Thunder 100, Timberwolves 98: Way to Blue

It couldn’t have ended any other way.

The Wolves and Thunder were tied at 98, thanks in part to a pair of split free throws by Andrew Wiggins at one end (with 1:22 to go) and Norris Cole (with 43.4 seconds to go) at the other. Karl-Anthony Towns capped a wild, scatterbrained possession with a missed layup attempt, and the Thunder brought the ball down the floor to hold for their final shot:

Oladipo buried the long two, over the outstretched arm of Ricky Rubio, and the Thunder took a two point lead.

On the Wolves’ final possession, more chaos. But Karl got the defense to collapse, and the ball was swung to Ricky, who nearly fired, but paused, and made the (smart) extra pass to Wiggins on the right wing. He had a great look, but it clanged off the iron, and the Wolves, who’d trailed by 22 at one point, failed to complete the comeback.

Minnesota was a mess to open the game. With Russell Westbrook, the man who should be the league’s MVP, resting for OKC (along with key rotation pieces Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson), the Thunder used a balanced approach to jump out to a 33-16 lead after one quarter of play. The Wolves’ offensive ineptitude (they had nearly as many turnovers, 5, and field goals, 6, in the opening frame) was compounded by the Wolves’ familiar staring-out-the-classroom-window-dreaming-of-summer-vacation effort on defense.

The second quarter was much more of a back and forth, with the teams trading buckets, no matter who was on the floor. Karl led the way with 8 points in the frame, but gave many of them back at the other end, as Domatas Sabonis and Enes Kanter combined for 13. Andrew Wiggins, for his part, finished the first half 1-for-11 from the field with three points. The lone bright spot? Tyus Jones, who was a plus-4, and who’s cemented his place as the team’s plus/minus gawd.

Minnesota went into halftime down 13, but the sellout crowd got their energy up once the Wolves’ logo premiere video featuring Slug, Prof, and P.O.S. of Rhymesayers and Doomtree) started echoing throughout the arena. You can read all about it (and see the video for yourself) here.

Things changed for Minnesota in the third, and they changed because number 9 in the home whites had decided he’d had about enough. Ricky Rubio is a lot of things; we’ve had six years to appreciate, critique, love, hate, hope, and despair over his game. He’s been part of six losing seasons; but he’s somehow been a net positive player for almost that entire time. He can’t shoot, but in certain spots he definitely can. He defends like crazy, but can get a bit too amped up at times, like he did at the end of the loss in L.A. and with 43 seconds to go tonight, when he committed a bad foul against Norris Cole while trying for a backcourt steal. He might be turning a corner, like we thought he was prior to the 2014 ankle injury and with shot doctor Mike Penberthy, but he might just be what he is. He might be a leader, he might be the team’s true soul, in ways Karl and Andrew can’t be yet, but he might be expendable, and he might be as good as gone, the way we thought he was on Draft night and at the Deadline. This might have been his last home game as a member of the Timberwolves.

Despite his best efforts, despite his limitations, despite the fact that this was Game 81 of another season without the playoffs, you can see something when you watch Ricky, and especially if you watch him closely: he fucking HATES to lose, (Pardon my French.) There’s no other way to put it. I’ve been blessed to cover the Wolves, with a press pass, for four years. I have watched a star who loved to brood (Kevin Love), guys who love to dazzle (Karl and Zach), a demure, wobegone yeoman with the physical gifts of a young Dominique Wilkins but none of the flair (Wiggins), a goofy human grizzly bear (Pek), space aliens (Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley), and an aging Hall of Famer (Kevin Garnett) who commanded your attention, even when he was in street clothes on the bench (as he so often was). KG was at the end of his career, and while he was still his own brand of intense, he sat out so many nights, the fire wasn’t quite the same as it (obviously) was for so long prior. What I’m getting at, is, of all the players I’ve watched, Ricky’s the one who hates to lose the most. Hates it. HATES. IT. Despite his limitations, no matter the score, the record, the date, or the opponent, the singular thread that runs through all the basketball I’ve watched him play is that he cannot stand being defeated, despite how much of it he’s had to endure.

Ricky controlled the Wolves’ offensive tempo in the third, and by a combination of renewed defensive focus and the Thunder’s lack of depth catching up to them, Minnesota won the quarter 29-15, and entered the 4th with a one point lead. Around the 7:30 mark he yelled at KAT for trying to steal a rebound from a teammate, resulting in a Thunder basket. Around the 5:45 mark I heard him yell at Wiggins to get back. He was the one to argue (in his stern and yet oddly understated way) with the referees when it was called for. He directed traffic on offense and communicated on defense. He was, in short, calming everyone down and putting them in the right spots. Wiggins went 4-for-6, snapping his first half cold spell. Dieng scored 9 points in the 3rd. Rubio himself scored 5 points, had 3 assists and added.

Then the fourth, and the final minute. It was fitting, the way it all went down. Not poetic, not desirable, not particularly fun to watch, but fitting all the same. It was another Wolves loss in a season with 50 of them (now), in the tenth season (of 11) playing at a 50-loss clip (or worse). This is what we’re used to. And yet – and this is the part that I enjoy so much about Ricky – despite all that, it’s not what Ricky is used to. He keeps commanding, demanding, standing. I understand that that is what (well-paid) players are supposed to do, and it’s true that every player may show their desire to win in ways that are small and unseen. I’m not saying Ricky is the only smart guy on the team, or that he is the only one who works hard. But I am saying it’s the first impression and the final takeaway from his game, and that he’s the only  Timberwolves player who meets that description.

That’s what the Wolves’ young core needs to learn, and become, as they don their new logos next season, and beyond. Will Ricky get to wear those, too? Will he get to see the end, or whatever we decided is  the end, of this long, sad, slow uphill climb? It’s hard not to hope so. It’s quite the problem to solve, as jumpers land over outstretched hands and teammates miss game-winning threes. It’s quite a thing to persevere despite of it. If it hasn’t broken Ricky yet, the rebuilding and building and changes in philosophy and trade rumors and injuries and losing and losing and losing, the dreaded losing, the thing that seems to eat at him more than any other player, if it hasn’t wrecked Ricky yet, it never will. If it does work out, and he stays, or if doesn’t, and he’s traded away, we’ll look back on it and say:

It couldn’t have ended any other way.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    I think a lot of fans feel a connection to Rubio simply because he keeps at it. Sure there are other reasons. When he’s at his best, he’s one of my favorite players to watch. My moment of sheerest delight watching basketball ever may be when Rubio went behind the back twice in a row for a layup against the Spurs in a win. The guy is so fun to watch yet so fundamental. But I’m getting off topic. Ricky is a lot like us hardcore fans. He hates to lose and so do we. We don’t follow this team because we like to watch losses, like to support a loser. We support it because it is the professional basketball team where we live, and we might enjoy some of the players and we love basketball. We keep at it despite the gut punch losses, the lack of progress, the ‘Wolvesy’ errors and problems that seem to plague us no matter what. And we admire Rubio’s same resilience, so many more times harder than simply agreeing to keep following a team with passion. To put up with the bull that he has his whole career and still come out and fight and play like he does every day is beyond impressive. On some level it makes no sense that I keep following the team this close with the product they continue to put out, spending time watching all but 2 games, reading about the team and others and writing about them. What Rubio does is a much greater display of optimism and toughness of spirit. It’s hard to not feel a connection with that, to not be drawn to it and glad it is on your team.

    As for this game… Well, our confidence is about zero. It feels like we might not be able to beat Brooklyn at this point, just due to our own heads. Simply put, this team has a long way to go and the clearest indication of that is basically only 2 players on the whole roster put up the sort of numbers we ask and expect their ‘types’ to put up nightly. Towns and Rubio. You can count on those guys to be pretty consistent. Does that mean Rubio’s shot is consistent, that Karl’s D is? No, but we can’t expect Rubio to be a scorer and we can’t expect Towns to have figured out NBA defense yet, particularly with the minutes and scoring numbers asked of him. But Towns gets his boards and points (efficiently) almost every night. And effort. He’s pretty focused for a 21 year old. Rubio runs the offense well, is a leader, passes with the best, bring major effort and focus and defends every night plus has improved his scoring some. They punch the clock every game. I don’t think anyone else can say that right now. That’s a gut punch going forward.

    Wiggins thoughts: He’s more of a waste of talent than I think people realize at this point. I know highlight dunks aren’t a stat for a reason, but how long has it been since he’s had a real poster? I mean he’s amazingly gifted as an athlete. It’s just laziness that he’s not using that power more. That and disinterest. In a lot of ways he’s the anti Rubio. It’s a problem that might get better but will never be solved. Start planning for him being a #2 or #3 guy or gone. Another thing about him is that he’s built so narrow. He’s just never going to have the power of elite players like Jordan, Kobe, Lebron, Wilkins. You can see it in the shoulders.

    I know it’s not the last game yet but can we just call Dunn a massive disappointment and not as advertised yet?

    It was weirdly fun to see OKC’s non guys named Westbrook take shots and click doing it. I mean, Westbrook is an incredibly impressive player, will likely win MVP and averaged a triple double for a season. But let’s not kid ourselves. This was only possibly due to crazy ball hogging. And I think that sucks. He’s fun to watch but it wears off and then you are left with something not quite a team. Ditto Houston. BTW, expect both to get smoked in the playoffs.

    Sort of funny to watch a team with a supposedly intense coach play so not intense. We looked more intense last year. When we came out hot after the break, we looked intense, but that disappeared at the first sign of trouble. How does a coach lose (or not gain) a lockerroom this much? How does a team not take on any of it’s coach’s personality at all? Are you telling me that yelling (and being good at it) isn’t enough?

    I don’t think much of OKC as far as being a championship threat. Sure, they are light years ahead of us. But they only have on top level player. The drop off from Westbrook is Angel Falls big. They aren’t much of a team in a lot of ways because they are so dominated by one guy. But dang, they have a coach. Donovan is good. He’s got these guys, minus Westbrook a solid but limited bunch, playing with great fundamentals. They play defense in away totally foreign to us. He’s getting good value out of what he’s got. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, but shouldn’t we look slightly closer to that type of team?

  2. I wish the guys were playing fewer minutes. I know the bench is soft, but I also know Thibs can basically grind a team into the ground. I don’t love the 40 minutes a night everyone is getting

  3. tom says:

    The wolves have worn me out. I think I need to be on a minutes restriction, because I’m just coasting through these games now. A couple weeks ago, I was looking at tonight’s final game with sadness, because we got a sniff of playoff atmosphere and I thought these guys had made progress. I thought if they pushed themselves, they could win five more than last year and that would have been a big jump. Not the forty wins we thought this team was capable of at the start of the season, but in the NBA, a pretty nice second step. Now, I just feel bitter about the lack of grit our team possesses and worn out from caring obviously more than our team does.

    I read that Thibs had this in his plan from the get go. He said he came here with his eyes wide open and that he wasn’t sure this team could make a playoff move. Take away the veterans and see who steps up and who can’t. Who pushes himself and who doesn’t. Based on what I have seen, I would look at it this way.

    1. KAT needs to be less of a PR guy. Yes he has worked hard on his offensive game, adding a number of new pieces to his arsenal. He whines about calls, that I think has hurt him with the lazy, prima donna refs, and his defense is a mess where his size gets destroyed against big guys. Most importantly, he needs to be angry with himself, teammates and franchise more. All the greats have put their team and themselves on notice and KAT needs to do the same.

    2. Wiggins is lazy. Talented scorer, but he knows that nobody is pushing him and so passing, rebounding, defensive stops are rare for such a physical talent. Thibs either needs to trade him while he is a hot property or get someone at his position to push him into working harder.

    3. Rubio is a bargain. He doesn’t play Thibs style, he is getting better, but his shot needs more arc and the offense is still too stagnant to often. Trading him is silly, because you would need to invest in another point guard to lead the team and the excellent ones aren’t moving and the average ones will cost more. He is the closest this team has to a leader, but he could use some help.

    4. Ghorgi is a hard-working player that will last a long time in this league, but on a playoff team, he is a bench player and the sooner the wolves make that happen, the better the team will be.

    5. Zack needs to add some muscle to help his defense of the Wiggins sized SG. In a perfect world, he would be a candidate for sixth man of the year. He and Ghorgi could be a great twosome off the bench. However, he did get better an all fronts and I believe this guy will lead.

    6. Shabazz will get a dose of reality this summer. Many believe he still thinks he can start somewhere. This is fool’s gold, because no NBA team sees him as more than what he is. An energy guy, that when hot, can score in bunches. When he is cold, his defense and charging calls are killers. He will leave, because some team will not do their homework and think he might be a good sixth man.

    7. Belly is a Shved banana. He was green, then yellow and soon will be rotten. He and Casspi both are end of benchers on good teams.

    8. Could someone at Mayo Clinic merge Tyus Jones and Kris Dunn together? You would have a HOF then.

    9. The others are chair warmers. Thibs hasn’t used them much and when he has, they rarely produced with any consistency.

    There you go Thibs. Eyes wide open and only a couple games better than last year. Hope you learned a lot, because your team didn’t.

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