Mavericks 93, Timberwolves 87: One hand on this wily comet

Never worked so long and hard to

Cement a failure”

Something kept people away from Target Center on Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was the ungodly cold, or the disappointment in another Timberwolves season slipping by without hope for a playoff berth. Perhaps someone who wanted to be there welcomed a brand new baby boy the other day, so he couldn’t make it.

Or, of course, the sparse crowd could be blamed on the fact no one wanted to chase the Minnesota Vikings’ wicked, bitter, nausea-inducing cocktail of a bad beat by paying to watch a team that’s 4 for their last 22. The Wolves weren’t about to lift their spirits; only… well, spirits could do the trick, and those are awfully expensive at the arena. By one estimate, there were around 6,000 people in the building at tip off, while at least dozens more almost certainly had the game on as background noise while staring off into middle distance and tearing their Blair Walsh jerseys thread by thread.

What flashed in front of all of them was another Minnesota loss. Karl-Anthony Towns got into early foul trouble and was limited to just 25 minutes – his early issues were caused primarily by Zaza Pachulia, and between he and Dirk, the Mavericks’ frontcourt feasted, putting up a combined 16 and 7 in the opening frame alone. In the second, Dirk continued to dominate, putting up 7 points in just over 6 minutes of action, with Chandler Parsons chipping in 9 as well. Minnesota was buoyed in that period by some spectacularly high-usage play by Kevin Martin who was either going to get a bucket (3-for-5), get to the line (3-for-3) or turn it over (did that twice). Despite getting outshot, outrebounded and turning the ball over more than their counterparts, the Wolves managed to keep it within six at the break.

Still to come

The worst part and you know it

There’s a numbness in your heart and it’s growing”

The second half started out fine. The Wolves’ defense was, to be quite frank, spectacular. Here’s how Dallas’ first nine possessions of the second half went:

  1. Turnover
  2. Turnover
  3. Miss
  4. Shot clock violation (Turnover)
  5. Turnover
  6. Miss
  7. Miss
  8. Dirk 21-foot jumper
  9. Miss

Four missed shots, four turnovers, and one midrange jumper from one of the best shooters ever? Yeah, the Wolves could live with that. When Rick Carlisle called timeout with 6:41 to go in the third quarter, Minnesota was up 51-50.

And then, of course, everything went the opposite way. From that moment until the end of the third quarter, the Wolves went 1-for-10 from the field and committed 4 turnovers. The Mavericks, on the other hand, hit 8-of-11 shots and turned the ball over just once. When the final period began, Minnesota was down 68-55.

To their credit, the Wolves didn’t fold, specifically Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica, who rode the pine for much of the game but played all 12 minutes of the final period. Those three combined to score 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting (including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc) while Ricky Rubio orchestrated everything (good grief, a little bit of spacing helps him out so much), but ultimately it wasn’t enough. Dirk Nowitzki scored 8 points in the final frame and Dallas held on.

There was one possession right at the end that crystallized many of the Wolves’ offensive problems, summed up here by the great Britt Robson:

Shortly after that play (not that it mattered, because the result was 99% assured) the Wolves inbounded with 8.7 seconds to go, down by 6. They needed a quick three, a foul, two missed free throws, and another three at the buzzer, just to have a shot – in other words, a miracle to tie, but not something entirely outside the realm of possibility. Sam Mitchell had a timeout to use, and crazier things have happened. Anyway, the ball was inbounded to Bjelica beyond the three point line (cool), where he pump faked (wait, why, there’s really no time for…), drove to the basket (why why why???), and dished to a cutting Karl-Anthony Towns for an easy layup (WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT?!?). Then Ricky fouled on Dallas’ inbounds pass to extend the game, even though it was now really, really, really over.

The question is – why? Why did that happen? Why drive, there? Bjelica seems programmed to create for others rather than shoot, a somewhat noble quality, but the situation required jacking up a quick shot and praying that it went in. Do you think (given Bjelica’s actions on that play, as well as the sequence Britt described above) everyone on the roster has a giant friggin’ complex about pulling the trigger from beyond the arc, so much so that they won’t even do it when it’s absolutely necessary?

And furthermore, is there any hope of change the rest of the season? The one silver lining lately has been a bump in Shabazz Muhammad’s playing time. From the start of the season through December 28th, he averaged 17 minutes per game, tallying 8 points and 3 rebounds per contest on 47% shooting from the field and 32% shooting from beyond the arc. Over the 7 games since, Bazzy is averaging 25 minutes per game, tallying 14 points and 3 boards while getting to the line nearly 5 times per contest, all while hitting 54% of his shots and 47% from three.

A list of things I could lay the blame on

Could give me a way out”

Mitchell, it seems, has reluctantly turned Shabazz loose a bit; will he do the same with the rest of the roster? Loosen the reins? Activate his best three point shooter (Damjan Rudez, inactive for the 9th time in the past 10 games) and commit to minutes for Nemanja Bjelica instead of messing around with the likes of Adreian Payne and such long stints for Tayshaun Prince? Try seeing what a little bit of spacing can do for those Wiggins and Towns postups and curl cuts he’s so fond of?

No, probably not. Mitchell’s oft-repeated refrain in postgame press conferences has been that he “likes” the shots the Wolves get, along with a vague statement about the team being “bad at making shots” or “not having many good shooters.” It’s worn a little thin through two and a half months; will he be repeating the same phrase in March? April? Will his players still be buying in to play solid defense, as they are now? Or is all of this headed towards another despondent final quarter of the season?

Instead of a dramatic ending to their campaign, like the ones the Vikings suffered, the Wolves are slowly atrophying. Sparse crowds, long losing streaks – these things build and build, self-feeding monsters. There’s no one moment to point to, no depository of heart-breaking Vines showing fans collapsing to the floor or screaming expletives when the Wolves attempt just 4 threes in a half or blow a defensive possession in transition. There are just eye rolls and heavy sides, and for fans, attending games becomes watching on TV, which becomes only reading recaps, and reading recaps becomes checking online for the final score and nothing else, and passive interest in top draft targets and blasé concern about whether Karl-Anthony Towns wins Rookie of the Year.

Compare that to the heartbreak Vikings fans suffered today. Which would you rather endure? The heart-wrenching defeat when it matters, or dulled and indifferent failure? The Wolves aren’t a respite for anyone at the moment. They’re a wearisome pastime.

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7 Responsesso far.

  1. timreb says:

    Please fire Sam Mitchell ASAP. He is clearly unable to coach players up. His stubbornness is killing this team. He cannot come up with a decent rotation. Lavine is not an NBA point guard, yet he continues to have him sub for Rubio. Isn’t successful coaching about putting players in the best possible position for them to succeed? I realize that Mitchell as head coach was not the plan coming into this season, but this is is getting unbearable to watch.

  2. gjk says:

    It’s definitely a wearying experience to watch a team that’s missed the playoffs in the easiest league to make them in (along with the NHL). The NBA does their fan base few favors by having so many games per week; one of the reasons football is so popular is because it’s easy to fit 3 1/2 hours once per week into a schedule. The same would go for college hoops being twice a week. This is also the most fair-weather of all the local sports fan bases. There are justifiable reasons for that, but it leads to an in-arena atmosphere that makes things less exciting. The 2013-14 season encapsulated that perfectly; all a fan could ask for is the home to have a good chance of competing, that team did it, but few people showed up.

    This isn’t a Vikings blog, so I’ll keep it short: with any team, it’s important to keep perspective of the bigger picture, both in the team’s situation and in a sport’s place in life. I attended a funeral of a fellow student (car accident) 2 days after the ’99 NFC title game, and the pastor referenced the pain of witnessing the loss in his sermon, which seemed so tone-deaf. I get that “heartbreaking” is intentionally exaggerated (at least I hope so), but if losing yesterday’s game in that way has a larger negative effect than winning the game in a similar fashion would have a positive effect, perspective has been lost.

    • pyrrol says:

      Of course losing a game like the Vikes did is larger in effect than winning a game like that. If you win a game like that, you kind of hunker down and say, ‘Shhew, we got away with one there.’ In other words you feel ashamed, lucky, like you got away with something–not super positive. Feeling generally like luck can go your way does increase confidence, but it’s not a super positive way to win a game. It is a really negative way to lose. After losing like that you stare blankly and say, ‘We absolutely gave that away.’ A game like that can get into individual players’ heads for a long time, contributing to more choking and losing. And for a team like the Vikes, it feeds a narrative of bad luck, choking, not executing at the most important times etc that has haunted the franchise.

      On the other hand, you are absolutely correct–it’s just sports, a game and there are much more important things. Heartbreak is for real life, not a game.

      Good point about too many NBA games. I think that most fans of most sports anywhere are somewhat casual/fair weather. So, you have a franchise with as putrid a record as the Wolves do, you just can’t expect fan support you’d like to see. Even when the team gets better, it may take a while to ‘earn’ those fans back. Some people call MN a basketball state. I don’t know if that’s true. I do think there is a small community of very passionate basketball folks, but it isn’t mainstream like being a Vikes fan. I get the feeling this isn’t only a MN thing. The NFL has fanaticism and is so mainstream, and basketball, mostly is a less collective fan experience.

      • gjk says:

        I get how the players may feel in the moment, but I’m referring to the fans. This narrative only exists because no one has perspective about the situation. Fans don’t have to feed into this. The team has come through enough in the past (’87 upset of the 49ers, ’97 comeback in the Wild Card, ’05 Wild Card, coming back from 9 down in the 4th to win the division in ’08 on a 50-yarder to end the game, winning out in ’12 to make the playoffs) that simplifying it so much just leads to unnecessary disappointment. With yesterday’s example, they could choose to just as easily focus on how little a margin for error the team had to win in the first place and that the missed FG was the final mistake in a line of many mistakes that sealed their fate. And the players ultimately aren’t that big a part of this. The transient nature of the NFL prevents that; only 3 current players were on the ’09 team that lost to the Saints. Seattle as a city has seen plenty of sports heartbreak, but their fans don’t wallow in it.

        • pyrrol says:

          William, I don’t envy the task of doing a write-up of this game. I congratulate you on being tough and honest, though.

          I love your paragraph about ‘loosening the reins’. But it’s not so much about loosening anything–it is about tightening the coaching up, adjusting to what works (or might possibly work) and doing your job as coach. Sam’s personnel decisions have been bad this season, but have been getting worse as more players lose his trust (which keeps happening as he puts players in needlessly difficult situations to succeed in.) Funny to now see LaVine finally make his Nixonian enemies list.

          Strange that he’s happy with the shots we ‘get’ as it is now rare for us to pass 90 points. Apparently something is very wrong with our offense. It takes a lot of nerve to get up there and say he likes the shots we get over and over when he’s talking about this team. Can anyone be that dense? Yes, but I’m not sure if Sam is amazingly stubborn, amazingly dense or a combo. It’s sad, because even at a less than idea state, this roster should be fun to watch most nights. Instead it is a drag–even depressing–to watch this team. I still watch for Rubio and Towns and little things here and there. How long will even the most interested fans keep it up?

          I feared this game, but when I remembered that Rick is the Mav’s coach, I really got pessimistic. We don’t do well against good coaches. I’m jealous. Considering, we did better than I thought. Maybe that means we’ll win one soon, though we are heading into a tough part of the schedule.

        • pyrrol says:

          Yeah, it’s funny how the media covers it. They feed the pessimism and obsessive misery wallowing. How many times has the kick been replayed? How many ways has it be analyzed on the radio?

          But can you really blame the fans? They’ve had to deal with a long history of coming up short that makes it hard not to be pessimistic and superstitious: A history of coming up short that not every team has.While most teams have blown games and coming up short when it really counts as part of their lore, the Vikes have no super bowl wins to hang our hat on when we get pessimistic.

          In that regard, the Wolves and Vikes (as histories) and their fans have something in common. While the Wolves struggle most of the time to get out of laughing stock territory, and the Vikes are good for periods, both have the feel of teams walking uphill both ways. Neither of them have championships to ward off the bad feelings. They both have historical caps they are in need of blowing off–one is just lower than the other.

          And while it is true there are a million things each game that go into a win or loss, it is hard to not focus on the missed field goal. In basketball, it would be like missing a barely contested layup as time expired that could have won the game, but missing it resulted in loss. The missed kick was glaring and iconic.

          • gjk says:

            Fans don’t deal with anything they haven’t willingly subjected themselves to, like I willingly subject myself to watching what is now the losingest franchise in NBA history. And they choose to hang on to the losses and let go of the wins. The perfect example is those ’87 playoffs. They had an 8-7 team that blew out 2 heavy favorites on the road. That divisional round win in San Francisco featured the second-most receiving yards by a player in playoff history and is considered one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. Yet everyone focuses on the Redskins game and Darrin Nelson dropping a pass that would’ve only forced OT and may have even led to him being ruled down short of the goal line.

            Narratives are built through ignoring context, filtering out contradictory examples, and confirmation bias. During the game? Fine, have negative emotions that he missed the kick. I did. But afterward? People have the choice of remembering the whole picture and remembering the context of the situation. Them choosing not to is on them, not the franchise. No franchise “does” anything to its fans; the fans mentally construct their view of a team based on choosing the parts of what happened they want to hold onto.

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