Fully healthy, the Timberwolves would still not be as good as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook back, and he went for 34 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds and could essentially get to the rim whenever he wanted by turning on the jets. The Thunder have eight players 6-10 or taller (if you count Durant, who is at least 6-10); the Wolves have one healthy player over 6-10 (Gorgui Dieng). No surprise, then, that Oklahoma City outrebounded Minnesota 47-30. The expected disparities were there: the Wolves took 7 3-pointers and made just one; the Thunder made 6 and took 23. If the Portland game the other night had everything going against the Blazers and for the Wolves — a genuine outlier — this was much more routine. Continue Reading…
In comments to the Star Tribune on Tuesday, Flip Saunders used the word “rebuild” twice, a term he’d avoided to that point. Preferring to call the Wolves’ situation a “retooling” with a “blended” roster mixing young players and veterans, Saunders shifted gears a bit, asking for patience from fans while acknowledging a slight shift in organizational philosophy. That Flip Saunders was President of Basketball Operations and part-owner Flip Saunders doing the talking.
Coach Flip Saunders is a different guy, and in order to beat the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night, dispassionate big picture realism was jettisoned for tactical quirks, the mechanics of victory powered by the fearless installation of an unconventional defensive gameplan. Continue Reading…
Early in Minnesota’s 102-86 loss to the Golden State Warriors, Andrew Bogut was hobbling up and down the floor. It was unclear what was wrong at the time, but it was clear he needed to be taken out. Swiftly, new Golden State head coach Steve Kerr moved to put in backup Festus Ezeli. Bogut would not return to the game.
Golden State came into to the game already a man down, having lost David Lee to a hamstring injury during the Warriors’ season opener. This was not an ideal situation for the Warriors, who have faced the consequence of injury struggles come playoff time the past couple years.
Tonight, however, the Warriors faced off against a Timberwolves team that, when fully healthy, is probably still a worse team than Golden State was short-manned. But Minnesota isn’t healthy right now.
“This ain’t reality TV!”
That’s one of the big lines from the movie The Departed, delivered by Jack Nicholson in a bizarre role that both fits, doesn’t fit, and falls everywhere in between. It comes during a scene in which (SPOILER ALERT) the tension surrounding a Boston crime boss, an undercover cop, and a bunch of lackeys has built to an uncomfortable level. The undercover cop (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is on the verge of being found out and murdered by the crime boss (played by Nicholson). DiCaprio’s character just watched a fellow henchman die when Leo was close to getting busted and soon after the death, DiCaprio, Nicholson, and several henchmen watch a news report revealing that the body had been found and the deceased had been identified as an undercover police officer.
The henchman responsible for burying the dead body is wondering how the police found the body so quickly, and Nicholson is furious at everything going on as his empire is starting to unravel. As Nicholson berates him for not doing his job properly, the henchman laughs at the colorful analogy Jack offers up for where the body was dumped. The laughter adds to the vitriol and frustration suffocating Nicholson and he screams:
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…
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.
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…
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…
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…
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…