Well, it’s not Timberwolves playoff basketball, but it’s still the best basketball there is. Come on down to Grumpy’s Downtown this Wednesday, May 1 to watch a couple games with Ben Polk, Zach Harper and myself. Right now, the schedule is still up in the air, but we’re definitely looking at Indiana/Atlanta and Boston/New York, plus hopefully Oklahoma City/Houston, provided Houston can take one off the Thunder tonight. Whatever the match-ups, it’s sure to be a fun time. We’ll be packing AWAW hoodies that you can buy as well. Games are likely to start at 6 pm, so that’s when we’ll be there. Come on down and say, “Hi!”
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Its a given that this Timberwolves’ season has been a bitter disappointment. I always believed that prognosticating before the year even began was foolish; the calculus of variables was just too ornate to ever settle confidently on one outcome. I think its safe to say, though, that the year has become something close to the worst-case-scenario. Yes, Andrei Kirilenko returned to his mid-oughts form–at least until fatigue and injury robbed him of a little of his vivacity–and Ricky Rubio has made incredible strides in his recovery. But Kevin Love’s injury, and the plague of injuries to key players that has infected the team all year long, has negated all of that.
Still, it could be so much worse. You could be a Wolves’ fan of four years ago, wondering if Randy Wittman could turn things around, hoping that Randy Foye and Rashad McCants could one day justify their lottery status. Remember that? Or even worse: you could be a Phoenix Sun’s fan right now. If that were the case, you would have endured a recent 10-game losing streak and a road record of 8-32, not to mention an entire season of Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson. You know what that’s like and it’s no fun. The “core” of your team would be Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley, fine players, to be sure, but nothing to build a team around. Your most recent lottery pick, Kendall Marshall, would look, and play ball, like a member of Das Racist. You would be placing your hopes for the future on the only front office with a claim to being worse on draft day than the Wolves. You would be cheering very hard for PJ Tucker and also for the Morris twins.
In many ways, Rick Adelman’s 1,000th win resembled his 703rd loss. As in Friday night’s game against Toronto, his team enjoyed spells of real ease, in which an overmatched opponent appeared ready to fold the tent and cede the game. In this one, the Wolves cruised to an 11-point lead in the first quarter. They dropped a 12-0 run in the second quarter and a 10-0 run late in the third. But as in their loss to Toronto, they repeatedly gave those leads back with stretches of unfocused play. That is what young teams do I guess, especially one whose primary ballhandlers include an emotional, turnover-prone 22-year-old, a 5’8″ shot-chucking black hole and the fourth Karamazov brother (the skinny, depressed-looking one with the wildly inconsistent shooting mechanics).
The Wolves’ street-clothes squad boasts a pretty impressive resume. You’ve got multiple All-Star appearances, a Defensive Player of the Year, a former Most Improved Player candidate, even some MVP votes. What’s more, whoever has been dressing Nikola Pekovic deserves a firm handshake. That fitted herringbone blazer? the deep pink tie? the open-collar-plus-gold-chain combo? Dynamite.
In contrast, no one would say that the Wolves’ actual active roster is brimming with talent. In essence, you have a future-superstar with a sub-40% shooting percentage leading a crew of backups and D-Leaguers. This is a team that can compete for victories under certain circumstances–like when the Washington Wizards lay a total egg on the road, or when, say, the Spurs rest all of their good players–but that on most nights has very little chance to win. (I should mention: no shame in being a backup or a D-Leaguer. The NBA is much the better for the Dante Cunninghams and J.J. Bareas and even the Chris Johnsons of the world.)
Last night’s loss to the Utah Jazz followed an all too typical pattern for recent Wolves’ losses. A malaise-filled start leads either to the other team getting out to a big lead or the Wolves hanging around while the other team lolls about in the doldrums as well. If the lead is a thick one, the other team will hold them at arm’s length; if it’s slim, they will eventually push away. At this point, the Wolves mount a comeback—often led furiously by Ricky Rubio’s wounded competitive spirit—that falls inevitably short.
You can choose to see this global lack of effort as just a lack of effort or you can find root causes for it, such as the way players are not so much playing out of position as out of role, and that there’s not much balance in the offense. Pekovic, in particular, is wearing down, I think, from being the only player on the Wolves who does work in the paint. Williams is a shooter and (on a good day) a slasher who can rebound; Cunningham rebounds, but mostly takes midrange jumpers on offense; Stiemsma is not a force down low; neither is Chris Johnson. I know Love does a lot of his damage from outside, but he will also set up on the block and put in some work there from time to time. But with only Pek there, no one else is wearing teams down physically, which in turn wears Pek down. This little sequence right here both shows how Pek is losing some of his aggressiveness and provides a handy metaphor for the entire Wolves team right now. Continue Reading…
David Thorpe is a guy who knows basketball, so when he talks (or in this case, writes) everyone would do well to listen. Here’s his take on Alexey Shved’s game so far in the NBA:
Shved’s moxie, toughness and basketball IQ have helped him fit right into Rick Adelman’s offensive system. But by no means has he been a sharpshooter. More troublesome, though, is that he’s been less than average on ball screens.
First of all, his decision-making with the ball in his hands on ball screens is bad. He often settles for long 2s or 3s after dribbling sideways across the court, or even a bit backward. The 3-point shot is already long without having your momentum flow backwards before shooting it. That’s the biggest reason he’s much better in spot-up shots than off the dribble.
His angle of attack on ball screens is also too often flat, instead of sharp, meaning he isn’t attacking the lead foot or shoulder of the big man hedging on defense. When he does, he gets into the lane easily and good things follow: short runners, layups or easy kick-outs to wide-open shooters. But poor angles mean he is not a threat to score or pass, and therefore the defense stays solid.
I’d also like to see Shved lower his hips at the point of attack, which will enable him to split the defenders easier or beat them with speed. He’s far too upright now to do so without being a huge turnover risk.
The numbers bear out what Thorpe says about Shved’s 3-point shooting: According to Synergy, he’s shooting just 27.6% on 3-pointers when he’s the pick-and-roll ball handler versus 36.5% when he’s spotting up. And I wouldn’t take issue with Shved’s angle of attack being too flat in the pick and roll, but I think you also can’t ignore the fact that the Wolves legendarily awful 3-point shooting also means that teams can clog the paint without fear of reprisal from distance. As Ben observed in his wrap-up of last night’s game, when the Wolves went small and forced Asik to cover Love on the perimeter, it opened up driving lanes for Shved, which he feasted on. Check out this pair of beautiful lay-ins:
But Love went 0-7 and the Wolves as a team only shot 25% from downtown, so the paint closed up eventually. It would behoove Shved to get lower and attack sharper, but it would help everyone if the Wolves could buy a basket from deep more than once every four times.
Today the Wolves confirmed reports aout Malcolm Lee and his injured right knee.
The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced that guard Malcolm Lee has suffered a chrondal injury in his right knee and will be out indefinitely. Lee and the organization are in the process of further evaluating the injury to determine the next steps for treatment. Once a determination is made, an update to his status will be provided. The injury occurred in the second quarter of Minnesota’s 108-105 win vs. Denver on Wednesday night.
Lee, a second-year guard from UCLA, is averaging 4.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game this season. He has started 12 of the last 13 games for Minnesota and has appeared in 16 games overall. Lee scored a career-high 10 points at Philadelphia on Dec. 4.
For those of us who aren’t med students, a chrondal injury is one to the articular cartilage of the knee. Not helpful? Basically, without knowing the severity of the injury, it’s hard to know what this means for Lee’s prospects. According to this website (which has a picture of snowboarding, so you know they know what’s up), treatment could be non-surgical or go all the way up to debridement (which is what Roy had done on his arthritic knee) or microfracture surgery. Time will tell. For what it’s worth, chrondal injuries are degenerative, which doesn’t sound very good.
What this does, however, is clear the way for Alexey Shved to start at shooting guard. According to Jerry Zgoda over at the Star Tribune, Shved wore the white starter’s jersey in practice today. Coincidentally, that’s same color as the whole starting lineup now.
This is terrible news (via the Strib):
Sasha McHale, the daughter of Houston Rockets coach and former Timberwolves executive Kevin McHale, died on Saturday at age 23.
McHale has been on leave from his job as Houston’s coach to be with Sasha as she battled the auto-immune disease lupus.
Kevin McHale is an awesome guy. Lupus is a rotten, rotten disease. This is awful; not much else to say. Here’s Glen Taylor’s statement on the matter:
On behalf of the entire Minnesota Timberwolves organization, we are extremely saddened to learn about the passing of Sasha. While Kevin was with our organization, we all watched Sasha grow up, and become an outstanding young woman. She will be sorely missed by her family and friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with Kevin, Lynn and the entire McHale family.
The Wolves and the Wolves’ faithful have dropped down a peg or two since Monday’s improbably cakewalk-ish victory over the Dallas Mavericks. That win, which brought the Wolves to 5-2 and gave them their best start since 2001, though, was also the game that saw half-man, all-beast (that’s 150% man-beast) Nikola Pekovic leave the game with a sprained left ankle from whose bourn he has not returned. Then came a loss to the Bobcats that was very nearly a win after a borderline surreal firestorm of a fourth quarter. With no Love and no Rubio and no Budinger and no Barea and no Roy and no Pekovic making the Wolves something something, the team signed veteran swingman Josh Howard yesterday for the veteran minimum because, let’s face it, he’s ambulatory. Put this all together and what you have in Wednesday’s loss and tonight’s loss to the Golden State Warriors (who do, Jon Krawczynski, have the best-looking unis in the NBA that weren’t designed before 1980) are two games to just survive before the four-day layoff leading up to next Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets. Continue Reading…
There are plenty of word that could be used to describe this Orlando Magic team, but I think I’ve settled on rudderless. After losing their noon, their midnight, their talk, their song, their Dwight Howard, this team was a question mark, but now playing without Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson or Al Harrington, it’s just a complete mystery where offense will come from. They’ve been reduced to Aaron Afflalo kickouts and J.J. Redick curls and the result tonight was a team that shot 35%, plus 25% from distance.
I wish I could say it was never even close. But although the Wolves started hot, jumping out to a 15 point lead and holding it to double digits almost through a quarter and a half, their focus eventually slackened and the shots stopped dropping. Orlando pulled closer, then the Wolves pushed back, then Orlando pulled to within 5 with 2:01 remaining on a Redick 3-pointer. But then, impressively, the Wolves seemed to decide they’d had enough, eventually pushing the lead to 27 before settling for a solid 15-point win.
As Zach said in his preview, this was an eminently winnable game and they won it, bringing them to 3-1 for the season and delivering what can firmly be called a hot start to a season that was supposed to be a slog without Love and Rubio. As far as what this game means as a game, I think that’s plenty.
So let’s look at three things that were interesting about the way the Wolves played.
Upside Down Guards
Adelman’s been running J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved as his backcourt for the second unit, and although nominally that makes them the point guard and the shooting guard, their instincts push them in counterintuitive directions. The diminutive Barea is the scorer, the penetrator, while Shved primarily looks to create for others. Tonight, that pattern didn’t hold true for the bench with Shved notching 3 assists and 7 points while Barea—very strangely—got 5 dimes and only 1 point.
But now it looks as if the starters might be working in much the same way. Roy continues to struggle with his shot, going 1-6 for just 3 points but putting up 9 assists while his backcourt partner—and nominal point guard—Luke Ridnour scored a team high 19 points with 3 assists. Adelman seems content to let these units find their way on the floor, and maybe this is just something that happened tonight, with Roy and Ridnour taking what was in front of them. But if it becomes a way to build the offense’s identity, it could be fascinating.
Pekovic: A Man in Motion, All He Needs Is a Pair of Wheels
Right from their first game against Sacramento, Ben Polk was perplexed why Pekovic wasn’t being used in more pick and rolls rather than catching the ball in the post. Although Pek’s post game has improved since last season and he’s able to do more with his newfound lateral quickness, it still seemed an odd choice for a player who often thrived moving towards the basket on the break or in the pick and roll last season. But tonight, what Adelman called a broken play led to Pek catching the ball on the move. The play was actually a pick and roll designed for Pek, but when Williams couldn’t get him the ball on the initial action, he posted up then stepped across the lane and Ridnour caught him directly under the basket for a layup. He caught another dish from Ridnour in transition for a dunk, then worked free in a pick and roll for another on the move. Rather than setting up on the block and waiting for the ball to come to him, he managed to get the ball while he was moving, and 290 pounds of massive Montenegrin is pretty hard to stop in those cases. If this is a permanent development in the offensive scheme, it’s a great one.
Stiemsma: Destroyer of Worlds
When the Wolves picked up Greg Stiemsma, the reactions ranged from mild interest to active disinterest. Although he was a blocks machine in Boston last season (averaging 4 per 36 minutes), that was about all he was viewed as being good for. But lo and behold tonight he scored 12 points on a super-efficient 6-7 shooting, good for 1.5 points per possession. And though he put up only 2 blocks and 5 rebounds, he was like a supermassive black hole in the best possible way in the late third and fourth when he scored 8 straight points for Minnesota. He was active, setting screens and hitting hook shots and jumpers, closing out on shooters, and doing all the little stuff. When a guy who’s just supposed to provide one dimension off the bench can suddenly become the heart of the team out on the floor, that’s a recipe for success for a team that’s not only learning how to play without their stars, but how to play with each other period.