Houston came into Target Center on Friday night sporting a 14-4 record, second in the West. Minnesota came in at 4-13, and dead last in the conference. When missing all three of their injured starters (Beverley, Howard and Terrence Jones), the Rockets are 5-2. When missing all three of their own injured starters (Rubio, Martin and Pekovic), the Wolves are 1-7. Houston has the second best defense in the NBA (by defensive rating); the Wolves have the third worst. The Rockets take the fewest midrange shots in the NBA; the Wolves take the third most. Houston takes the most threes in the NBA; Minnesota takes the 2nd fewest. The Rockets’ coach, Kevin McHale, was a three-time NBA Champion and seven-time All Star who transitioned seamlessly to post-playing career front office and coaching positions. The Wolves’ coach, Flip Saunders, never played in the NBA and spent 15 years working his way up through collegiate and CBA gigs before finally getting his first opportunity to coach at the game’s highest level.

Despite all the differences between the two teams, there they were, tied at 105 with 15 seconds to go in regulation and a chance for the Wolves to win, and tied again at 112 with 15 seconds to go in overtime and a chance for the Rockets to win. Continue Reading…

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That was ugly.

Tonight, the Philadelphia 76ers finally got over the hump, ending their 17-game losing streak to open the season in a win over the Wolves. Understandably, the Sixers will likely celebrate, or at least let out a big exhale after tonight. Still, tonight’s game probably the worst NBA game I’ve ever been to. It’s to the point where I’m not sure I want to write the recap. Instead, I’ll let technology take care of it.

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Taken as a whole, basketball teams can be viewed as their own living organism. People are, after all, not just one thing either, but instead made up of crisscrossing and often conflicting wants, needs, impulses, understandings and judgments. A person who can keep all these things in balance, who can understand that it’s less important to label impulses as good or bad and more important to understand where they come from and how to limit them or let them flourish, is said to be well-adjusted. At the height of their powers, people can harness their understandings — both intuitive and consciously learned — alongside both natural and hard-earned talents to create wonderful things and live happy lives.

Basketball teams aren’t so different. The Spurs are the Spurs not because of Tim Duncan, not even because of Gregg Popovich, but because they’ve developed an understanding of how the whole can be greater than the sum of their parts. They get the players they need and leverage their skillsets in ways that maximize their contribution to the whole. And they do it patiently, putting the bench players on the floor regularly and often in high-pressure situations so that over time their interactions with the other players on the floor become a seamless dance. The timings become precise, nearly instinctual; the spacing is balanced unless they want to unbalance it and tilt the floor. This idea of the team as a single larger organism is what allows us to say a team has an identity and, top to bottom, the Spurs are as close to a hive-mind as you’re going to find in today’s NBA.

The Los Angeles Clippers — who soundly thrashed the Minnesota Timberwolves last night 127-101 — are not there yet. If the Spurs as a whole are a mature organism, operating at or near the height of its powers, the Clippers remain a capable but occasionally impulsive young adult. After an inconsistent start to the season, they’ve now rattled off five consecutive wins and won seven of their last eight. Against the Wolves, things started to hum in the second quarter as plays unfolded beautifully and Chris Paul picked apart a Minnesota defense that lacked Ricky Rubio. As it was against the Trail Blazers the night before, Zach LaVine’s arrival in the game heralded the collapse of the defense as pick and roll after pick and roll freed up the ballhandler, allowing him space to dish to the diving big man or kick the ball out to the perimeter for a 3-pointer, where Los Angeles took 34 to Minnesota’s 12, making them at a 44% clip to Minnesota’s ghastly 17%.

Against the Wolves, the Clippers looked — if not exactly Spurs-ian — then at least comfortable in their element, running plays that cascaded into secondary action and got them the looks they wanted, even when they didn’t fall. Sure, the Clippers’ roster has some questionable pieces like Glen Davis, but even he managed to make a positive impact in the game by being a giant body against a Wolves team lacking in size.

As for the Wolves, well, let me talk about another organism: my nearly 3-year-old daughter. Continue Reading…

FREE SHABAZZ 2

If you haven’t seen “The Boondocks”, it’s on Netflix. Watch it.

The NBA (and every major professional sports league) is composed of proud, competitive and supremely talented athletes who have worked extremely hard and sacrificed a great deal in order to attain (and maintain) their employment at the game’s highest level. This reality doesn’t stop sportswriters and fans from questioning the dedication or commitment of athletes or even entire teams to their craft, whether it’s “effort”, “heart”, “focus”, “energy” or any other euphemism.

Of course, coaches and players themselves will mention “effort,” “heart”,”focus,” and “energy”, often as buzzwords in stock answers to routine questions about why they’ve won or lost a particular game. After a victory, it’d be unbecoming to simply say, “Well, clearly we’re superior to the team we beat, we have better players, this really isn’t a surprise.” After a loss, it’d be disheartening to admit “We never really had a chance anyway, those guys are way better than we are.” So instead, everyone relies on effort-related jargon, vows to either improve (after a loss) or maintain (after a win) their level of intensity and focus when the next game rolls around.

Fans and media see the effort put forth on the basketball court and make judgments about players based on that alone; for coaches, however, games are only part of the equation. Exemplary effort or energy when the lights are on is one thing, but knowing the playbook and understanding the subtle aspects of your offensive and defensive assignments is another. Practice habits are key. A simple, cliched way to put it: the process is more important than the results, and people outside the locker room and front office are only afforded glimpses of the process.

Which brings us to Shabazz Muhammad. Continue Reading…

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers

Saturday afternoon, the Timberwolves announced they had signed 28-year-old forward Jeff Adrien via the hardship exception, a special rule that grants teams meeting certain injury specifications an extra roster spot. The former UCONN Huskie has played with Golden State, Houston, Charlotte and Milwaukee over his four year NBA career, averaging 4.8 points and 4.3 rebounds on 48% shooting in 14 minutes per game. Continue Reading…

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

This was a weird game. It was a fun game. It was a game that showed just exactly where the Minnesota Timberwolves need to be this season while seeing just how dire things are for the Los Angeles Lakers. In a 120-119 win over the Lakers, we saw just how horrendous the Lakers can be and how energizing and cathartic their defense can be for struggling opponents. And that’s what the Wolves have been since Ricky Rubio went down with his ankle injury — they’ve been struggling.

It’s probably why the Lakers felt like they’d get an easy victory at home against the Wolves. This is a Wolves team missing three starters and three important starters at that. We all know how important Rubio is and have seen that night in and night out since his injury. Nikola Pekovic is the type of post scorer that can make a frontcourt like the Lakers’ feel like quitting basketball with his punishing post play. And Kevin Martin can torch Kobe Bryant at this stage in their respective careers just as easily as Kobe can torch Martin. It’s all about putting pressure on an embarrassing defensive effort that looks to be historically poor.

You mostly hurt the Lakers’ offense in two ways: Continue Reading…

Minnesota Timberwolves Media Day

Tonight’s game was goofy.

On one hand, it would be easy to shrug off tonight’s 103-86 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Wolves were down to just 10 available players, had a pair of teenagers in their starting 5 (to be fair, so did the Bucks (tonight was the first time in NBA history 4 teenagers started in a game)), had many playing way out of position, and had Thad Young, its only returning player, come back noticeably (and understandably) rusty. They played hard, but got beat by a healthier team.

On the other hand, they were in the game for 3-plus quarters, and let some bad defense get the best of them. To be fair, the limited options Flip Saunders had to work with forced some guys to play more minutes than they’re used to. They got gassed towards the end, and when you get gassed, you foul. Brandon Knight took and made 8 of Milwaukee’s 13 free throws in that final quarter, where the Wolves were outscored 31-16.

Past the game itself, the storylines were surprisingly ample for a Bucks-Timberwolves game. Let’s look at a few:

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Saturday night, Target Center was home to some zone defense, full-court presses, half-court traps, a 6’8, 215 jump shooter playing backup center, a bunch of 19, 20 and 21 year olds on the floor together, and clown-show refereeing that left both teams, their coaches and the home crowd perplexed at every turn. A college game, perhaps? Nay, it was the Wolves’ 12-point loss to this season’s nicest surprise story, the Sacramento Kings. Continue Reading…

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(Once upon a time, friend of the program Matt Moore wrote a wonderful post about why the Oklahoma City Thunder fell short against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs last year. He looked at everything: the departure of James Harden; the perpetually woebegone Scott Brooks; the injury to Serge Ibaka. All of it. And what he found is that none of that was really to blame, although each thing certainly plays its part in ways. At the bottom of all of it, the Spurs were just better. So just take that article and in place of the Thunder — a team with one of the two best players in the league, two of the top 15 or 20 and probably three of the top 40, plus many years and many playoff runs together — and substitute a Wolves team whose ten available players together have played 297 minutes (or roughly six games) more than Tim Duncan alone. They played the Spurs tonight and lost, badly. To quote Gregg Popovich from after the game, “It wasn’t a fair fight.” Wiggins got aggressive and good in the third quarter, Bennett had a career high with 20 and several strong dunks. That’s my recap.)

Earlier today I needed a break from basketball-related activities. This is maybe something that sets me apart from your real “hoops junkies,” which I am definitely not. I am not a “cannot get enough of basketball” person. I can get enough. So I just wanted to dial up a movie on HBO GO and watch it, maybe take a little nap along the way. Continue Reading…

Like Parquet Courts (or, now, Parkay Quarts), the Timberwolves seemed keen on counting down the days until it was time to head back. After a road trip that nearly totaled 3 weeks, they returned with a slew of injuries and sickness, with the absence of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf to show for it (along with Thad Young, who remains with his family following the passing of his mother).

Even on a depleted roster, things can go right for a team when its most experienced plays well. Tonight, Mo Williams and Kevin Martin combined for 51 points on 19-29 shooting against a Knicks defense that seemed to take the Wolves’ recent history with the 3-point line a bit too seriously.

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