Timberwolves 123, Thunder 126: Shop Talk
Every game begins unknown. A few hours later, it’s decided: a win or a loss, binary, a one, a zero. But in between, there’s a well of experience for each of the fifteen or so players involved that fills up: expectations, perceptions, decisions, recognitions, surprises. As you line them up, the games stretch into a life, a career.
Last night, Andrew Wiggins played his 128th game of professional NBA basketball. That is, for a 20 year old, a lot of basketball. But it pales in comparison to the experience of Tayshaun Prince, who played in his 1,127th. After the game, they sat at their neighboring lockers, Prince soaking his feet and going over their 126-123 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Prince clapped to punctuate his verbal replays, moments to hit and go. He flung his hands right or left to show passes or options, possible directions. Occasionally he reached out and touched Wiggins’ shoulder, to make sure he was listening. Wiggins, for his part, nodded along, twisting a finger in his hair, just listening.
It is shop talk of the purest and most beautiful kind. Cut with slang, jargon, the occasional curse for emphasis, it is human and at once more complex than the answers directed to the scrum and simpler because it’s purposeful, utilitarian.
Prince spills it forth and Wiggins soaks it up, one vessel doing its part to fill another.
The game itself was good. The Wolves notched a season-high 31 assists, a testament to how well the ball was moving around the floor on offense. Ricky Rubio had his usual 10, but Karl-Anthony Towns had a career-high 5 and Wiggins added 4 more, including this absolute beauty on the break to a streaking Shabazz Muhammad:
Zach LaVine was entirely out of his mind, shooting 14-for-17, including 5-for-8 from distance for 35 points. He seemed almost dazed by the performance himself in the locker room after the game, saying, “It was a big game. We could have won that one. That was a good game and [Kevin Durant] just turned it up another notch tonight in the fourth so you can’t do much about it.”
Sam Mitchell had praise for the young guard upon whom he’s heaped plenty of criticism. “He’s playing fast but he’s thinking slow, does that make sense?” he asked, earnestly searching for the right way to put it in his postgame availability. “That’s what we want: we want Zach to play with pace because he can get the ball down the court and he can put pressure on the defense. Before, he was playing with pace, but his mind was going just as fast. Now he’s playing with pace and his mind is slowing down.”
“I don’t know,” laughed LaVine when asked about Mitchell’s appraisal. “I was thinking pretty fast.”
The Wolves — likely expecting the Thunder to be a little worn down the night after beating the Knicks 128-122 in overtime — pushed the pace, particularly when their younger guys were on the floor. For the season, their pace sits at 97.21 possessions per game, but while Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Towns were on the floor with either Gorgui Dieng or Nemanja Bjelica, they pushed it to 108.41 per 48 minutes. Of course, that was only for 11 minutes of the game and the results were mixed. Those lineups were a -25.05 in net rating on the floor, even if it led to some spectacular dunks and layups.
Minnesota did enough to keep it consistently close. There were 14 ties, 19 lead changes, and no player posted a double-digit plus/minus either way — a pretty good indicator of a solid contest. Kevin Durant, though, came back on the floor in the fourth with 6:20 to go and went 3-for-4, scoring 9 points and putting it away.
Prince can remember the lines of matchups he had with LeBron James in the playoffs years ago. He rattled them off to Wiggins in the locker room like they were yesterday, then recounted the lines James had against the Wolves this season. He talked about making him a scorer, about not letting him get everyone else going. In short, the stuff every commentator — armchair or on-air — talks about when it comes to superstars: get them out of their comfort zone. Prince talked about working with your bigs. He talked big picture, he talked specifics.
And Wiggins nodded.
We’re practically drowning in information these days. The rise of the Internet has brought the explainer format to the forefront of information culture, from “19 Invaluable Writing Tips for Actually Finishing That Novel” to “Why violent crime increased in the first six months of 2015.” For anything you want to learn about, there’s someone or some site ready to package it into something bite-sized to help you out.
But when you’re dealing with craft, with the deep craft that Wiggins is only ankle deep in and that Prince has been swimming through now for 1,127 games, you’re not looking for familiarity, for enough to impress people with at dinner parties. You’re talking about a bone-deep understanding that comes in layers, applied over and over again. This is a katana, steel folded thousands of times back upon itself.
It’s easy to forget this is happening day in and day out for the young Wolves, that even as we try to remember “process over results” in any given game that there’s way more process than we’re ever privy to. A game is thousands of moments for everyone involved, folded over and over into a win or a loss, then dumped into the well, filling it up a little at a time.