Sometimes, an entertaining game of basketball is just that: entertainment. That’s — in its own perverse way — the blessing of the denouement of the kind of season that Timberwolves fans have grown accustomed to over the last several years. Go back a decade and the Wolves were the #1 seed in the Western Conference, following years where the end of season concern was getting out of the first round. Just after that, entire seasons were slogs, lit only dimly by some notion of rebuilding the team with little consistent direction to indicate such a thing was even happening.
But over the last three years, seasons have begun promisingly only to falter before stumbling to this seemingly inevitable and often vexing stretch down the last dozen or so games of the year where the team has to answer a stream of questions about what they have to play for. They may say things about preparing for next year, but the wonder of it is that even when it’s darkest, a purely entertaining game like last night’s double-OT win by a single point over the league’s presumptive champions can happen. It doesn’t have to be a referendum, a symbol of the direction of the franchise, either positively or negatively. It can be an island unto itself.
That said, the game exhibited very nearly the full breadth of the good and bad that the Wolves are capable of, particularly on defense. Let’s start with the good.
After a stretch in the fourth where both teams got ragged — including a sequence that involved a Rashard Lewis miss, a J.J. Barea miss, another Lewis miss, a Robbie Hummel miss and yet another Lewis miss before Chase Budinger finally dropped a 3-pointer to push the Wolves’ lead to 89-84 — the Wolves held a four point lead with under two minutes to go. Their defense here was exemplary, really typifying the kind of yeoman’s work that their lack of defensive explosiveness requires:
Early on, Ricky Rubio gambles to Norris Cole’s right to deny LeBron James the ball, which pays off overall because Miami is running a three-guard lineup with Cole, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen, leaving Kevin Love on Chalmers. When Cole kicks it to Chalmers, Love’s length means there’s not a great passing lane on Cole’s cut to the hoop.
James sets a pick on Love, causing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to switch off onto Chalmers and leaving Love on James. On the opposite side of the floor, Ronny Turiaf has sagged off of Chris Bosh to protect on Chalmers’ drive into the paint. This leaves Bosh open at the arc but Turiaf closes out well and Bosh’s pump fake doesn’t open up space for him so he starts dribbling towards the paint.
Now would be a good time for people to yell at Chalmers because he’s left setting a screen on … well, no one. Instead, he’s just gumming up the space around the free throw line and preventing Bosh from getting into space:
What’s nice about the Wolves here is that they’re occupying a lot of space inside the arc, neither clumped up together nor so far apart that they create seams. They’re all more or less (with the exception of Turiaf after that closeout) close enough to get to their man with a step.
It’s hard to say whether this was a scheme or just a natural-ish process, but when James gets the ball on the left wing, the Wolves have sort of fallen into a box-plus-one zone that’s very smart.
They effectively load up the strong side against James with Mbah a Moute to help on any drives around Love. Turiaf is at the elbow to check Bosh, Budinger is in good position to defend Ray Allen in the corner. This leaves Rubio to cover both Cole and Chalmers, but that’s not too bad. Chalmers is a deadeye from the corner on 3s (51.6%) but shoots just 32.6% above-the-break and Cole shoots just 30%.
With the clock winding down, James is forced to shoot a well-defended 3-pointer. That’s right: well-defended by Kevin Love, who gets a hand up and bothers the shot.
The Allen rebound that follows is semi-freakish, since Mbah a Moute had good position. In retrospect, it also looks like Allen shoves Budinger out of the way. The defense breaks down a little once Cole drives, with Turiaf stepping back out to try and provide coverage on Bosh should Cole kick it back to the top of the arc. Cole has Mbah a Moute beat, but the foul that gets called is a bit of a ghost, too.
All in all, here and in other spots in the overtimes, the Wolves showed how by making smart rotations and working for every second of a defensive possession they don’t need to be individually brilliant on defense to bother the other team. Sometimes, the other team is going to beat that defense as the Heat did in their second possession here, but that’s just the game.
There is, however, a flip side to the coin.
With Minnesota up one and 12 seconds remaining in the fourth, the Wolves’ defense reverted to the kind of foul-hunting that has been a major part of why they’ve struggled in close games.
As you can see, Rubio and Barea both try to draw charges here (Barea twice). A moment like this has got to be when the refs are the LEAST likely to call offensive fouls, especially in favor of players who are known to sell them and even flop. (For what it’s worth, according to this eye count updated through March 23, Rubio has drawn seven charges this season and Barea just one.) Rather than contesting the shot or even wrapping up the player, the Wolves are asking a third party to make decision that that party is loathe to make in a tight game. It’s just not a sound defensive strategy.
The Wolves have the ability to impose themselves offensively on other teams when they’re not foul-hunting on that end of the floor, but they can’t do it defensively. When they play smart, they can force other teams into bad shots. When they don’t, they take the game out of their own hands and hand it over to the officials.
Some quick bullets to wrap it up.
Budinger looked as good as he’s looked all season last night. In about 38 minutes he put up 24 points on 7-9 shooting (5-7 from the arc) to go with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. He’s a smart player on offense and not a trainwreck on defense, and when his shot is dropping he’s exactly the kind of consistent shooter the Wolves need on the wing.
To get back to the fun factor, double-overtime games are just plain fun. Sports generalist Dana Wessel opined somewhere in the overtimes that “[a] game like this must be so frustrating for Wolves fans.” I don’t get it. Basketball is such a wild and wooly sport that individual games need to be taken on their own merits, not held up against our ideas about a whole season. This Wolves team DESTROYED a Lakers team that DESTROYED a Knicks team that DESTROYED this Wolves’ team hopes for the playoffs. The Sixers beat this Heat team. The Wolves lost to the Kings, and they only managed 27 points in the ENTIRE FIRST HALF against the Warriors. If you want to watch something fun like this game and get mopey about it, that’s cool, but that’s on you.
Everyone remembers Kevin Love’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Clippers from a couple years ago because, well, it was truly great. But it was also good to see Love grinding down low on some old-man-game tip in the first overtime to put the Wolves up.
- I don’t have video of it, but Rubio’s reaction to the win was great. When Allen’s last-second shot rimmed out, he pumped his fist and then went over to yell at Love (who had contested the shot). His game has its shortcomings, but he loves to win. I don’t know if that makes up for his mechanical deficiencies, but I have to believe he has the kind of attitude towards the game that can blossom into real leadership if the team can taste success.