Timberwolves 90, Blazers 82: The kinds of things you can't see from the center

Kurt-Vonnegut“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “Player Piano”

In comments to the Star Tribune on Tuesday, Flip Saunders used the word “rebuild” twice, a term he’d avoided to that point. Preferring to call the Wolves’ situation a “retooling” with a “blended” roster mixing young players and veterans, Saunders shifted gears a bit, asking for patience from fans while acknowledging a slight shift in organizational philosophy. That Flip Saunders was President of Basketball Operations and part-owner Flip Saunders doing the talking.

Coach Flip Saunders is a different guy, and in order to beat the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night, dispassionate big picture realism was jettisoned for tactical quirks, the mechanics of victory powered by the fearless installation of an unconventional defensive gameplan. Flip credited assistants Ryan Saunders and Sidney Lowe with orchestrating the Wolves’ doubling of LeMarcus Aldridge from the baseline, one that frustrated and hindered the All-Star power forward’s game (he finished 3-of-14 from the field with 5 turnovers). Minnesota also switched almost every pick and roll, a decision that helped cut off drives to the hoop, thus enabling the wiry Zach LaVine, who has trouble navigating and fighting through screens, play effective enough defense to stay on the floor for 35 minutes.

There were drawbacks to all the doubling and switching, of course. Portland does a great job of sharing the ball, and they were often effective at swinging it out of double teams to guys on the perimeter. The Blazers’ 10-of-35 (29%) mark from beyond the arc was partially the result of good effort on ensuing Timberwolf closeouts, but Portland also missed a bunch of open looks (Damian Lillard, 2-for-12, and Nicolas Batum, 1-for-5, had especially tough luck from downtown). This was probably the best I’ve seen from the Wolves’ defensive rotations this season. The following play is a pretty clear example of improved discipline, communication and teamwork on defense:

The switching also led to a few mismatches in the post, and since the Wolves are undersized to begin with, this was a risky proposition. It also required a few bigs to try to stay in front of the Portland guards, an assignment Anthony Bennett, Thad Young and Gorgui Dieng had some trouble completing.

In sharp contrast to Rick Adelman’s consistent, almost robotic management of rotations and lack of proactive strategic innovation over the past three years, Flip Saunders is pushing himself and his team to the edge of what they can do by employing a variety of aggressive tactics. Playing Portland straight up, without gimmicks or employing schematic risks, probably ends in a loss. Whether the confidence to try such things is a result of Flip’s high concentration of power in the organization, gravitas from well over a decade of coaching success, or some combination of both, it’s refreshing and fun as a fan to watch the Wolves on nights where they don’t stand pat and opt for slightly unconventional methods. It’s even nicer when players execute the game plan, and nicest of all when it results in a win.

But because the talent (and health) of the two teams is so drastically different, Minnesota still needed more than a few bounces to go their way in the final minute, despite their solid overall play.

On the first play in the video below, Zach LaVine nearly turns the ball over, only to see it end up in the hands of Thad Young, who also nearly turns it over, only to see the ball careen off of Wes Matthews’ knee, right to Gorgui Dieng, who nearly throws a cross-court pass over the head of Corey Brewer, who misses the long two, only to be bailed out by an Andrew Wiggins offensive rebound. At this point, Wiggins probably should’ve reset the offense to burn more clock or force the Blazers to foul, but instead, the rookie opted for a bad scoop shot that hit the bottom of the rim, only to ultimately be rescued by a whistle on a… well, somewhat weak foul call on Robin Lopez.

Then Wiggins split the free throws.

Sixteen seconds after that ordeal, the Wolves found themselves inbounding the ball up by 5 points. Flip draws up a nice ATO play that ends with LaVine charging into the front court with a full head of steam, which is nice, but again, wasting time should’ve been the goal unless a wide open path to the basket presented itself. What did LaVine do? He attempted a reverse layup through traffic (kids, amirite?). Andrew Wiggins bailed out another possession by grabbing an offensive board, only this time, he got the ball to Corey Brewer, who the Blazers fouled intentionally, and the game was pretty much over.

Other notes from this one, in no particular order:

– It was a nice night off the bench for Jeff Adrien, who racked up 8 points, 11 rebounds (4 offensive), 2 assists and 2 blocked shots in 25 minutes. With Gorgui Dieng missing long stretches due to foul trouble, Adrien was a force on the glass and did a nice job handling things inside against Portland’s big front line. Even more impressive was the way he seemed to fit into the offensive scheme, especially considering the fact that he’s only been here for a week and a half. “Knowing the sets, helping the young guys get to the next phase when something’s not going right,” Adrien said of his responsibilities in the offense. “When the offense breaks down or whatever situation we’re in, that’s what I do. Maybe set a pick, dribble hand-off, something.” As much as I enjoyed the quirky nature (and admirable efforts) of Robbie Hummel, backup center, watching Jeff Adrien operate in that position is much more enjoyable.

– Oh, yeah, Andrew Wiggins had one of his best games as a pro, recording 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting with 4 assists, 2 steals and 10 rebounds overall, including the 2 clutch offensive boards in the above video. “He looked like the number 1 pick tonight,” Flip Saunders said after the game. “His ability to get shots, to take things over, to take big shots at the end. He got on the floor for a couple of loose balls…”

– Like this one, which was a huge momentum swing at the end of the 3rd quarter:

– Corey Brewer was really good the entire game: 19 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals, 10-of-10 from the free throw line, and handled things well as the backup point guard. Since the injuries have kicked in, he’s been the team’s most valuable player.

–  Thad Young got some extra work in with shooting coach Mike Penberthy prior to the game, but struggled mightily, going 6-for-20 from the floor and 0-for-5 from three. In the nine games since he’s returned to the lineup, he’s hitting 42% of his field goals but is just 1-for-13 from beyond the arc.

– The life of Chase Budinger: 17 minutes against Portland on November 30th, 21 the next night in Los Angeles, 5 against the Sixers, 28 in the Wolves’ close loss to the Rockets (which was his best game of the season), 16 combined in the Wolves’ losses to the Spurs and Warriors, culminating in a DNP last night.

– The quote at the top of the recap is from “Player Piano,” Kurt Vonnegut’s debut novel. It’s about a protagonist’s struggle against the world of automation and the loss of the working man’s dignity in an increasingly mechanized world (rather ahead of its time for 1952, when the book was originally published). The story follows the main character’s struggle to reclaim his self-worth by removing himself from the impersonal, efficiency-driven and futuristic society he was born into. Of course, it’s Vonnegut, so things get messy and a little bizarre along the way.

Flip’s circumstances are not nearly as existential or dire, but it’s sort of refreshing to watch the Timberwolves take matters into their own hands. They’re missing so many key pieces, players are out of position, kids who would ideally be in the D-League are playing 35 minutes per night, Andrew Wiggins has been prematurely tabbed as the team’s go-to scorer (a role he probably isn’t quite ready for, but handled beautifully tonight), they’re undersized on the front line, and their “best” healthy player (Thad Young) is in a mighty slump. Despite all of that, and the tough schedule, the Wolves keep fighting, keep trying whatever is necessary to squeeze out a few victories.

Right, it’s one win. But it was a fun one, and they should be celebrated when they happen. If I learned anything from reading Vonnegut, if I learn anything from watching Flip Saunders’ Timberwolves on a nightly basis, it’s that laughing and appreciating little things in the face of uncaring, often brutal systems is important, and working to change your circumstances, no matter how long the odds or absurd the challenges, is an admirable undertaking.

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10 Responsesso far.

  1. Dave says:

    My question as someone who watches the Wolves on and off is “Why isn’t Shabazz playing more?” He seems to be a pretty dynamic player when I happen to be watching and ESPN’s PER statistic seems to back me up that he’s one of the best players on the Wolves this year so far. Yet, he’s only getting 18 min/game on a weak roster.

  2. farnorth says:

    I posted this in the last blog but I am glad you mentioned it above.

    Flip’s plan to throw the towel in on the season and wholesale trade as many vets as he can for future assets. I hate this plan, yeah if somehow some way we could get out from under the horrible Pek contract (because he is so unreliable health wise) I would be all for it. But with Dieng already the main center Pek is just going to have to be an expensive back up. Since Gorgui is still on his rookie deal that’s not going to hurt the money we have into that position as if we had to also go out and try to find a starter via free agency.

    But just because this year has been a bust due to injuries is not a reason to empty the roster and go the 76’s route. Brewer showed us all last night why you need veterans on your team. Look at the Mav’s the Spurs, the Cavs, even the Wiz a lot of much older than most of our vets making contributions to winning teams. We will need vets next year if we are going to be competitive. Why not the ones we have now?

    Sure if we can move a piece here or there, a Budinger for a real backup PG. I think Martin has a place on this team but I could see him getting traded to a contender, but who ever we end up trading it has to be because it fits a system. Churning the roster over and over again as we have done these past 10 years has neted nothing so far. It has been 10 years of spinning our wheels never establishing anything because we never stick with anything long enough to build anything.

    Flip said we need to be patient. I am not sure who he is talking to. It can’t be Wolves fans since we’ve already been that for a decade. How about we the fans turn that around on the current leadership and say to them “be patient” build with what you have move players only because of fit. Wait for the injured to come back, refine your offensive scheme get as many players on the same page as you can and grow from within.

    I am tired of being sold hope in the same package labeled “potential”.

    The only way we are going to take the next step as a team is if we quit taking the same steps backwards.

  3. farnorth says:

    Dave, it reminds me of when Rambis was coach and we were all saying the same thing about K Love.

  4. Skunedog says:

    Brewer playing point guard is surprisingly entertaining. He played an awesome game (a nice 4×5) and to see him man the point was like watching a Stephen King movie – the suspense of whether each scene ends horrifically or triumphantly was delightful.

    Despite Shabazz’s god-awful 2nd half, he deserves some major props for helping the Wolves open up a lead in the 2nd quarter. Three steals and that wicked throwdown on Chris Kaman really fired the Wolves up.

    Wiggins had a great game and it was cool that the broadcast team threw up a graphic of how Wiggins is doing in comparisons to other recent notable #1 overall picks. He may not be lighting the league on fire, but he isn’t too far behind where some of the perennially great players were at this point.

  5. Rodman says:

    Great write up, William. Love the Vonnegut references.

    Was a fun night (with a few tense moments). Good to see adjustments, growth and effort still happening. That’s a positive sign. Even though Portland missed some open looks, it was great to see the Wolves playing some quality D. Adrien is a keeper. Keep it up boys.

    Wiggins was awesome. Great to see.

  6. gjk says:

    The situation is only similar because fans are complaining. One has been put in every position to succeed, and the other was stunted repeatedly and became a star despite his awful coaches. Flip has every reason to want Shabazz to succeed, and when he’s in, they try hard to focus on his strengths; Kahn and Rambis were trying to limit Love’s time so that they could trade him, only to look like fools after his 30-30 game and rare All-Star appearance for a guy on a terrible team. There is no one inexplicably getting minutes over Shabazz the way that Ryan Hollins, Darko, or Anthony Tolliver were over Love. Shabazz is the basketball equivalent of a great short-yardage running back who picks up lots of first downs and TDs but can’t outrun anyone, catch passes, or pass block.

    Good to see a win; a team just can’t go through long stretches of losses and not have it affect their psyche. It just goes to show why a team needs to be prepared every night; it’s never clear when they’ll shoot themselves into a win or their opponent will shoot themselves into a loss, like the Blazers did last night.

  7. shlabotnik13 says:

    My post was going to be about how we should NOT trade Brewer, but I see that farnorth already captured most of my thoughts. Understanding that we are more in rebuild than retool mode, it would be a big mistake to trade all of our vets. We can’t be so young that a losing culture develops. We need vets to show how to close out games. To free up playing time, I can see trading Budinger (but doubt we can get anything for him), Martin and Mo (it would be nice to keep one of those two for game-end presence, but probably need to let the youngsters learn the hard way).

    But we need to keep Brewer and Young as they, along with Rubio, will teach the youngsters the right stuff. Who would have thought Brewer could be the back-up point guard? He’s a gamer, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. I realize that Brew is our most marketable player….. Could maybe trade him for a similar vet wing who can make 3s. But, PLEASE, do not trade him for a draft pick. We’ll have our own early first-rounder next year and we’ll have enough young projects to develop for the next several years.

  8. Pyrrol says:

    Great write up! I agree with the points made here. Here’s what stood out to me about a surprising win: I’ve been very down on Flip, and this game was like a cup of Gatorade in the desert. Flip’s teams have looked confused. His schemes haven’t always made sense. In this game, however, he showed he can learn from playing a team the first time and apply a tailor made strategy. What Flip does might not always work or be wise, and his teaching abilities haven’t appeared impressive yet, but at least he is willing to try things and make adjustments. In light of Adleman’s robotic coaching Flip is, with all his warts, a big improvement.

    This game illustrates a superstition of mine–one of many that develops from following a team like the Wolves for a while. It seem like we have really bad luck. The laundry list of reasons we lose that is our own fault or due to injuries is seemingly always long, yet it seems like on top of that we have almost nightly bad luck. Other teams have almost nightly good luck. Perhaps confidence feeds into every aspect of how a team plays to the point it seems to define their luck and fortune? This was a rare game when the Wolves had lots of luck–some to spare. We played well too, and the Blazers played poorly, but we were just flat out lucky. And it seems like we are a totally different team when we have some luck. It was shocking. For once we held the luck advantage over an opponent by a large amount, and we easily cashed in.

    This game also shows the Blazer’s weakness. They are like Golden State and Houston, in that when it comes down to it, the crux of their strategy is to take a butt load of threes and just expect enough to go in to win. This is fed by other aspects of their strategy, but when it comes down to it, if their 3’s don’t fall as much as they ‘think’ they should, they aren’t very good. Lilliard took 12 three point shots (and hit 2)—the team took 35. That’s too many. That’s not a formula for winning in the post season. On the other hand, the way teams and the rules are rest up these days, you have to take a certain amount of 3’s most of the time to compete, and the Wolves have to find a way to take some more.

  9. Fan says:

    In we have to at least be a playoff team within the future 2 years, the key is whom are our cornerstone players and what is our team’s style look like in the future? That’s the blueprint how trades should be done, no matter it’s a rookie or a veteran. Rubio and Wiggins are top priorities, no questions about it. Brewer should be still in the plan. He is an all rounded wing who can provide both offensive and defensive thread. I want Pekovic but he is not reliable given his health record. Instead, I would pick Dieng and hope that he can develop to be Ibaka typed of defensive expert in the paint area. Young, to me, he is just nothing more than OK, performs not as much as his value of the contract.
    If we target to develop a team with Rubio, Wiggins, Brewer, Dieng, Pekovic(Hopefully) as core members, I foresee wolves would be a fast, defensive team, hopefully like last year’s Pacer. Then what will we lack of? If we make trade now, I would targeting to mend those weakness such as we may need players with solid veteran championship/playoff experience and more weapons in scoring. Look at our rosters, Shabazz gave us hope with his performance right now. Mo Will is also key bench in guard position, if he can keep himself OK as now. Lavine is full of uncertainty. See how he develop but I am not agree to bet so much on him. Young and Martin should be the trading chips but not easy to trade with his expensive contract. If they cannot be trade out, try to get them in with reasonable price because both are considerable scoring thread. Give up Budinger for sure. The only arguable is whether we would pay Pekovic for a more healthier scorer.

  10. brady skog says:

    Read the contract agreement, Pek will take a pay cut unless he performs that high level play when he signed him… Injuries, have to work with what you got and by mix matching can make a difference in a game if used effectively. .. how many minutes you play in a game builds trust, I bet Mr. Saunders is still trying to figure out his team, surprised Glen the third hasn’t played yet… Our young wolves are still intimidated. Our team IZ showing positive signs it just stupid dumb mental mistakes by thinking to much, in the wrong position. The longer our bench players play together the better our team will be. You know, Having Pek and Rubio come back at same time would benefit our team but new faces, takes time to build chemistry…. Let them play. LETS GO WOLVES!

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