There’s a kind of weird, inherent contradiction in writing about sports. Because here I am, preparing to build something out of words about a game played by people who don’t use words to illuminate, but rather to sometimes obfuscate, sometimes motivate, and almost always for ulterior motives. I don’t mean that athletes are dumb—far from it, actually. The clichés they often speak in are tools as surely as the pick and roll is a tool. I simply mean that I’m always striving to use words to carve away the noise from the game, to find some skein of sense—or at the very least, a clearer perspective—that can build a resonance for myself and, hopefully, whoever reads this, while athletes and coaches are packing together words for themselves, for their team, for the public in multi-layered and often contradictory ways. Continue Reading…
Archives For Steve McPherson
The numbers here tell a story that’s all too familiar: The Wolves shot 21% from three while the Wizards more than doubled that, shooting 47% from the arc and 58% overall. The Wolves put in a strong effort on the offensive boards, putting up 25 second chance points to the Wizards’ 11, but their defense was lackluster, their free throw shooting a woeful 61%. That really stings when they got to the line 33 times to Washington’s 17.
That lumpiness to the stats (great offensive rebounding coupled with subpar defense, getting to the line a lot while not making your free throws) would be easy to chalk up to injury, and it would be easy because it’s right. And this where we have to talk about the difference between “reasons” and “excuses.” This is something that’s come up time and again in talking about the Wolves and it’s not something that’s going to stop coming up. The players and coaches can say whatever they want about having to play for each other and play hard and finish games and not use injuries as an excuse. That’s because they’re in a position to directly affect the outcome of the game. When fans or the media talk about the injuries and their effect on the team, they’re talking about reasons, not excuses, because they cannot affect the outcome of the game. The law of gravity is not an excuse for not being able to fly, it’s the reason. And you or I can’t any more do anything about the law of gravity than we can about the Timberwolves’ injuries. Continue Reading…
Earlier this week, I posted a profile of Andrei Kirilenko over on HoopSpeak, but there was plenty of stuff that didn’t make it into the post, so I’m posting the full transcript of Kirilenko’s side of the conversation here. He talks some more about his reading habits, who he looked up to as a young player and also sheds some light on Rubio’s development from his perspective. Continue Reading…
So maybe I have Andrei Kirilenko on the brain after that interview with him for HoopSpeak, but I found what Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney had to say about his potential as a near-All-Star this season interesting:
“I found Andrei Kirilenko to be hypothetically worthy of an All-Star spot, but beaten out by the sheer number of quality candidates in the West. Kirilenko’s value to the Timberwolves has been inflated over the course of the season by a horrid string of injuries, but I don’t see that bit of circumstance as any kind of demerit. If anything, Kirilenko has taken the opportunity presented and used it to showcase his incredible value, and in the process helped Minnesota more than even the most ardent AK supporters could have predicted. On defense, he’s one of the few perimeter-ish defenders that can approach a LeBron-like level of court coverage and overall impact. He’s capable of smothering his own man, but Kirilenko’s next-level value comes in the way he positions himself to disrupt the maximum number of plays possible and moves to make the correct judgments as a help defender without the slightest hesitation. Kirilenko has put together a wonderful season — he just has the misfortune of competing against players who are a bit more prolific and a bit more qualified.”
That comes from his post on his picks for the All-Star reserves, which is worth reading in its entirety.
You can throw this game on the heap with other Timberwolves defeats this season where a hot start proved to be unsustainable in the second half. Several of these games happened under Adelman’s watch, particularly just after Love’s return, but it’s gotten progressively worse with Porter acting as head coach in Adelman’s stead. As Zach pointed out, the Wolves have the worst second half differential in the NBA under Porter at -21.1 points per 100 possessions. In today’s game, after scoring 58 points in the first half, they piled up just 38 in the second, divided evenly between the two quarters.
It’s tempting to chalk this up to a lack of resolve or heart or some noble and abstract notion. Doing so would confirm what is in a way both our greatest fear and our greatest desire as Midwesterners broadly and Minnesota sports fans more specifically: that it’s hopeless. This way, we get to grump and grouse about our team. Maybe it keeps us warm. But at this point, staring down the stacks of bodies piling up on the trainer’s table, I don’t think we have to draw any big lessons from this other than realizing that it’s damn hard to build a team that can hold up over a whole game when the parts aren’t doing the jobs they’re supposed to be doing.
The Wolves are now, essentially, a Rube Goldberg machine. Continue Reading…
This Timberwolves win started with defense and it ended with a huge quarter from two guys whose guaranteed future with the team is only the next week and a half. Let’s start with the numbers. Minnesota’s defensive slide has been well-documented: according to NBA.com, in November they ranked 6th in the league in defensive efficiency; in December, 7th; in January, 27th. Over the five-game losing streak that began against the Thunder, they’ve lost by an average of 16 points and never broken 100. In short, they’ve been getting whacked, and a lot of it has to do with transition defense stemming from the basic fact that the injuries to this team and the resulting shift in roles has worn guys down.
But last night they held the Rockets’ three primary offensive options (James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parson) to just 10-of-40 shooting (25%), and they did it without a dramatic revamping of their defensive scheme, but with sheer effort. After the game, Porter said, “We talked about getting in [Harden’s] space and then sprinting back and building walls. He’s so good in open space and good at changing speeds to get to the rim, we just made sure he always saw multiple bodies so he wouldn’t get a straight line to the basket, make sure everything he took was contested or over somebody.”
It was interesting that Kirilenko used the exact same phrase when talking about their defense: “I think we’ve been a little more concentrated. We didn’t let them score a lot of transition points. Points in the paint, I think we prevented that—Harden, Lin they penetrate and get a lot of points off that. I think we did a pretty good job to build those walls right in front of them.”
The Wolves’ work on defense was excellent, but it didn’t hurt that the Rockets are going through their own rough patch. They came into last night’s game riding their own six-game losing streak, and they just looked disjointed. Basically, this game was like watching two guys in a bar go after the same girl, but one of the guys (the Timberwolves) haven’t had a date in like a year, whereas the other guy (the Rockets) had their girlfriend break up with them like last week. For the latter guy, it was just a week ago that he was snuggling and going out for breakfast and sharing in-jokes with someone and he wants that back so badly that he’s just all thumbs. But the former guy has been taking it on the chin for so long that he’s learned to live like that, and when he leasts expects it, he finds that he doesn’t have to be dazzling or spectacular—he just needs to keep it simple.
Working new additions Chris Johnson and Mickael Gelabale into the offense demanded simplicity, and it seemed to bring Ricky Rubio to life. “Today, I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to run this play; oh, no they don’t know that play,’” he explained after he game. “I was running through the plays in my head but I tried to keep it simple. [I]t’s basketball, you know, at the end of the day. So it’s just like pick-and-rolls and stuff … and I tried to keep it as simple as I can. And tried to, as a point guard, run a team and try to put everybody in the spot they had to be.”
Rubio finished with 7 points and 6 assists in 30 minutes of action (2 minutes more than his prescribed limit; Porter said, “I had Barea up—I think Ricky tried to stall so he could get to 30 minutes”) but Gelabale and Johnson were the surprise stat stuffers of the evening. When Kirilenko tipped in a missed Rubio shot with 1:35 remaining in the fourth, they were the first points not scored by the Wolves’ latest additions—they had racked up 21 straight points in the final frame on a mix of jumpers, free throws, and thunderous dunks by Chris Johnson. And because they’re always fun, here are all those dunks:
Johnson didn’t just put up highlight reel jams, though. As Porter noted, “They only had [Johnson] down for one block, but I thought he had more than one. He was just changing balls at the rim.” And during the beginning of his impressive fourth quarter there was this totally bananas sequence that had four players down on the floor at one point:
It was Johnson lurking along the baseline who finally got the ball and drew the foul on Parsons to put points on the board. The kind of energy displayed on that play is something the Wolves have been lacking. The challenge for the Wolves now is finding a way to hold onto the feeling this injection of new blood generated. Not to try to bring the party down, but the Wolves are very much a team feeding on emotion right now, and that’s a hard way to live. When Rubio came back, they won. When Porter had to step in for Adelman, they won. Now with the stripped down game demanded by two new players and the rush of energy they provided, they won.
“I think they did a tremendous job and they brought us a win,” said Kirilenko about the new guys. “We need that win. We need to get back on track.” Johnson and Gelabale aren’t the answer to the Wolves’ season, but for one night, at least, they felt like it, and that’s worth something.
Hold onto your hats; this is about to get real personal. Because honestly, I don’t think anyone’s particularly interested in trying to break down just why the Wolves lost to the Mavericks tonight. Maybe not even Mavs fans. Brand had a throwback game with 20 pts and 6 rebounds. I know plus/minus is kind of wonky for individual players in individual games but O.J. Mayo was +THIRTY in this one. Darren Collison threw down a dunk with 30 seconds left and Dallas up 16 points so yeah: screw that guy.
But did the Wolves confront Collison like the Bulls did when Lillard dunked on them with the game in the bag? Nope. They probably felt they deserved it. For the Wolves, the questions this game provokes are things like: when is Rubio going to start; why isn’t Derrick Williams starting; how can Barea be both our best offensive and defensive player (and he actually is the best guard we have defending the pick and roll); and why bother?
And believe me, I would love to see Rubio start, but I’m sure that’s not going to happen until they’re absolutely sure he’s fully back. It would be terrible to see him break down just in the name of shaking things up. And Williams has been genuinely impressive off the bench, yet I still think the team feels like they have to bring him along at just the right pace. Ladle too much onto his plate and we could see him regress. As for that last one, I have no good answers. Maybe there aren’t any.
And maybe that’s why this is beginning to feel like the awful inescapable static that pervades and makes indecipherable the end of a relationship. Now I don’t know how most people get through the death throes of a long-term relationship, but I got through mine like a mewling, drooling, useless kitten, unable to even figure out what I was supposed to do when I woke up every day. Even the most basic actions suddenly seemed freighted with significance, as if the right way of holding my hands, the right way of saying the same things I’d always said could become the thing, the ward that could stop this fraying.
But of course, it couldn’t. Every break broke the wrong way. Every glimpse of even the most basic feeling of normalcy, of being on track, was quickly decimated and swept away by a tide I had no control over. That’s what watching the Wolves has felt like these last few games. Every move feels like the wrong one. Acting on instinct leads to disaster. Careful planning leads to disaster. This leads to careful planning of the most instinctual things which leads, of course, to disaster.
There are reasons for the Wolves’ struggles, stats both commonplace and advanced that point to trouble with consistency, with shooting, with plugging holes due to injury and then working injured players back into lineups. But basketball is also an emotional landscape, a collective effort by people to make something together, and sometimes it just falls the fuck apart.
Is it hopeless? No, even if it feels that way. Can I point to reasons for hope? Not really, except knowing that change happens whether we want it to or not, and it breaks both ways. Right now, facing another long injury recovery from Kevin Love, the prospect of watching Rubio play his way back step by shaky step, and a team that feels hollow and wrongfooted almost all the time, we’re in the horse latitudes, that stretch of ocean where the winds die and you drift.
Let’s just try not to eat each other before we make it out the other side.
The Timberwolves never trailed in this game. If you just look at the final box score, this might seem unusual since overall there didn’t seem to be a whole lot separating these teams: the Hawks shot 49%, 46% from 3, and 81% from the line while the Wolves shot 46%, 53% from 3, and 77% from the line. Rebounds were nearly even, the Hawks had 3 more blocks and the Wolves had 4 more steals. If you want to point to any overall stat that tells the story, it’s probably turnovers, where the Wolves limited themselves to 10 while forcing 16 on the Hawks who gave up 19 points on those turnovers.
But if you look at the scores for each quarter, you can see the Wolves beat the Hawks handily in the first half, held it even in the third (a rare feat for them), and then held on in the fourth (where they were outscored 32-23) to win. Basically, this game was won in the first half, where the Wolves shot 49% plus a frankly unbelievable 63% from deep while the Hawks could only muster 42% from the field and a Wolves-esque 30% from behind the arc. Throw in Kirilenko’s pair of 3s down the stretch …
… plus Dante Clutchingham’s impressive jumper and steal sequence that iced the game …
… there you have it.
So let’s play Little Things, Big Things, Other Things.
Pretty quickly when Rubio checked into the game, he attempted a signature Ricky pass, reaching his arm way out to the side around the defender, looking to bounce the pass to a diving Pek with a healthy dose of English. Except it bounced off John Jenkins and trickled into the backcourt.
So Rubio scooped the ball back up, then went right back and tried it again with Pek. This time, the ball snaked through and got Pek to the basket where he was fouled on the shot by Teague.
It was kind of reminiscent of those times when a player will take a jumpshot that misses and the rebound comes right back to him. The feedback that told him why he missed it—too much arm, not enough leg—is right there in him at that moment, so he lines it up and drills it.
Rubio has often looked a step slow this season, like he can’t eke out that extra sliver of space that lets him deliver on those threaded passes, so it was great to see him blow it and then get right back on the horse to try again.
Time and again after the game, everyone from acting head coach Terry Porter to Kirilenko to Williams to Pekovic talked about how the way they started this game was a direct result of the way they finished their last game against Portland.
Porter said, “We talked about it pregame, just building on what we did against Portland in the last 8 minutes. Coming out with a lot more aggressiveness, more focus offensively and being more sharp offensively. We did a great job of moving their defense and getting more chances to attack them after moving the ball from side-to-side.”
Kirilenko echoed him, saying, “Before the game, we were talking: last game we came in and we start slow. I think tonight, right from the beginning we were in an aggressive mode. We start attacking and playing defense and we got that lead right away,” and Williams added, “In the Blazer game, the fourth quarter gave us a little more momentum into this game.”
It’s worth noting because as casual (or even pretty serious) watchers of basketball games, it’s easy to fall into viewing each game as its own sovereign event. We watch a game, draw our conclusions, and then move on with our lives. When the next one comes up, we might remember the last one, but for us there’s a certain inherent lack of continuity.
But for the team itself, for the players and coaching staff, this is their job. The games are the visible manifestation of their work, but between each game they’re still on the job. So while we see a failed comeback against the Blazers as any number of things—an indictment of coaching strategies, a failure of starters to step up, a sad referendum on how much the team needs a closer—the team can learn something simpler from it: come out strong. Now of course there’s more to coming out strong than just deciding it. But a loss like the one to the Blazers helps make that decision easier the next game, helps put the whole team on the same page.
The other big thing here was pretty simple: This game showed how you need balance, a sympathetic push-pull between your long-range shooting and your post game to make both parts work. When I asked Williams about his success shooting the 3 (3-5 in this game, 53.8% over the last five games), he said, “It’s really helping that Pek is holding his own down there on the block and it’s really helping all of us get open for 3-point shots.”
And then when Pek was asked about his success down low (25 pts, a career-high 18 rebs), he said, “I mean, you hit a few—only a few—3-pointers, they make my life easier. Then they must contest them, they must close out on them. They get space. If they’re missing everything, it’s going to be a long night.”
This is not rocket science. Shooters making 3s opens up the paint. Big men working down low opens up the arc. And players like Williams making their shots opens up lanes for them to get to the basket. Check out these two Williams baskets, first a 3-pointer and the second a driving layup:
When he hesitated on the first shot, I was sure it wasn’t going down. But you can see Pachulia’s closeout is pretty lackluster, and Williams drills it. On the second play, he’s established himself as enough of a shooting threat that he can get by Tolliver and to the hoop.
It seems simple, but it’s deceptively difficult to get these oppositional things working in balance on a consistent basis. But Williams averred that shooting—both good and bad—can spread like a disease. “If everybody’s missing shots it can be a little contagious, but I just tried to come in and knock down some shots I know I could make,” he said. “As long as we stay contagious, it’ll be all right.”
In other news, I finally got a look at Pek’s new tattoo, which is the reason he’s been wearing a compression sleeve. It’s a pretty giant grizzly bear on its hind legs that covers his left forearm, which is itself a pretty giant forearm. It looks not unlike this. Asked about it after the game, he explained, “It’s a big scary animal.”
I am sick. It’s a head cold, I think, but I can sum up its effects on me thusly: The night before last, I slept twelve hours; yesterday my greatest accomplishment was taking two naps; and last night I went to bed at 8:30 pm and slept for eleven hours. And this morning, when I woke up feeling better than when I went to sleep but not at all confident that that feeling would maintain if I moved too much, the first thing I did was roll over, unplug my phone, and check to see how the Timberwolves had fared against the Nuggets.
They won. 101-97.
The CliffsNotes™ version of this game would seem to be: Love sprained a finger on his right hand in the third and couldn’t return to the game, while J.J. Barea’s Super Mario Bros. Starman power-up didn’t lead the team off a cliff and instead ignited them to the win in the fourth, where he scored 12 of his 17 points. Oh and they managed to shoot 37.5% from three thanks to Zach’s regular audit of sorrrow. By all means, I’m sure we can now draw some hyperbolic conclusions about who’s the real leader on this team and how we should trade Love right now, but I want to discuss something entirely more reasonable: the very real possibility that I made this win happen by not watching the game. Continue Reading…