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:
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:That’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.