Pacers 102, Timberwolves 88: That thing got out of control


The Minnesota Timberwolves did not respond well to a no-call that may have ended up turning the game dramatically in the favor of the Indiana Pacers. It wasn’t that they necessarily lost their composure or complained too much or let the moment overcome them. There just seemed to be a lack of continued focus or a lack of poise or however you want to characterize it for a young unit being given the chance to close out a game.

Here’s the play in question: Rodney Stuckey pushes off on a harassing Ricky Rubio before getting the ball to Paul George for a right corner 3 to extend their lead.

This was an aggressive gamble by Rubio looking to make a play, and everything that gets tied into it makes it such a tough moment for the Wolves. That’s also what makes it so fascinating. The first part of this sequence is Rubio was attempting to take over the game in the fourth quarter. He had just knocked down a big spot-up 3-point shot from the right wing.

After posting up Karl-Anthony Towns on the right block, the Pacers were trying to time their double team on the rookie just right to disrupt his play. The entire time, Ricky was almost begging for the ball, ready to make Monta Ellis pay for leaving him to take away Towns’ opportunity. And you wouldn’t blame Ellis for doing this. We know how poor of a shooter Rubio is and certainly so do the teams scouting him.

That didn’t matter though; Rubio wanted the ball and he wanted to take the shot. His hands were prepared for the pass and his feet were set to let it fly. That’s exactly what happened and he knocked it down to cut the deficit to two points.

Then on the next possession for Indiana, Rubio was hounding Rodney Stuckey to try to steal the ball. In fact, he almost got a steal with 14 seconds left on the shot clock before the screener was coming to separate Rubio from Stuckey. He was getting handsy like a drunken senator at a holiday party and poked the ball away from Stuckey. The only problem was the ball didn’t get knocked far enough away.

The near steal by Rubio seemed to make him hungrier to make that next play though. He pressed up on Stuckey even more, and before Ian Mahinmi could get there to create separation between Rubio and Stuckey, Rodney decided to do it himself. Stuckey pushed off on Rubio and Rubio sold it. I disagree with our friends Jim Petersen and Dave Benz when I say that Rubio definitely flopped, but I say that with the clarification that you can still flop while being fouled. Rubio sells the contact, but he definitely didn’t fabricate a foul occurring.

With Rubio hitting the ground on the offensive foul, it allowed Stuckey the room to force a decision by the Wolves’ defense. Andrew Wiggins stepped in off the strong side shooter, Towns began to step up, and Zach LaVine started to inch toward the paint away from Ellis on the weak side. But the decision had already been made and the consequences would rest on the shooting touch of Paul George. Stuckey found PG in the right corner, he knocked down the 3, and the Wolves went from a potential game-tying play with 3:30 left to having to play catch-up the rest of the quarter. And that didn’t go well.

Pacers ended the game on a 16-4 run and the final score wasn’t indicative of how close this contest truly was. It was an interesting chain of events that makes you wonder where the true mistake happened.

If Rubio doesn’t sell the contact as much, is he in better position to cut off the drive and still make a play?

That’s not something I fault Rubio for either. He made the right play. The foul should’ve been called. We saw an aggressiveness at the end of that game that you love seeing from him. He took the big 3-pointer, then drew an offensive foul that wasn’t called, and then took a 3-pointer that misfired on the next possession. Rubio was attempting to take over that game and even though it didn’t work, he was making plays. That’s what you want to see out of him.

But was he playing aggressively or desperately? Is there a difference in the composure of the two that maybe takes you a bit out of your comfort zone and poise? Is that necessarily a bad thing or is there a balance Rubio needs to find in those moments? Even Rubio doesn’t hit the ground and stays with Stuckey, is Paul George still getting a corner 3-point attempt with Rubio hounding Stuckey on the drive and Wiggins still cheating off? Or would Stuckey have used the screen and created the same situation with Ellis and LaVine on the other side of the floor?

If the Wolves do get that foul call, how do they respond?

Do they ride that next building block of momentum to get a score to even up the game, or would it have led to a deflating missed opportunity? At that point, how do the Pacers respond and do we end up with a similar outcome? I guess that’s the frustrating part of the no-call there. I’m not sure how many of us believe the Wolves would’ve pulled that victory out, but you’d like to see how that young unit gets tested with that opportunity. The Wolves were going with a very young, inexperienced lineup out there.

To Sam Mitchell’s credit (are we allowed to say that?), he let the young guys play it out. The lineup of Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins-Towns-Gorgui Dieng was out there for the final 7:55 of the quarter. That’s a combined 10 completed NBA seasons for that Wolves unit. On the other side of the floor, Monta alone has completed 10 seasons. There is an inexperience factor there that both hurts the Wolves and allows them to soak up moments like a ShamWow. It also leaves them susceptible to not capitalizing on those big moments.

(The reason I keep bringing up the no-call on the foul is not because I think the Wolves got screwed out of a victory by the refs. I don’t believe that at all. It seemed to be the turning point in how the Wolves handled the end of the game, and it’s the moment when they showed their youth, which isn’t damning — it’s just what it is. The Wolves’ poise down the stretch was tested and they failed. Even if they get that call, there was still a lot of time left on the game clock.)

There was a breakdown on the next defensive possession in which an Ellis-Mahinmi pick-and-roll set up a Stuckey 3-pointer to push the lead to eight. LaVine missed a mid-range jumper that was a good look, the Wolves got a defensive stop, and then Wiggins scored in transition through contact to cut it to six. After a timeout, George ran a pick-and-roll on the left wing, Wiggins didn’t get over the screen well enough, Towns didn’t step up to the 3-point line, and PG made it a nine-point game with 1:48 left. Any comeback had fizzled out completely at that point.

Poise becomes the biggest problem for young teams and young units on the floor. You can’t gain it without going through these moments, but you can’t fake it either. Sometimes the other team is gassed in their comeback attempt (see: in Atlanta) and you end up getting a good learning experience by pulling out a close victory. But these moments against Indiana show you how fragile the win profile for a young team can be.

It’s not the end of the world, but that thing got out of control in the final two minutes and the Wolves were left deflated a bit. One no-call because a big run. Aggressive or desperate play became a lack of poise.

Game notes

The Wolves killed themselves with turnovers in that game. It was sloppy on both ends (45 combined turnovers), but the Wolves didn’t do themselves any favors by giving it away 22 times for 28 points. It helped lead to an 18-8 advantage on fast break points and the Pacers just got too many easy opportunities throughout the game because the Wolves were feeling charitable with the ball. Dieng and Towns accounting for 11 of those turnovers is just brutal from your big men.

KAT is a verified monster.

I was very impressed with Wiggins’ defense on George for most of the night. George hit some shots on him and hit him with a few veteran moments, but mostly Wiggins did a good job of making him work and hounding him. That’s an incredibly tough cover and Wiggins held his own.

Speaking of Wiggins in impressing, this play is insane:

Wolves are now 18th in offense and 20th in defense. For the month of December, those numbers are 18th on offense and 26th defensively. This is not a good trend for the Wolves and something Mitchell will have to find a wrinkle for to at least correct the defensive slide (not that type of defensive slide).

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    Yeah, Ricky’s desperation gets them in trouble sometimes. These types of things happened a lot when the ’13-’14 teams were constantly losing close games, and he’s sort of the last remnant of that group. I agree with the premise that the flop sells the foul, but game situations seem to matter and it seemed like the refs had been swallowing their whistles on Wiggins drives for most of the night. That happens, and it’s important to recognize when something is less likely to go your way and adjust accordingly.

    I don’t like this idea of just letting young guys blow winnable games because that helps their development. Historically, there’s absolutely no proof that heavy game minutes lead to more developed players, especially among the guys who aren’t ready to play. People who say that just want to see the young guys but would probably get sick of them without some wins sprinkled in. When they’re playing the best, play them; when they’re not, it’s important to win some games, especially in tough stretches of the schedule like they’re starting now. Prince was +6 and KG was +2 in their stints, and their defense was much better when they were in (aided by a few missed 3s that became makes later, but also several forced turnovers and shot clock violations). They absolutely needed to be in when the game was still within reach.

    So if the defense is worse than the offense and the offense is propped up by being tops in the league in free throws per field goal attempt, wasn’t the praise for Mitchell improving the defense overblown? That improvement could just as easily be about personnel. And now, when they need offense, they’ve bolted their best 2 shooters to the bench and have adopted the strategy of “hope they’re calling fouls and hope we’re making jump shots.”

  2. pyrrol says:

    I like how you go right at the big no call here. We’re not whining here–I doubt even if we got the call (which was an egregious offensive foul that had Jim Petersen flabbergasted) that we would have won the game. What the NBA did with the officiating was rob the fans of a close, exciting game. A very competitive game ended up reading like a blow out in the box and a huge part of that was poor and biased officiating. Almost as outrageous was the no call after the Rubio thing on the Wiggins drive. It should have been an and one and I was very impressed Wiggins was able to finish through contact that could have been called a foul twice over. I know it’s one point, but right after the crazy Stuckey push off no call, it crushed our spirit even more. Plus one point is important in a close game or come-back.

    Good point about the blurred distinction between Rubio being aggressive in a healthy way or playing desperate. I think he was playing a little desperate, but can you blame him? This stretch we’ve been on has been so rough and so hard to explain. We have holes on our roster and Sam hasn’t been consistent and sharp as a coach, not to mention our schedule hasn’t been easy. But none of those things explains fully why we look so bad. It’s not just the losses, but how awful we look, how the feel of the games seems to confirm the season is going down the toilet. Looking at the west records, we still have a chance to right the ship and compete, but time is running out. The young guys need positive burn, not a drain into a cesspool that confirms and teaches losing ways. It is no wonder Rubio is beside himself. On top of it, there is little shooting in Sam’s current starting lineup, and the line-up we finished with only has LaVine as a good long range shooter. If he’s cold, that lineup has no one to space and spread the floor. At the end of the game, Rubio somehow looked like the best threat from 3 on the floor. Give Rubio credit—he’s clearly sick of losing and is the only one playing like it. Maybe he’s right to be desperate.

    To gjk’s point, I think the defensive improvement is more about personnel than coaching. I do have to give Sam credit—he openly emphasized defense and it was sorely needed, as we’ve been a bad defensive club for years. That said, I don’t think he’s a good defensive coach at all. It’s pretty clear he’s not a good offensive coach…

    It’s really weird to see Tyus all of a sudden. He’s not looked horrible, but with a team that already is ‘too young’ and is having a defensive meltdown, I’m not sure playing Tyus full back-up minutes cold turkey is logical. It’s sort of like Sam finally figured out he needs Zach off the ball, but he’s doing it all wrong. He’s not starting Zach or Martin, and so we have no good 3 point threat from starters there. To keep Zach off the ball when Rubio is out, he’s using Tyus almost exclusively when Miller is available. I admit we’re in a pickle here—perhaps Miller can’t handle a full back up role every night, so if we work him in with Tyus (or LaVine at point for some minutes etc) then we lose some continuity and have a larger more clunky rotation. Sam wanted an unrealistic, clean cut and small rotation to start the season, so his inclination always seems to be to avoid these problems and questions and play stiff lineups that aren’t well customized to situations or the need of the moment.

    More simply, we need to find a way to generate more three point shooting, even if guys who aren’t very good from there have to take more shots (Wiggins, Shabazz, Rubio). We just can’t pull off games with the amount of threes we are taking without everything else going right, and how often does that happen with our average team age?

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