Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech.”
What struck me as I drove to downtown Minneapolis in the middle of an idyllic, unseasonably warm November Sunday was the utter lack of traffic. I’m used to making the drive at 5:30 on a weekday, when I’m either fighting through a murky sea of slow-moving vehicles or watching the tide of headlights roll out on the opposite side of the interstate as I navigate toward the skyscrapers. But yesterday, as I trekked to the Target Center to watch the Wolves battle the Grizzlies (an encounter that sounds as if it should take place among snowy bluffs in Yellowstone rather than gray metropolitan concrete), the urban hush was a welcome change. The pace was casual by recreational choice rather than aggravating by congestive corporate edict.
It was quiet inside the arena as well. The stands were sparsely populated, as was media row. The Vikings kicked off in Oakland a half hour after the tip in Minneapolis, and many fans and news outlets made their plans accordingly. Eyes and ears were elsewhere, bodies normally present were noticeably absent. The result was a rather muted atmosphere in the stands, though the game operations crew sporadically implored for noise. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of cheering from the fans who did show up; the Wolves played well, especially considering Ricky Rubio’s DNP (now at four consecutive games) and the quality of the opponent (the Grizzlies, early season struggles aside, are a damn good team). But in between the KG milestone acknowledgments, breathtaking KAT passes, and Wiggins dunks, there was plenty of quiet space. And as a result, I, blessed with a seat very close to the court, got to hear many things I don’t often hear.
There was some comedy in the air, like Tony Allen screaming “OH SHIT!” in order to sell some contact. Kevin Garnett and Zach Randolph had a nice, long conversation as they stood on the baseline during some free throws, though sadly, I did not hear all of it. Even if I had, I’m not sure I could print what was said. KG’s pleas and encouragements during timeouts were much more audible than usual. A particularly bright fellow in the stands shouted Derek Fisher’s name whenever Matt Barnes put up a shot.
I could hear the coaches’ instructions clearly at times, the specifics on who to guard, defensive adjustments, which play to run next, politely or impolitely asking officials why they had or had not called a foul. There was Shabazz Muhammad imploring the too-often reluctant Nemanja Bjelica to let it fly from three, as he yelled “SHOT!” as soon as he threw a pass to the Serbian power forward, who subsequently buried the trey. The Wolves used energetic double teams to try and muffle Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post; it worked, but for the resulting scramble to work, communication was necessary. So long as the veterans were on the floor, it did:
The silence allowed me to hear so much, but despite it being the perfect day to listen to what an NBA game sounds like, the voices, the sneakers, the contact, the ball thudding along on the hardwood and bodies crashing to the floor going after a loose ball, there were a few noiseless occurrences that stood out anyway. Tayshaun Prince’s box scores are quiet, but his responsibilities are anything but; he spends so much time on the offensive end patiently, thanklessly setting screens to free Wiggins or Towns so they can catch an entry pass in a favorable spot. There weren’t many whistles to be heard when Kevin Martin got up to his usual tricks, which often left him suspended in midair, his effort to elicit a shrill metallic shriek for naught. As a team, the Wolves averaged 30 trips to the free throw line over the season’s first eight games, but between Friday and Sunday combined, they’d made it there a total of 34 times (13 Friday, 21 on Sunday). The reticent Andrew Wiggins let his play do the talking for him, especially in the first half:
In the second half, Marc and Z-Bo started hitting jumpers, the big men raining the ball down softly through the net. They combined to shoot 13-of-18 overall from the field, including a perfect 9-for-9 on jumpers from the free throw line or the long two area. It’s a terrible shot, analytically speaking, but looks so pure, and drops through so peacefully, that it’s hard to remember that when Gasol and Randolph are locked in from that range. Mario Chalmers scored 16 points on just 4 field goal attempts, providing a ton of bang for the buck off Memphis’ bench. Jeff Green poured in 15 of his 21 in the second half, terrorizing poor Bjelica with his raw athleticism and power. And Mike Conley, a little lightning bug darting away from Andre Miller and Zach LaVine, ran the whole show to perfection, gliding through the defense to finish on an off-hand floater, or a step-back three, or making the right pass to the right teammate at just the right time.
As improved as the Wolves’ defense is, and as much as Kevin Garnett fosters a chatty atmosphere, it was a lack of communication between Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns that may have led to the Grizzlies’ biggest bucket of the game:
After this, LaVine and Wiggins each missed jumpers, Z-Bo hit a two and Jeff Green hit a three, and the Wolves never got within 6 again. The game was, essentially, over.
But that didn’t stop the Wolves from fouling like crazy to extend it. All of the stoppages allowed the announced crowd of 12,086 to slip away, a few more with each intentional foul, until the whistles echoed through a sea of blue seats and the final horn rang hollow. By the end, there were very few people left to cheer LaVine’s sprint-down-swish-a-jumper act. He finished with 25 points in 17 foul-laden minutes.
All in all, fans ought to be pretty happy about how the Wolves are playing. Yesterday, they were competitive yet again; in fact, they’ve really only been blown out once in their first ten games (versus Miami on November 5th). That might sound like a backhanded compliment; it isn’t. At this moment, the Wolves are 10th in the league in O-Rating, 19th in D-Rating, and are 7th (SEVENTH!) in True Shooting percentage. The young players are learning how to play in a structured system with smart veterans who are willing to teach them. That is a significant improvement on last year’s soul-sucking tankathon.
Bitch and moan about minutes and rotations all you want, nitpick about Zach LaVine at the point if you like, go ahead complain about the lack of threes. Some of that’s legitimate, some of it isn’t. We’re at the point in the season where some minds are already made up about what the team IS and what it IS NOT, about what some players ARE and what they ARE NOT. If you’re a fan of the Wolves, and that’s you, that’s your prerogative.
Perhaps, though, it is wiser to watch in silence, listening in an attempt to learn something new.