarter, the Clippers held a 23-to-4 advantage. What you’re about to see is not Kevin Martin’s finest moment (h/t Andrew Lynch for the gif):
Minnesota’s perimeter defense is usually subpar – this isn’t news. During the 23-to-4 run, the Wolves were failed to getback in transition and were lax at close-outs, even in basic half-court sets. “Every time we missed,” Rick Adelman said at the postgame podium, “people on the opposite side of where the ball went up from didn’t run back. That’s a cardinal rule in transition.” With Blake Griffin missing the game due to back spasms, the Clippers seemed content to get up and down the floor quickly, driving and kicking to open shooters, and boy, were they open. They were open all game. They were open A LOT. I have pictures:
Fun fact: the Clippers actually missed all six of those wide-open looks. In light of this, the Wolves were lucky to be in the game at all; by my estimation, 13 of Los Angeles’ 30 three-point attempts were taken with a comfortable amount of space; they only made 12, total, throughout the night. You may also have noticed that there were at least three starters on the floor for each of the first five attempts pictured above.
Minnesota’s perimeter defense tightened up in the fourth quarter, holding lineups featuring primarily Los Angeles’ starters to 1-of-6 shooting from outside and 36.8% shooting overall. Rick Adelman stuck with the reserves, even when the Wolves trimmed the lead to 12 points with 4:51 remaining, and 8 with 1:32 left to play. It was a good message to send to the guys whose gritty play had brought the team back into it, as Britt Robson pointed out. Barea, Budinger, Hummel and Shabazz each played the entire final frame, with the center position split between Dante Cunningham and Gorgui Dieng. That group, so often futile, racked up 38 points, and made the final score much closer than the game actually was.
Rick Adelman theorized at the postgame podium that the Wolves’ 4th quarter effort was a teachable moment. After 23 years as an NBA head coach, it’s reasonable to assume the 67-year-old Adelman has been sustained, at least in part, by a love of teaching. “Last night, I put the (bench) group in with 3 or 4 minutes to play and they acted like we were doing them a disservice. They just kind of let it go. Tonight, they came in with aggression and got something done. and maybe that’s a lesson learned.”
“We’ve got 9 games to go, Adelman continued. “We’ve got to come out every game, every quarter and bust it. They owe themselves that, they owe their teammates that, the organization, the fans.”
For all the criticism of Adelman over the course of the year, he certainly seems invested, jumping up to protest every call, working the officials, lamenting mistakes, and touting improvements, especially of Muhammad and Dieng. If anything sticks from these last nine games, played with the portents of offseason coaching staff changes and roster upheaval, hopefully it’s that it’s important to play hard every possession. When you play under the bright lights, someone, somewhere, is always evaluating you – an important lesson not every NBA player seems to learn.