Timberwolves 104, Rockets 107: The Ghost of a Team Yet to Come
With the Houston Rockets up 107-104 on the Minnesota Timberwolves and 7 seconds remaining, it was clear what the Wolves needed: a 3-pointer to tie the game. Unfortunately, Minnesota doesn’t have any plays designed to get a 3-point shot, instead relying on the flow of the offense to generate those looks — a thing that can’t really happen out of a set play. No elevator doors, no nothing. Instead of looking to Nemanja Bjelica, who’d been in a slump but is actually shooting 70% on 3-pointers in January, or Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s also been slumping but can hit the occasional 3-pointer and makes for a nice surprise option, the Wolves looked to Kevin Martin. Martin feels like he should be the guy to go to right there: a veteran who’s known to make 3-pointers.
Martin, however, has a true shooting percentage in the clutch this season of 40%, which is lower than Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Nemanja Bjelica and Towns. Martin proceeded to “Kevin Martin” the play, dribbling into a 3-point shot while trying to draw a foul that referees are very loathe to call and airballing the shot. Rubio tried to save the ball and call timeout as he leapt out of bounds, but that’s against the rules. The game was over and the Rockets barely scraped out a win.
That’s right: The Houston Rockets — a team with three-time All-Star and last season’s NBPA MVP James Harden, eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, and former champs Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry — barely took one off the fourth-worst team in NBA. A Rockets team that got all the way to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors nearly gave one away on their home floor to team that had lost their last seven games in a row. Having already fired their head coach and now at 21-19 after last night’s win and sitting at 7th in the Western Conference, the Rockets are in trouble. They have — as I noted last night — a real fat Jim Morrison feel to them right now.
All of this led me at some point last night to a sudden realization: Is this the nightmare future that Sam Mitchell and others in the organization might foresee for the Wolves as we all bitch and moan about analytics and shooting more 3-pointers?
When we stump for the Wolves to shoot more from long distance — even if we acknowledge they don’t have a wealth of pure shooters — we’re envisioning teams like the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. These are teams that have run with open arms toward (Warriors) or at least grudgingly acquiesced to (Spurs) a futuristic brand of basketball predicated on efficiency, systems, flexibility of position and scads of long-range shots.
But these teams also got there only after establishing themselves as good to great on defense. Golden State sacrificed their go-go offense under Don Nelson and Keith Smart for Mark Jackson’s defensive rigor: they posted a 109.4 offensive rating in the four years prior to Jackson and a 106.4 offensive rating under Jackson, but their defensive rating went from 111.3 to 105.7 in those same timeframes. Even their evolution into the all-switching, all-shooting menace they’ve now become was a product of happenstance and necessity more than philosophical determinism.
And the Spurs, of course, were lauded for their stifling defense long before they loosened things up as first Tony Parker and then Kawhi Leonard took the reins as the franchise’s centerpiece, even as Tim Duncan remained its cornerstone. In short, neither of these deadly efficient teams was created from the ground up on analytics.
But the Rockets were, and look at them now. Their success last season was predicated less on taking the most efficient high-value shots (3-pointers and free throws) and more on taking more of them than anybody else. They shot by far the most 3-pointers a game (32.7 — more than five more per game than second-place Cleveland at 27.5), yet only made 34.8% of them, 14th best in the league. They attempted 26 free throws a game (2nd in the league), but made just 71.5% of them (27th in the league). They made up for this high volume of inefficient makes on efficient shots with a metric ton of energy on defense. Howard looked good and Harden looked comparatively great on defense, both of them committed to the task.
This year, that zealousness on the defensive side of the ball has dissipated, and we’re seeing now there’s precious little for them to fall back on, especially with Harden starting out slumping. There are more complexities and levels to it than this, but on some basic level, it just seems like the Rockets lack the safety valves, system backups and raw fundamentals that support a team when the primary options fail. They were built on analytics and adrenaline and with the adrenaline lacking, the rest of it isn’t holding together.
This might be one of the worst case scenarios that Mitchell and co. are staring in the face as they try to shepherd the Wolves to respectability. Their emphasis on and concern with the fundamentals the team’s youngest players lack points toward their desire to build in a strong foundation that can serve the players no matter what style or approach they eventually embrace as the team coalesces. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find the Rockets being held up by old school coaches as an example of what happens when a team shifts into a high gear without shifting through the low gears fully: a sudden burst of energy and effort that might ultimately be unsustainable across seasons.
Many Wolves fans, of course, might not view the Rockets as such a horrible fate. A seven seed with the chance to improve that? Doesn’t sound so bad. But the Wolves are right to focus on the long game right now.
There’s a song by the late Chris Whitley that I think of often called “Dirt Floor.” Its opening lines are “There’s a dirt floor / underneath here / to receive us / when changes fail,” and it’s a comforting idea, even in its spartanness. It’s a reassurance that the fall from a failure is not bottomless, but finite. By focusing on the granular elements of the game, the Wolves right now are building up that dirt floor, building a foundation that can break the fall when adversity inevitably strikes them further down the road.