Timberwolves 92, Thunder 111: Choosing Sides

shabazz-muhammad-timberwolves-hazing

Fully healthy, the Timberwolves would still not be as good as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook back, and he went for 34 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds and could essentially get to the rim whenever he wanted by turning on the jets. The Thunder have eight players 6-10 or taller (if you count Durant, who is at least 6-10); the Wolves have one healthy player over 6-10 (Gorgui Dieng). No surprise, then, that Oklahoma City outrebounded Minnesota 47-30. The expected disparities were there: the Wolves took 7 3-pointers and made just one; the Thunder made 6 and took 23. If the Portland game the other night had everything going against the Blazers and for the Wolves — a genuine outlier — this was much more routine.

The game was, more or less, lost in the first quarter when the Thunder outscored the Wolves 39-21. Through the second and third, Minnesota actually managed to edge Oklahoma City 56-54, getting the lead down to 11 with about eight minutes to go in the fourth, but the Thunder kicked it back in as the Wolves came up short in the end.

I’ve often wondered how hard it is for players who are losing a game like this to compete. I myself am a certified rage-quitter, a fact of which I am not proud and one I am still seeking to remedy or at least not pass along to my daughter. If I am losing a game of NBA 2K15, I’m not looking to win the quarter or at least play hard — I’m just walking away. I think most competitive people have at least some of that impulse in them, so I imagine a lot of the coaching staff’s job is doing little things to frame small stretches of the game within the game, to get players to go after a short-term goal. I would imagine this is how you get the Wolves to suddenly step up a notch on defense toward the end of the third and into the fourth to make the Thunder at least sweat a little. It seemed to be sparked in part by Andrew Wiggins’ fun, from-behind block of Kevin Durant. That step up on defense spurred the offense, which finished the third on a 10-13 run.

That defensive energy also seemed to come once again from the new strategy to switch everything, which worked so very well against Portland. There’s a lot to like about this strategy from the Wolves, and here are just a couple points about it.

  • It plays to the team’s limited defensive strengths. Gorgui Dieng is a solid shotblocker, but he can’t put up a ton of resistance when he’s getting bullied in the paint yet. The best defensive players on the Wolves draw their defensive strength not from being stoppers but from being harassers. Wiggins, Corey Brewer and Thad Young aren’t going to shut guys down, but they can force steals and a switching defense puts a higher premium on that kind of defensive play. It might even pay to keep working from this template when Ricky Rubio returns.
  • It’s just more fun to watch. As a spectator, it’s fun to watch the switch happen and then to see Zach LaVine have to deal with Kevin Durant. Instantly, you get to see if they bring help, and you’re on the edge of your seat wondering if OKC can take advantage. It creates fun stuff to look at, which is kind of the point of entertainment.
  • “A side should always be taken, little light, even if it is the wrong one.” Destiny. There are complicated reasons that it might actually be a good line within the game, but it’s something I fervently believe. Switching everything on defense might not win the Wolves any more games this season, but it gives them something to do while they’re losing games. Instead of trying to play the way every other team plays, they’re trying something different, and I think that matters because it gives the team a little bit of a unique feel. I think having an identifiable system that players can feel invested in is almost more important than what the system is.

That last point about the switching defense carries over into my next point, where I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment: How much longer can Shabazz Muhammad come off the bench? Up until this game, I was firmly in the camp that felt playing off the bench is the best spot for him because while his energy and hustle are terrific, his grasp of the finer points of team basketball still seem to be lacking. Also, the choice to start him would mean sitting Corey Brewer, who is at least nominally the veteran with the most defensive chops. You want balance in your starting lineup and so LaVine is all offense, Brewer is defense and transition, Wiggins is a little of each but still learning, Young is a steady vet, and Dieng is good for defense, rebounding and the occasional open shot.

But. Muhammad is a goddamn cannonball. It’s tough to look at a game like this one, which was lost in the first quarter, and not wonder if putting Muhammad out there at shooting guard might not have given the early part of the game a completely different character. Sure, Brewer had four steals, but he’s completely unpredictable with his shot, his handle and his finishing, plus he’s gambling egregiously now, with little regard for recovering.

Switching everything on D was a great unorthodox decision to make, so why not roll the dice again and try a starting lineup of LaVine, Muhammad, Wiggins, Young and Dieng? So long as the Wolves aren’t expecting any of their injured vets back before the new year, I say it’s time to let the freak flag fly and see what happens.

 

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. Adam Armfish says:

    Good article. However, you left out one very important piece. All the wolves need to do is trade Brewer for Scotty Pippen and we are instantly competitive. The Bulls said they would do it. Thanks for listening… Thoughts?

  2. Biggity2bit says:

    Hey Steve,

    Nice write up. Just wanted to say that I read your 1500 piece the other day, comparing the young guys with young musicians. For a period of years I lived with a couple other guys that I jammed with, and you are absolutely right about the change from simply playing for oneself or playing to prove how good you are to seeking out the subtle repartee between a bass line, drums, and rhythm guitar for example, or the joy of hearing a band mate start doing something and knowing exactly how you can compliment it so that the sum is greater than the parts. It is true that out of 120 minutes of jamming you are lucky to get 3-4 minutes of true goodness. But oh boy is that goodness worth it!

    In terms of what keeps these guys in the game, I would offer that for some of them at least, those brief periods of synergy are addictive and rewarding and so motivating. You taste it once and you just have to get back there. Continuing the musical analogy, (and cliche as it is), these guys are playing jazz out there, or some other type improvisational music form that really only shines when everyone understands the structure undergirding it. It could be bluegrass, or free verse, or Phish, or blues, or dancehall electronic, or some Ravi Shankar. The point is, and it’s what I loved about your 1500 piece, that if these guys are like young musicians, then they simply need time to play and to ‘listen’ to each other while they learn the structure of the game. You gotta learn your scales before you can be Louie Armstrong. And you gotta learn countless smaller phrases before you can be Louie Armstrong.

    I have my reservations about Flip’s overall strategic biases for the game, but I do believe he is a pretty good teacher and developer of young players. It will be interesting to see what kind of music he can coax out of these guys in the years to come.

  3. Steve McPherson says:

    I am right there with you, Biggity.

  4. Pyrrol says:

    Here we go again! After showing heart and creativity of game plan against Portland we’re back to the same old. The way we played OKC is the kind of basketball that will put us into a losing tailspin that might be impossible to pull out of all season. I agree with your thoughts. We need to bring daring game plans, take chances, and be smart. We just can’t lay down and lose in such a predictable, boring and lifeless manner as we did in this game. We’ve been doing it way to much. It isn’t acceptable. The empty seats show it’s not. It is one thing to be a team that has little chance this season of posting a winning record or beating good teams. But to be a bore to watch, to look uncreative, to seems as though young, energetic guys aren’t trying hard. That’s not acceptable. It’s an insult to the fans and the game. The Wolves need to put a better product out NOW.

    Case in point this game: We can hardly expect to win against a team with two superstars–it’s a rare treat kind of thing this season. But we should expect to be respectable. We should expect to be fun to watch. Nothing chases fans away like games that are over in the 1st quarter. We shouldn’t get blown out that fast and by that much, even with all our problems. It suggests a future of peril even after we get healthy and more experience.

    I like the idea about Shabazz in the write-up… There are intellectual reasons to not start him that I understand and agree with. Yet, what he keeps managing to do is what we need badly in our starting line-up. Even if we defend well, we can’t score enough early to stay in games. Muhammed has a way of finding some points no matter what. We need someone like that, particularly with Young in tailspin land.

    In a related note, Brewer… I like him, and he’s a fan favorite. But he’s an energy and D off the bench guy. He’s a career bench guy… So having Shabazz start in his place might make more sense than it seems like at first. Steve said this of Brewer, ‘completely unpredictable with his shot, his handle and his finishing, plus he’s gambling egregiously now, with little regard for recovering’. I agree. He’s so inconsistent. Including his decision making. He gambles too much and fouls stupidly at bad times. His shot selection is odd. He is never sure when to pull up and wait for the team or take it to the hole in transition. His one apparent strength, D, is mauled by reaching fouls and gambles. His fundamentals are shaky. In short, he isn’t much of a veteran role model on the court and I don’t think it’ll matter at this point if he comes off the bench. Maybe it is worth a try.

  5. brady skog says:

    Laugh out loud, keep your heads up and play the game that you fell in love with since you were a kid… LET’S GO WOLVES! ……God bless. ..

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