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.