Q: Did you think Denver would come out with life and zip after the previous two days?
A: “No, to be honest, they quit on Brian Shaw and they’ll quit again. A quitter is a quitter. That was my take on that.”
– Kevin Garnett
This directed to whoever in listening range
Yo the whole state of things in the world bout to change
Your head is throbbin and I ain’t said shit yet
The Roots crew, the next movement, c’mon!
– The Roots
Clearly, Brian Shaw was the problem in Denver.
That’s tongue in cheek, of course, but it was interesting to see the Nuggets play so well on Wednesday night, mostly because they looked entirely different than the reanimated corpses that wore their uniforms for most of Brian Shaw’s tenure as coach. Shaw was fired on Tuesday morning, ending his, um, checkered tenure in the Mile High City. Between rapping scouting reports to his players (oy vey), routinely calling out his players (to no effect), and admitting that he was reading books on millenials to “try to connect with his players (*facepalm*), it was painfully obvious that a change was necessary. The Denver players broke a huddle with “one, two, three… SIX WEEKS!” during a 22-point loss to Utah last Friday, for crying out loud.
Stepping in for Shaw is Melvin Hunt, a longtime assistant coach with the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Rockets and Lakers. Hunt has a reputation for being a motivator who connects with his players, thanks in large part to his work ethic and positive attitude. He seems self-effacing and funny (check out this awesome piece for further information, if you’d like) and the Nuggets have responded to Hunt’s promotion by going 2-0 after losing 19 of Brian Shaw’s final 21 games at the helm.
Granted, there are plenty of people who have Shaw’s back around the league (see the KG quote above, which was curiously timed, as it came after Denver kicked Minnesota’s ass all over the court), and there’s plenty of blame to go around for the Nuggets’ crappy year-and-a-half or so. But the only thing that matters now is that the change was made, Hunt is in charge, and things are looking up for the time being.
Recently, the Wolves underwent a few rejuvenating changes themselves. First, Ricky Rubio’s return to the lineup on February 2nd kicked off a seven game stretch where Minnesota went 4-3, beating Miami, Memphis, Detroit and Phoenix while playing Dallas and Golden State tough (the only “bad” loss they had was in Atlanta, who is pretty, pretty good). KG’s homecoming a week ago was the team’s second spark in a month, and they responded by crushing Washington at home before hanging tough with Chicago, Memphis and the L.A. Clippers in close losses.
Whereas Denver’s fire has just been lit, Minnesota’s has been burning for awhile, and last night their embers cooled to the touch. It was the second win in a row for the Nuggets, who were on the second night of a back-to-back, no less. It was the Wolves’ first laughably bad loss since January 30th against Philadelphia, all the more frustrating because they’ve had a good amount of rest lately. You would’ve never guessed that to be the case by watching the game; Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Darrell Arthur and Jameer Nelson, in particular, torched the Wolves with their hustle and physical play. Melvin Hunt had his team aggressively doubling the post on defense, and Minnesota could never quite swing the ball fast enough to make them pay. The Nuggets blitzed hand-off action to the corners, often trapping ball handlers, leading to forced shots or turnovers. Denver allowed just 13 restricted area field goal attempts the entire game…
… And at the other end of the floor, they attempted 40 shots inside the restricted area. FORTY. Some of that was on the Wolves’ perimeter defense, but it was also a terrible, terrible night for both Gorgui Dieng and Adreian Payne on the interior. Flip Saunders put it after the game: “I don’t know if (Gorgui) has hit the wall a little bit with all the minutes he played earlier but he hasn’t been as quick to coverages. He’s been a little bit slow.” His help defense was almost always late, and Kenneth Faried bullied him around all night long.
The one Wolves’ matchup they should have exploited was Pekovic down low against the “six-foot-eight” (wink, wink, he’s not really 6’8) Faried, who started at center. But whether it was the ankle flaring up again, or if he was just sat down due to ineffectiveness, Pek only played 15 minutes. It was also an uncharacteristically bad night for Kevin Martin (3-of-15 from the field) and even Ricky Rubio seemed frustrated by the physical, aggressive Denver defense. The game really swung in the second quarter, with the Nuggets outscoring the Wolves 34-16 thanks to nine offensive rebounds and holding Minnesota to just 4-of-19 shooting.
It was nice to hope that there wouldn’t be any more stinkers on the Wolves’ schedule, but that’s exactly what last night was. In addition to Garnett’s juicy quote above, which will provide lots of clickbait fodder for all the #content creators out there, he also made it clear that the process is just beginning for the young Timberwolves: “Like I said, it’s this transition that we are starting here in ‘Sota, it’s just going to be just that. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen when someone wakes up and all of a sudden and voila, a real light comes through the window. It’s going to be something that we continuously have to work on day in and day out.”
Said Flip Saunders: “I was somewhat concerned coming in, we’ve had such an emotional high here the last few weeks. I thought we could get off to a decent start and thought we could play our way into it, but we just didn’t play enough with a sense of urgency.” In other words, the new movement sparked the Minnesota Timberwolves for awhile, and last night they flickered. The new movement is inspiring the Denver Nuggets at the moment, and that will sustain them for awhile, but the same will happen to them.
Great teams find a way to have that sense of urgency without constant changes poking and prodding them into action. Bad teams wait around for something to inspire them, then respond accordingly, until the novelty wears off and they’re back searching again for the next movement.