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Thunder 92, Wolves 84: Vacations

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The photo above almost certainly isn’t awe-inspiring to any of you; sure, there are mountains, but they aren’t very close, and there are some unsightly power lines in the way. Nothing about the image screams “vacation” or “good times.” Aesthetically speaking, it’s sort of mundane and dull, the sort of picture only a weirdo like me would take.

It’s the view from my sister’s apartment balcony outside Denver, CO, where the Bohl clan gathered this weekend to meet the newest addition to the family, three-week old Genevieve. I snapped the picture as I stood outside getting some fresh air, a midday beer in my hand, the smell of a delicious late brunch wafting from the kitchen, and the sounds of my son and my nephew giggling as they played with their grandfather behind me while my sister cooed to her baby girl.

In other words, the photo above means something to me.

Vacations mean different things to different people. The one I just took was a four day weekend, full of the usual travel hassles and joys of flying with a 13-month-old, but also plenty of little moments that being with close family can provide – lots of love and relaxation. The picture above is my attempt at capturing and preserving one of those moments.

Before this turns into nothing more than a damn diary entry, I’ll get to my point: everyone needs vacations. Everyone, no matter how glamorous your job may be. Some vacations are designed to help you relax, some to party, some to see family members or friends you don’t get to see often enough. If you’re lucky, one comes along at just the right time and recharges your batteries in precisely the way you need it to.

What got me thinking about this was a recent Instagram post by the significant other of a Timberwolves player, which was a selfie of the woman making a long face and pleading for the All-Star break to hurry up and arrive. It was a nice reminder that despite the high salaries and glamorous lifestyle professional athletes enjoy, their families (and certainly these Timberwolves) look forward to the same thing the rest of us do: a little time off.

Of course, the All-Star break is still more than two weeks away. That vacation cannot come fast enough for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost Robbie Hummel for 4-6 weeks on Sunday night and may have lost Mo Williams for a game or two late in their 9284 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night. All of their pets’ heads are falling off – if Mo is really out for Wednesday night’s home game against the Celtics, five out of fifteen players (Mo, Hummel, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad and Ricky Rubio) will likely be unavailable. Of the remaining ten, three should probably be in the D-League (Glenn Robinson, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett), two are borderline unplayable and/or buried on the depth chart despite all the injuries (Miroslav Raduljica, Troy Daniels), two are mired in extremely disappointing seasons (Thad Young, Chase Budinger) and one is injury prone and could really have a relapse at any time (Nikola Pekovic).

All the injuries and lineup changes have made it tough for the team’s two most promising players – Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng – to get any sort of rhythm or flow this season. The resulting play on the court is characterized by poor communication, a lack of fundamentals and losses coming at a staggering clip. All of that was present on Monday night. Again.

The Wolves are playing like a team that needs a vacation.

Minnesota’s poster child (er, grizzly bear cub?) for this is Nikola Pekovic. Last season, as he would run back on defense after a missed basket, he’d often have his hands raised, looking for a whistle. This season, all that hand-raising and frustrated energy is being put into tiny outbursts of frustration with his young teammates. Early in the game against the Thunder, Pekovic gestured emphatically to Andrew Wiggins after the teenager made a poor entry pass that resulted in a turnover, pleading for the kid to space out to the wing in order to secure a more favorable angle as he dumped the ball into the post. When Pek shared the floor with Zach LaVine, he routinely seemed to shrug or raise his palms to the rafters early in the shot clock, as Minnesota’s rookie point guard freelanced without communicating a play call clearly.

It’s a bit ironic that he needs a vacation, because Pek just got back on the floor, but his frustration is understandable given his history. He’s been playing professionally since he was 17 years old and requires a certain level of chemistry and help to get the ball in favorable positions on the low block; to play with a point guard as raw (clueless?) as LaVine has got to wear out his patience.

As a team, the Wolves shot just 34% from the floor, making 29 baskets in 48 minutes, including just 13 assists and hitting 2-of-13 threes. So, how were they in this game? For one thing, the Thunder sort of screwed around a lot. They pushed the pace at ill-advised times and tried elaborate lobs to one another in transition when a simple layup would have sufficed. Oh, also, they were missing Kevin Durant, who is pretty good at basketball. Dion Waiters, bless his heart, had more shots than points, which tickles my schadenfreude like few other things do.

To Minnesota’s credit, they held Russell Westbrook in check, which helped make the game interesting. Actually, I take that back. That was primarily Andrew Wiggins. He carried the team on both ends of the floor, helping hold Russ to 7-of-22 shooting with 4 turnovers and scoring 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting, getting to the line 12 times. He attacked the paint fearlessly, often undeterred by the intimidating Thunder front line of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison. But in the end, he couldn’t singlehandedly slow down OKC’s transition attack, which generated 32 of their 94 points, nor could he prevent them from pick-and-rolling LaVine to death as they went on their run to ice the game at the end of the 3rd quarter.

Something to consider when criticizing Wiggins’ shot selection, besides the basic fact that Flip Saunders’ offense is geared towards low-reward midrange jumpers: the Wolves’ spacing is so crappy that he often has to navigate through his own teammates on the way to the hoop. So while it’s great to see him draw six fouls, it’s hard to fault him for taking a contested step-back long two when he’s looking at this, for instance:

WiggSpace

This is one of the problems with playing Gorgui at power forward. The Wolves’ spacing, already poor, gets even worse. In Flip’s offense the power forward often cuts through the lane to try to free things up; when it’s Gorgui, that cut either isn’t fast enough or doesn’t deserve to be respected by the defense, leading to situations like the one above. So while Thad Young has responded well to his move to small forward (though still fails to score very efficiently), overall it’s not helping matters much.

But it isn’t as though Minnesota has much of a choice. They’re shorthanded. They need some time off to get healthy, and perhaps to clear their heads.

Vacations can be lines of demarcation – after the one I just took, for example, I am finally resolved to start exercising regularly again and eating right, a common resolution. (Back to being a diary entry, I guess.) For the Wolves, the All-Star break might be such a milestone. Leave it all behind for a week, get everyone back (hopefully?) for the remainder of the season, and see if you can manufacture something to build on for 2015-16.

The Wolves’ final game before the break is two weeks from tomorrow. Until then, they’ll slog through their jobs like we do ours, knowing some time off is on the horizon, still trying to make the best of things, but muttering to themselves all the while…

“I need a vacation.”

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