Timberwolves 120, Lakers 119: It's just like college… sort of

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

This was a weird game. It was a fun game. It was a game that showed just exactly where the Minnesota Timberwolves need to be this season while seeing just how dire things are for the Los Angeles Lakers. In a 120-119 win over the Lakers, we saw just how horrendous the Lakers can be and how energizing and cathartic their defense can be for struggling opponents. And that’s what the Wolves have been since Ricky Rubio went down with his ankle injury — they’ve been struggling.

It’s probably why the Lakers felt like they’d get an easy victory at home against the Wolves. This is a Wolves team missing three starters and three important starters at that. We all know how important Rubio is and have seen that night in and night out since his injury. Nikola Pekovic is the type of post scorer that can make a frontcourt like the Lakers’ feel like quitting basketball with his punishing post play. And Kevin Martin can torch Kobe Bryant at this stage in their respective careers just as easily as Kobe can torch Martin. It’s all about putting pressure on an embarrassing defensive effort that looks to be historically poor.

You mostly hurt the Lakers’ offense in two ways:

1) The point of attack with the guards on dribble penetration. Say hello to Mo Williams and Zach LaVine. Williams and LaVine carried the Wolves’ offense against defenders like Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, and Wayne Ellington. These guys are all bad defenders; I mean… they’re atrocious defenders. Lin, Price, and Ellington try to keep up defensively but the effort doesn’t find them being able to really be even neutral defenders out there. It also helps that the big men assigned to step up in pick-and-roll help or weak side help are really bad at that aspect of the game too.

Williams was phenomenal at making long-range shots, knocking down six 3-pointers in eight attempts. The Lakers’ poor pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop defense gave Williams plenty of space to get shots off, as did secondary transition opportunities. 10 of his 13 attempts were classified as uncontested shots by the SportsVu tracking (no defender within 3.5 feet of the shooter) and he hit seven of those 10 shots. He did a great job of moving the ball, as well, racking up 11 assists in a great game of ball movement for the Wolves. Mo’s eight points in the fourth quarter (25 overall) were instrumental in pulling out that victory.

But where the real show ended up being for much of the game was Zach LaVine’s return to Los Angeles. The former UCLA guard went into the night with 60 points in 209 minutes in his rookie season. He dropped 28 points in 25:30 on the court and did it as efficiently as you could hope for. While Lin is a bigger guard, he doesn’t have a great wingspan. LaVine has about three inches of height and five inches of wingspan on Lin, not to mention he’s “probably” a better athlete than Lin is. And he wanted to put on a show for his friends, family, and loved ones in attendance as he made his return to Los Angeles. All of these factors, plus a very measured and balanced approach to attacking the Lakers helped lead to his big night.

My favorite highlight of his was when he Wally Szczerbiak’d a pass in transition that was meant for Corey Brewer in the corner, then took it in for the one-handed dunk.

LaVine took to the bright lights of Los Angeles and the match-up against Kobe Bryant and ran with it. It allowed his talent to shine through, which has always been there but he hasn’t always had the same level of comfort and poise on the court. Such is the life of a rookie guard being thrust into an unexpected amount of playing time and trying to balance learning the speed of the NBA game with running a team. We saw the best results when Williams and LaVine were allowed to play together on the court. That’s something of a gimmick, rather than a luxury due to the lack of depth at point guard for the Wolves with the Rubio injury.

In eight minutes against the Lakers, the Williams-LaVine duo were a plus-61.2 points per 100 possessions. It was an incredibly small sample size, but the combination of having multiple play creators on the floor against a weak defensive resistance was too deadly. LaVine was able to just be a scorer — something I’ve advocated he be rather than forcing him to be a point guard in the NBA. His jumper seems pure off the dribble, showing he’s a rhythm shooter. When that’s working, it means the defender has to respect the shot and it allows LaVine to use a slight hesitation to open up his lightning first step to attack the basket.

That’s exactly what we saw against the Lakers. Rhythm, hesitation, and quickness.

2) In relation to the weak backcourt, the frontcourt isn’t anything for the Lakers to throw on the cover of their media guide. Defensively, it doesn’t take much to get them out of position. Jordan Hill is horrendous at protecting the rim and Carlos Boozer is still himself. Ed Davis and Wes Johnson are the two best defensive players on the roster. Think about that for a few minutes. REALLY let that ruminate. What this means is someone like Thaddeus Young can just feast on the frontcourt.

He was great at floating into open spaces inside the perimeter, orbiting the lane as a big time recipient option for any dump-off passes. He was also great at using just a bit of hesitation and patience before blowing by his defender on fake hand-offs and immediately with direct steps after receiving a pass around the elbow. Young had all eight of his buckets in the restricted area and just attacked relentlessly with and without the ball. It doesn’t take much to break this Lakers’ support zone.

That big-to-big passing and wing-to-big passing was huge. Gorgui Dieng and Corey Brewer each had eight assists, acting as facilitators and unselfish teammates willing to make the extra pass once space opened up on the floor. It’s that kind of attentiveness that led to the Wolves staying in this game on the road and finding their rhythm offensively. Overall, they put up a 118.2 offensive rating, and while it came against the worst defense in the league and a team on pace to be the worst defense in NBA history, it also came without three of their best offensive players.

It shows the blueprint for effort the rest of the season for a Wolves team that will need to find development moments in every opportunity presented to them. You don’t have to win and you don’t have to necessarily execute the game plan at all times. But the effort has to be there. Bad Wolves teams of the past would have just crumbled in the early stages of a game like this, when Kobe was trying to send a message early with activity on defense and shot-making on offense. Instead, LaVine came in and provided a spark. Brewer helped keep the score within reach in the middle of the game. Young provided a veteran scoring presence around the basket. Gorgui took what the defense gave him and what they gave him was the chance to make others better.

This game was sort of a microcosm of why Shabazz Muhammad has earned more and more opportunities on the court as of late. If you bring energy and hustle, you can affect the game in a positive manner. Even when you’re showing you’re not consistently executing the game plan and knowing where to be on the floor, you can make up for it with effort. That’s important for a young core of guys like the Wolves are trying to teach. You can always control your effort and the energy you bring. That’s what the Wolves did against an awful Lakers’ team and it ended up paying off at the end when Kobe missed his 3-point attempt from the top of the key.

PARTING SHOT: Even though Andrew Wiggins wasn’t able to shut down Kobe in this game, he received valuable lessons about staying composed against a great volume scorer and making veterans work for their points against you. Wiggins managed to stay out of foul trouble against Bryant and after getting roasted early, he held his own in denying shots and touches for Kobe. On the final play, he didn’t put himself in position to foul Kobe to give him a chance to win it at the free throw line. He gave Kobe a soft cover on the shot, but he left that shot in the hands of someone who really isn’t a good 3-point shooter.

And while he didn’t have a good offensive game, he still had an absurd moment of body control on a score. These happen once a game now and I hope we don’t end up taking them for granted.

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  1. Nice to see the wolves pull this one out. My question is, how much playing time do you see Lavine getting once Rubio returns?

  2. I gotta hand it to LaVine, I thought he was a reach in the draft with more polished ball players like wings TJ Warren, Cleanthony Early, and Rodney Hood or guards like Shabazz Napier and Gary Harris still on the board. But last night was just about everything Flip was hoping for when he drafted him – a scoring combo guard easily getting dunks and layups in transition, distributing well, and hitting off-the-bounce 3’s.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if last night’s game was an outlier and winds up being his best game of the year; but to answer your question Tyler, I think Zach’s shown enough coach-ability/growth/competence/potential that he’s probably worth 10-15 mins/game even when Rubio returns.

  3. I think we can all agree that the future with the young guys on this team is pretty bright, but where do we go to get this team to actually be competitive other than wait for Wiggins to become great? Is it just a waiting game at this point? I think the fact that this team is still three or more years away from playoff contention really just hit me in this game and goodness I’m sick of waiting and developing “potential”. The rookie-sophomore game this year will basically be a Wolves scrimmage.

  4. Well Luke I know this is the fanbio in me but Durant’s first year they won 20 games the next year they drafted Westbrook and won 23. The year after they won 50+. I feel they’re on that same path.

  5. My goodness, the Lakers are terrible. I know this is heresy but if you take away the fact that he is Kobe Bryant and just view him in the anonymous prism of player X, is 2014-15 Kobe Bryant even a league average shooting guard? Who couldn’t average 25ppg at a sub-40% clip on a bad team that’s playing 20 minutes of garbage time a game?

  6. Farnorth – I definitely hope that’s the case, but the Thunder drafted Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka in back to back to back years. That’s four all-star level players in three years. Outside of Wiggins and maybe Rubio I don’t see anyone on this Wolves squad making an all-star game. Hopefully LaVine can challenge for sixth man in the future but that’s about it. For us to do what the Thunder did we would have to get someone great in this upcoming draft (Okafor?) and have our current young guys live up to their potential. I like your optimism but it’s hard to think we can really do that.

  7. Keep working hard Wolves! Howl at the Moon!…. This is what happens when our team keeps it real without faking the fuunk… Run em out of the gym, ya’ll gym rats? $ in the bank.

  8. Agree with what was said in the article, particularly the bit about LaVine being more of a shooting guard. I like the idea of him being a combo and having basic point skills when needed. At the same time, he’s tall enough to be a real 2-guard and he’s always going to be more of a scorer than a point who runs offense and passes well. His future on the team the next few seasons will be limited to the bench, likely, as a back up point or scoring spark if Flip keeps pushing the point guard thing. If he’s a shooting guard, he could start at some point if he develops right. When Rubio is around, there’s much less need for him to play traditional point. He can start someday as a smallish mismatch shooting guard, or come off the bench as a generic scoring guard who can work from the point or off-ball.

  9. Hello Zach – that’s a great breakdown of some of the reasons why the Lakers defense is so bad. But what about the Wolves defense? We are 29th or 30th in defensive efficiency, points allowed, and opponents’ field goal percentage. Opponents are making over 50% of their FGAs and over 41% of their 3pt attempts. If the Lakers defense may be the worst in NBA history, what does that mean for the Wolves? Can you explain some of our defense shortcomings? Of course, we miss Rubio, but I feel like Brewer, Wiggins, Young, and Dieng are average or above-average defenders and Flip has been emphasizing defense since training camp. So why is the Wolves defense so bad?