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.