Hornets 108, Timberwolves 103: Levitate, Levitate, Levitate, Levitate
A few days ago, Kendrick Lamar dropped a new set of recordings, b-sides produced during the “To Pimp a Butterfly” sessions. It isn’t an album, per sé, but like a lot of his work, there are ideas and themes that run throughout, and they require several listening sessions to unpack. It’s beautiful, catchy, strange, and often transcendent.
Apparently, LeBron James helped make it all happen – tweeting Kendrick’s producer urging him to unveil the tracks, reveling in their release, and telling the world “you’re welcome” and to “enjoy it.” I’m a big fan of K-Dot; the new music was a pretty fantastic surprise.
So, thanks, LeBron!
A few summers ago, Kevin Love was on his way out the door in Minnesota despite playing beautiful, catchy, strange, and often transcendent basketball. It wasn’t enough, per sé – the Wolves couldn’t muster a winning season in any of Love’s All-Star campaigns in Minneapolis – and once summer 2014 rolled around, things had reached a breaking point. Love was on his way out the door, one way or the other, and the Wolves had to choose whether it’d be on their terms (via trade), his terms (free agency), or a combination of the two (an orchestrated deal to a destination he’d approved).
LeBron James had a lot to do with the surprise outcome – announcing on July 11th, 2014 that he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent. The Cavs, who’d beaten long lottery odds to select Andrew Wiggins with the top overall pick just a couple of weeks prior, were likely informed that one of LeBron’s terms was flipping the high-upside Canadian for Love, a proven superstar, who could join he and Kyrie Irving to form a new, younger Big Three than the one he’d just left behind. It was an incredible turn of events; Minnesota had flipped a sure-to-depart star into the top overall pick of the NBA draft.
So, thanks, LeBron!
Last night, 18 months after the deal finally went through, the young Timberwolves took on the Hornets in Charlotte. Leading Minnesota was Wiggins, who scored 25 points on 17 shots; Zach LaVine, the soaring, enigmatic dynamo who carried the team in the second quarter and finished with a game-high 44 minutes played; Ricky Rubio, one of the few remaining holdovers from the Love years, who racked up 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists while posting a positive-15 margin on the plus-minus ledger; and Karl-Anthony Towns, acquired thanks to the prudence shown when the post-trade re-tooling effort morphed into a full-blown tankathon, whose 28-14-2-1-1 line felt incredibly normal and expected because that’s how effing good he is.
It wasn’t all rosy for Sam Mitchell’s group; while they’re playing with increased tempo and a better offensive flow, keyed by newfound emphasis on Towns’ playmaking rather than labored sets for Andrew Wiggins kamikaze missions into the paint, the defensive acumen they displayed earlier in the season has melted with the snow. Since Kevin Garnett last appeared in a game (January 23rd), the Wolves are giving up 113.3 points per 100 possessions, last in the league over that stretch; prior to that date, it was 104.4 points per 100. While the defense has suffered, the offense has soared, scoring at a clip of 110.6 points per 100 possessions compared to just 101.0 before. They’ve become a while new team – every bit as inconsistent and maddening as before, but they’re doing it in different ways.
The bench was also a huge problem – Al Jefferson bullied his way to 20 points, and as a group, Charlotte’s reserves outscored Minnesota’s 38-to-9. The Wolves outscored the Hornets on the fastbreak (24-to-7) and in the paint (54-to-36) but couldn’t match their opponents’ firepower from beyond the arc (4-of-15 threes compared to 12-of-30).
After a slow first quarter, the Wolves stormed out to 31 second quarter points, including 11 from KAT and 9 from Wiggins, and held a 49-47 lead at the break. But the third quarter, breaking from recent trends (it’s been their best defensive quarter over the past month and a half), Minnesota simply could not contain Kemba Walker, who scored 21 points on 9 shots (including 5 threes). The Wolves clawed their way back into the game, making it a three-point affair with 15 seconds to go, but it was too little, too late.
In short – the Wolves have to learn how to start and finish games, a lesson that’s proved elusive for them this season. At any rate – even in losses – Minnesota has an exciting young group. Over the final month and a half, turning precocious talent into cultivated skill, like an emcee settling into his artistic voice, is the main reason to tune in, and the main expectation from the team. It’s getting old, waiting for new material, hoping everything is put together into something cohesive, but maybe it’s best to patiently hope for pleasant surprises.
Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate.