Blazers 106, Timberwolves 101: The normal thing to do
If this were a normal game recap, I’d talk about the final minute, about Andrew Wiggins’ basket interference with 54 seconds to go being reviewed and upheld, the “inadvertent whistle” call with 29 seconds to go that nearly bailed Portland out of a shot clock violation, the jump ball foul called on Karl-Anthony Towns with 12 ticks left, and the non-call on Kevin Martin’s three point attempt that led to an Allen Crabbe layup and the Wolves’ fate being sealed.
I’d talk about how Minnesota was outscored 85 to 67 over the final three quarters of the game, and that despite the questionable officiating at the end, they probably didn’t deserve to win anyway. I’d lament what happens when Ricky heads to the bench, despite the fact that the gulf between the team’s plus/minus under Ricky (plus-3) and plus/minus under LaVine (minus-8) wasn’t as vast as it may have seemed. Perhaps I would even nitpick at Sam Mitchell’s decision to leave the starters out a bit too long as the final period began, even though his rotations have been pretty solid ever since the first quarter of the Laker game.
Then I would shift gears and wax poetic about the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, who is simultaneously a symphony weaving through traffic on drives and a lion stalking his prey one-on-one out on the perimeter. I’d spend a brief moment sort of wishing the Wolves had drafted C.J. McCollum a couple of years ago, because he looks like he’s really becoming a player, before ultimately deciding that having Shabazz and Gorgui instead is preferable. I’d make a joke about not being able to tell Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee apart. I’d argue that the real story of the game was second chance points (Blazers 24, Wolves 6), and that despite the free throw disparity being in Minnesota’s extreme favor (Wolves 39 attempts, Blazers 20), they never really got in a rhythm once the first quarter horn sounded, going one seven minute stretch without a field goal.
I’d mention Martin and Dieng’s nice nights off the bench, the steep learning curve Nemanja Bjelica is facing at the moment (though he’s fighting through it, and the coaching staff is sticking with him, which is encouraging), and the rough way LaVine ended the opening frame (letting Dame pick his pocket, then running an awful possession which resulted in a miss). I’d pre-emptively dismiss worries about Wiggins’ 5-for-17 night, cheer Ricky’s near triple-double, and marvel, again, at both Karl-Anthony Towns’ flashes of brilliance (we saw some three-goggles and four blocked shots out of him) and KG’s fire for mentoring him.
On a normal night, I’d do all that, and by God, I’d do it well.
But it wasn’t a normal night.
Nothing about this situation is “normal.” It sucks, and it’s going to continue to suck for all of the guys who knew him so well. When a tragedy happens, people wonder during the quiet moments afterward what they are supposed to do. What the “normal” course of action should be. The Wolves’ coaches and players have had over a week to grieve, and funerals (Flip’s was held on Saturday) are supposed to help bring closure, but since basketball is what brought all of those guys together in the first place, and was the glue that bound so many of their relationships, I imagine it was hard to treat Monday’s game like any other regular season contest. Wins on the road against the Lakers and Nuggets were nice, but they were never going to make coming back to Target Center any easier, and finding a way to beat the Blazers wasn’t really going to help, either. Yeah, the final minute was rough. But I found myself unable to muster much more than “Ah, damn, that’s unfortunate.” Monday night was about so much more than a win or a loss.
Grief doesn’t have a start date, or an expiration date. It’s cyclical. Everything these players and coaches and fans have felt over the past week will come up again, and again, and again. But maybe the shock will wear off, and the pain’s intensity will wane. But for more than 20 minutes on Monday night, the packed house stood, silently, and watched the beautiful tributes the Wolves had put together, the heartfelt stories from people around the league who respected and admired their fallen leader.
The final image of the tribute was one of Flip, and it lingered on the screen as the near-sellout rose to a loud ovation. A moment later, the lights were turned on and a basketball game began.
Like it was the normal thing to do.