Timberwolves 93, Nuggets 109: The Force Is Having Trouble Getting Out of Bed
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, there was the original Star Wars trilogy, and a little later, there were the Minnesota Timberwolves of the mid-90s to early 2000s, led by Kevin Garnett. Neither was perfect. Star Wars was ridden with adventure movie clichés and saddled with some odd character choices (Princess Leia’s entire planet is blown to smithereens and she’s over it in about a day?) and uneven performances (Luke Skywalker’s supposed to be grating, right?). The Wolves led by Garnett 1.0 never completely lived up to their promise and crumbled almost immediately after getting ever so close in the 2004 Western Conference Finals.
But they were exciting and at times inspirational, working their way into our young, pulpy hearts at a time when we needed so badly to believe. There were charismatic scoundrels who hid their hearts of gold under a layer of grit (Han Solo and Kevin Garnett). There were toe-headed farmboys who would rise to positions of power (Luke Skywalker and Fred Hoiberg). There were ruthless bounty hunters (Boba Fett and Latrell Sprewell). There was adventure and heartbreak and moments of triumph. And there were outlandish, bug-eyed aliens (Sam Cassell).
All good things, though, must come to end. “More!” the fans clamored, and so came The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. And to the Timberwolves came Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Mike Miller, Sebastian Telfair, Darko Milicic and Jonny Flynn. Oh these were dark times. No real main character, no plot, just an empty origin story no one could really get invested in. Sure, the last section of it — with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love — was the darkest and best of this era, but it still sputtered and fell short, the product of a megalomaniac with too much power and no real idea how to work even the most basic craft elements of his job (George Lucas and David Kahn, raving about how high Flynn’s midichlorian count was).
Now, with a new Star Wars movie set to release this week and a Wolves roster chock full of potential, we’re into unknown territory. All we’ve gotten from either so far are trailers, bright flashes of what could be coupled with a gnawing feeling in the pit of our stomachs that either could turn out to be a disappointment, or even a disaster. But at least a few old favorites are back!
One way or another, we’re going to find out about The Force Awakens in a few days. For the Timberwolves, it’s going to take much longer.
Last night (STAR WARS NIGHT, if you couldn’t tell), was a pretty unmitigated disaster in terms of the game itself and from the perspective of the Wolves. Catching the Nuggets at home on the second night of a back-to-back, Minnesota came out listless and stayed that way. The Wolves’ biggest lead was 3, and that came when they were 3-0 on an Andrew Wiggins 3-pointer to start the game. Two lead changes later, the Nuggets went up and stayed up for the rest of the game, eventually getting out ahead by 17 points.
The defense was — as it has been for a while — just not there. After starting the season surprisingly strong on that end of the court, the Wolves are 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions over the last seven games prior to last night’s tilt. Moving Kevin Martin into the starting lineup was supposed to jumpstart an offense that had struggled with Andrew Wiggins and Tayshaun Prince on the wings, but not only have they not picked up the offense, the defense has faltered, and Sam Mitchell said as much.
“We’re not scoring,” he said. “We’re not defending. We’re going to have to do something. We’re going to make some adjustments and tweak the lineup a little bit and we’re not the highest scoring team anyway, so we just may have to err on the side of caution of trying to defend people and keep the game as tight as possible and try to win it at the end.”
Their signal difficulty in this stretch that has seen them lose seven of their last eight games has been not winning 50/50 balls. Although their defensive rebounding and related numbers over the season look decent (8th in defensive rebounds per game, 9th in defensive rebound percentage, 12th in opponent second-chance points), when you’re actually watching the game it just seems like they’re getting outworked for those boards constantly. According to Mitchell, there may be a little malaise setting in after their impressive start.
“I think we’ve got some young guys feeling sorry for themselves,” he said. “And we’ve got some guys that don’t understand really what this league is about.”
I’m normally quick to discount this kind of get-off-my-lawn-you-whippersnappers kind of explanation, but whatever the reason, it does seem manifestly clear that the team is lacking cohesion and urgency right now. How to fight back against that is going to be this team’s most immediate concern going forward.
Within the Star Wars universe, the enemy is invariably some kind of totalitarian power bent on crushing a plucky rebellion, but in the real world where the movies are made, the enemies are a little harder to pin down. When Lucas made the first trilogy, he struggled against adversity to realize his vision, but along the way he had to compromise. The end result was more collaborative, a conglomerate vision that was the result of input from other writers, directors and producers. It was stronger because of that.
The prequels saw Lucas’ power overwhelm the process. The shots are often either boring or cluttered, the CGI takes over spaces and makes them feel antiseptic rather than lived in, the dialogue does more telling than showing and the characters’ actions are unmoored from any emotional interior. The prequels might have been exactly what Lucas wanted, but they were weaker for it.
Maybe a lineup change can shake the Wolves out of their doldrums. They’re not legitimately fighting for a playoff spot, so experimentation should be welcomed and encouraged. Adversity is a catalyst, collaboration a necessary part of any path out of it. Help you, it can.