Twenty minutes after a 2-point overtime loss to the visiting Los Angeles Lakers, Zach LaVine sat in front of his locker, putting on a floridly color-blocked sock inside out. It was LaVine’s foul on Jordan Clarkson that sent Clarkson to the line with 0.3 seconds left in the extra period to seal the win and he seemed none too happy about it. Assistant coach Ryan Saunders strode with purpose through the locker room and sat next to LaVine, leaning in and placing a hand on his shoulder, speaking quietly but intensely to the 20-year-old rookie for half a minute before clapping him on the back and standing. By this time, LaVine had gotten the sock inside right.
The media was gathered around Chase Budinger, who after struggling for, well, just about his entire time in a Timberwolves uniform, has been enjoying something of a renaissance since being pressed into service as a nominal power forward. Over the last seven games he’s averaging 14.9 points per game in 33.1 minutes a game — more than triple the 9.2 mpg he averaged in the previous 10. Moreover, his field goal percentage has leapt from 31.8% to 52.6% and his 3-point percentage is up from 12.5% to 36.4%.
“Power forwards don’t close out quite as quick, eh?” said one reporter. Budinger agreed, but also said the banging wasn’t something he was used to. He flexed his back and arms as he said it, sounding every inch the grizzled veteran who’s been through multiple knee surgeries and wants to prove he still belongs in the league. He is 26. He just wants, he said, to show that he’s a professional.
As the media pivoted, LaVine prepared to meet questions with reluctance. He grumbled a bit about it to Wolves PR, who gently reminded him it’s part of the contract. It’s late March, and LaVine has been 20 for a little over two weeks. UCLA’s spring quarter began earlier that day.
Next to LaVine’s locker is Kevin Garnett’s, empty because the 38 year old was held out of his tenth straight game. He sat on the bench during the first half, then was spotted in the corridor during halftime before presumably leaving. His 2-year-old daughter was with him, joyously shouting “Daddy! Daddy!” at the man they used to call “The Kid.” Garnett’s daughter is closer in age to LaVine than Garnett himself is.
The game last night was — for large stretches — not so much hard to watch as hard to pay attention to, at least for me. Both teams shot poorly from 3-point range with the Lakers going 6-for-26 and the Wolves going 6-for-22. The Lakers committed 16 turnovers and the Wolves 19, with many of them being unforced and the result of sloppy play. Andrew Wiggins dunked, the Timberwolves blew defensive rotations, the Lakers’ Ryan Kelly did his best Dr. J impersonation and Wiggins nearly forced double overtime with an emphatic block before the aforementioned LaVine foul.
At their best, games in the NBA are collisions between systems — low pressure and high pressure systems careening into each other and creating storms of moves and countermoves, a see-sawing dance between meticulous preparation and spontaneous adjustment. In spite of a close overtime game, in spite of some individual sparkles of flash or flare, that’s not what we got last night.
The longer this season goes, the less I’m finding I’m interested in the tiresome grind of wins and losses, of the Manichean calculus that goes into caring about it. In the sense of having an emotional attachment to the success or failure of the franchise, I stopped being a Timberwolves fan some years ago now. Fundamentally, what pulls me to basketball is how the game’s rules, its boundaries, create structures for players, coaches and entire teams to slam against and try to subvert or demolish. In doing so, they challenge understandings and they also reveal themselves as human. That’s the shit I love.
The churn can be invigorating, but it can also be exhausting, especially when it feels like a team has hit a point where they’re battering not against the limitations of talent or approach but of time itself. Sure, there’s more the Wolves could be doing right now — there’s always more you could be doing. But what I keep wishing for is a fast forward button, something to let us see LaVine and Wiggins (and Muhammad and whomever the Wolves draft this offseason) in two or three years, just to see where it’s going, what parts of the game they’ll be bending and warping.
With three overtime games in their last four, the Wolves as a team have been playing a lot of basketball, and Wiggins in particular. Over the last two games, he’s played almost 98 minutes. Asked if it’s wearing on him, he replied, “The good thing about us is we’re young, so we don’t get tired easily.” He cracked a bit of a smile as he said it and it reminded me: they are young, and my wish for them to hurry up and get older is at its heart a selfish and awful one. They are young and they are fucking up all the time, putting their socks on inside out and fouling jump shooters. One day they might be Budinger, 26 and doing his damnedest to keep sticking in the league. One day they might be Garnett, 38 and a father of two spending much of his farewell tour on the bench.
But for now, they’re young and I can’t begrudge them that, no matter how much I want to.