Timberwolves 101, Rockets 113: You Know I Don't Speak Spanish

spanish

If you were upset at last night’s 113-101 loss to the Houston Rockets, then we may have a problem — a whole lot of the Wolves’ losses this season are going to look like this, especially to clearly superior teams. With the win, the Rockets improved to 7-1 on the season, including 5-0 on the road, tying them for best record in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be watching a Houston-Toronto Finals in June, but it does mean that the Rockets, who were already an offensive juggernaut, seem to have turned up the defense just enough to make a big leap in overall quality.

But on the Wolves’ side, here is the texture you should get used to, especially as long as Ricky Rubio is out: Teams don’t have a ton of tape on tendencies for guys like Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and even Shabazz Muhammad, so early on in any given game you’ll see them getting by on athleticism and surprise. For example, if you don’t think Muhammad’s coast-to-coast dunk (which was awesome, incidentally) wasn’t the product of no Rocket player thinking he was going to do it, you’re crazy.

The first half of the game was full of moments like this, from Andrew Wiggins swatting a James Harden layup to Zach LaVine snaking around defenders for a nifty reverse that Dwight Howard goaltended to Mo Williams borrowing a page from the Kevin Love playbook and hitting Corey Brewer with an outlet pass for a dunk. It was fun, but it was also all laced with a sense that the Rockets were sitting back and saying, “OK, OK: You got me … this time.” The Wolves were often surprising us with these delightful little outbursts, but they were also surprising themselves and Houston, who were not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe in the second half.

 Once again, ESPN’s Game Flow graphic speaks volumes here:

HOUMIN_GameFlow

Minnesota came out of halftime flat, which allowed Houston to get some separation, and then midway through the third, Houston left Minnesota in the dust; although it was a 12-point game at the end, the Rockets’ biggest lead was 21, and it felt like it.

Blowouts don’t feel fun when you’re on the wrong end of them, but remember that this is what we should expect against the good teams. For the Wolves to come out winners, the Rockets would have had to falter in some way — come out flat in the second half instead of the Wolves, turn the ball over a lot, shoot really poorly. None of this happened, so the Wolves lost. Especially without Rubio, Minnesota just doesn’t have enough experience or sense of self to upend quality teams that aren’t doing it to themselves.

So let’s talk takeaways. 

  • Zach LaVine looks like surprisingly competent playing point guard. This doesn’t mean he’s going to be an exemplary point guard or even a full-time one, but he’s showing a willingness to create, solid handles and the ability to make the right pass at the right time. I think some of the knock on him as a point guard came from comparing him to some Platonic ideal of a point guard — someone like Steve Nash or Chris Paul — and that’s not what he is. But in a league where Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are star point guards and even guys like Jeremy Lin and Brandon Knight are viable PGs, our definitions need to loosen up a bit.
  • Take Mo Williams, for example, who is showing some troubling tendencies toward ball-stopping early on in the season. It’s doubly frustrating when he makes brilliant passes like the one he threaded to Corey Brewer cutting into the paint through traffic. He’s clearly capable of putting the ball in the right places, but it seems like he’s not looking for that. For what it’s worth, LaVine looked like much more the pure point guard than Williams did.
  • Andrew Wiggins continues to impress on defense and had a textbook night for defending an offensive star like James Harden. Yes, Harden had 23 points but that’s on 23 shots. Most any solid defensive player will tell you that it’s not about shutting down a guy like Harden or others like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, but making them not take the shots they want or at least making them uncomfortable. Wiggins did a good job of that — while Kevin Martin fell asleep all over Trevor Ariza, who shot 58.3% and scored 19 on 12 shots.
  • The shot selection for Minnesota remains troubling. Here’s the shot chart:MINHOU_ShotChartThat’s an awful lot of midrange jumpers. Houston shot 28 3-pointers to Minnesota’s 12, and Minnesota actually shot 17 long mid-range 2-pointers. 86.5% of Houston’s shots were either from 3-point range or right around the basket. Contrast that with 59.3% of Minnesota’s shots coming from those same areas. Anyone versed in analytics is going to tell you that’s a problem because the most productive shots in basketball are at the rim and from long-range.
  • However. I think there’s more to being an efficient offense than simply taking those shots. Those shots have to be generated, not just taken willy-nilly, and the Wolves are just not seasoned or stable enough as a team to reliably generate those looks, which come from having a solid system in place. The Rockets have been being built around maximizing production from distance and at the rim for several years now and have veterans who are not only good at those things, but whose skills have been refined for those things. Minnesota needs to see the extent of what the young players can do before molding a fully-developed system around them. To this end, Saunders’ midrange-heavy game is fine if not ideal. It will only really become problematic if he refuses to adapt it as players’ strengths reveal themselves.
  • Doug Collins seems like a very smart guy, and he was also a coach who worked really well with players, but he’s also stunningly un-self-aware. After Thad Young — whom he coached in Philadelphia — hit a 3-pointer, Collins casually remarked how that was a shot he added last year, completely neglecting to mention that it was a shot Young took regularly early in his career — before Doug Collins became his coach in Philly. This is a guy who said he’d “blow his brains out” if he were an analytics guy before saying, “My analytics are here . . .and here” and pointing to his head and gut. If this sounds a little Stephen Colbert-ish, it totally is. Collins was also effusive in his praise of Saunders’ system as “efficient,” which should also come with the proviso that it’s basically the same kind of system Collins ran, built on what’s now seen as outmoded thinking about how to play efficient basketball. I’m by no means an “analytics or die” guy myself (as I think I demonstrated above), but let’s just say it’s worth understanding any given commentator’s history with the game and bias when it comes to listening to what they have to say.
  • Mexico City’s elevation is 7,382 feet while Denver’s is — true to its nickname — about a mile, or 5,280 feet. Basically, the city they call D.F. (Distrito Federal) is nearly half again as high above Minneapolis as Denver is. I was there for about a week once and it definitely messed with me for the first several days. And I wasn’t even playing professional basketball. Only semi-pro.
Share this because Rubio would pass this along:

Leave a Reply

  1. Flip should give more minutes to Mo. I hated how Zach played last night.He can’t play the pg position. He makes horrible decisions as a pg and takes a lot of stupid shots. He can’t finish near the rim and commits a lot of turnovers.

    Look we talk about how strong/good pek is. Is he? He can’t block shots and can’t move his feet quick. He can’t defend the pick and roll play. And sometimes misses easy shots near the rim.

    Wiggins again impressed me last night with his Offense and defense on harden. I do think flip should run more postup/iso plays for him. He can score the ball.

    Can’t lie we would’ve won if Barea was with the team. Flip should’ve waived Hummel/GR3 instead of JJ

  2. To me it seemed the Wolves were hanging in there pretty tough then Wiggins got that 4th foul and the wheels came off.

    Martin looks out of sync, his head or heart seems to not be in it.

    LaVine was OK lots of fouls so that’s going to be a problem going forward. But you can see once Rubio gets back he is going to be a good second option at PG.

    I know we have been saying this for years, but…. The Wolves do look like they are going to be pretty good in a couple of more years as these guy develope.

  3. I didn’t see the game, but what Collins said is insane. Either it’s a stunning lack of self-awareness like you said or an unwillingness to admit fault, which I could also see.

    What stinks is that this probably isn’t the end of the Wolves playing in Mexico. This time, there was no Ricky, and I assume Taylor won’t pass up another opportunity to collect a check. This is probably what happens when a team’s home attendance is negatively affecting the bottom line.

  4. I enjoyed watching this game even though the wolves lost, which usually isn’t the case for me. I saw a lot of potential, especially in the first half. Solid article…I’m glad you added in the part about Collins. It’s good to have some context.

    One thing I am a little confused about is how Minnesota has been scheduled for this game as the home team back to back years against teams from Texas. Just seems a little backwards…

    Go wolves and get well soon Ricky!

  5. From my point of view, I think the thing Lavine needs to improve on the most is being a constant ‘threat’. When taking the ball up the court, or even after receiving a pass on the parameter, it seems he already has his mind made up whether he is going to pass, shoot or drive, which makes him incredibly easy to guard. For instance, Beverly was literally picking up Lavine just after the half court line, turning Lavine into a defensive dribbler practically every time. Lavine needs to make one move and blow by him, which he has all the tools to do so. I’m not saying he has to attack the rim every time, but he’s got to be a threat so the defender will ease off, or make the defense rotate, which will open the court up. This pertains to the motion offense as well, he needs to get down an a athletic stance, keep the ball, his body and eyes at the rim. Currently, even the brilliant pass first point guard Rubio is more of a threat than the ultra talented Lavine. If Lavine would just be a threat, I believe it would vastly open up the court for him and the offense.

  6. Stumbled on this blog a few weeks ago and have been enjoying it! One thing that sticks out in this post for me: The discussion of the shot chart and systems. I think the NBA is looking more and more like Houston, strategy-wise. It doesn’t always make for fun watching and doesn’t always reward the ‘best’ team–the team with the most developed and diverse skills and athletic talent. In barebones logic, Houston’s system makes sense. Take lots of threes, because they are worth more points and shoot as close to the rim as you can, because those tend to be the highest percentage shots. But real game situations and match-ups are more complex than that. The charts don’t show how ‘good’ the shots were situationally, nor how well defended they were. It’s a long NBA season. In the doldrums, particularly, this strategy is gold. In crunch time, particularly playoffs, teams aren’t so willing to let you take good shots on the 3-point line and next the basket. So, teams built with a cartoonish reliance on 3’s and scoring around the restricted area tend to put up good regular season records and disappoint in the playoffs. Houston and Golden State are examples. Neither team is one I expect to be in the finals as long as they play this way. Their follower’s expectations seem to be higher than their playoff reality. An example of a team that keeps in mind the advantages of 3-pointers and close shots but doesn’t rely on them unwisely is the Spurs. That’s working pretty well for them. Flip’s system is a bit outmoded and may need to evolve some, but in the end you want to have a team that can score well from the highest variety of places on the court in the most varied sets of circumstances. I think MN is trying to work toward that in the future. As a fan I wouldn’t want us to turn into a Houston. It’s a bit dull to watch, even when the team dominates, and the strategy likely puts a cap on how far you’ll go in the playoffs.

  7. We are here to win, not to wait. My point of view/opinions is that the Wolves got lazy, to many mental mistakes and Zack should have taken it to the hole more, become a scoring PG. Common now! Intimidation, talking crap on the court is what got us to put a skirt on. Look at the stats you can tell what the Wolves need to work on. Forget Kevin, D-Up Wolves, keep your heads up and the shots will fall.

  8. Interesting article. But saying no Rockets player thinking that Bazz would go coast to coast and dunk it is a little egregious. At any level of basketball if you don’t stop the ball in transition it probably won’t end well for your team.

  9. Thanks gjk. That sure does explain a lot. As you said in your post, we can look forward to many more of these neutral site games then…

  10. Pingback: Friday (Rebuilding two ways: Wolves and 76ers) edition: Wha’ Happened? | RandBall

  11. The Collins-commets on Thad were truly priceless. No mention that Thad was a very decent three point shooter already at Georgia Tech, where he shot close to 42% on three shots per game. “Added that to his game last year” – last year was Thad’s worst three-point-shooting season among those where he took such shots at all with any kind of volume. What an idiot.
    I agree with RyT that LaVine needs to be more aggressive/assertive/unpredictable. There are very few defenders that can stay in front of him if he crosses half court with a bit of steam. Once he gets past his man and into the paint, he’ll need to learn to read the situation correctly, but he made a few promising plays (drop-offs/kick-outs) the other night. I imagine he has been instructed to stay in second gear and take it easy for the time being, to see if he can initiate the offence at all without turning the ball over. Now that he has more or less show that he can do that it should be time to give him a bit more leash/encourage him to beat his man and penetrate into the paint.

  12. Many fans are already getting tired of hearing “don’t be upset about this loss” and “don’t be stunned if we lose against the [insert team] tonight” … We get it guys. Rubio is hurt, but if he comes back healthy soon we hit the court hard. Tanking in 2014 will not resort to future championship or success. Just being in the lottery is tanking nowadays. The days of 3 or 4-year All-NCAA college stars waiting to get drafted in the NBA are over; the Spurs tanking to get Duncan is not a mold that can be replicated. The draft is an overall crapshoot and really every NBA analyst should know this – for every Kevin Love draft pick in the top few picks there is an All-Star like Paul George or Rajon Rondo that falls later in the draft. There will be far more Darko picks then franchise altering picks so I don’t understand why GM’s would want to lose an entire season for this. I digress…

    Here’s my point… The Wolves shouldn’t want to lose this year for any reason, whatsoever. If we lose cause we simply cannot win basketball games due to skill level, fine. However, we cannot lose because we are not trying to put our best players out on the court or make moves that put us in the best position to win. The Thad Young trade was the best move we made, better than the K-Love trade. A ~#18-24 pick in next years draft for a known contributing commodity is a steal. Our rookies cannot enter the league losing 60 games, especially if they aren’t mentally strong enough and thirsty to win (our rookies are young and overwhelmed). Philadelphia will not make the playoffs during this decade because they have no veteran leadership to teach these athletes and will be overpaid when their contracts run out. Another top 5 pick for the Wolves will take away minutes for our “championship” aspirations in Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine, Rubio, and Dieng. By the time we start winning we will be shelling out big money to keep Wiggins and potentially LaVine (Dieng will earn his keep soon enough) and we might even lose them. No time can be wasted.