The Timberwolves official coaching search has begun. According to Jerry Zgoda at the Strib, Terry Porter, that pigeon-toed former Blazer and T-Wolf interviewed with the Wolves on Monday. And today, the reports are the former Hawks’ coach Mike Woodson is in town to chat. Which is a little peculiar considering that neither of these fellows are known for coaching up-tempo basketball. Porter, remember, famously slowed down the Suns to not very great results. And in Atlanta, Mike Woodson’s offense was built around shot-clock burning half-court isolations for Joe Johnson–not exactly the best formula for an open-court team with a creative point guard and dicey perimeter scoring. But who know, perhaps basketball DNA is more fluid and permeable than its biological cousin.
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Lost in the the euphoria over Kevin Love’s 31-31 game and the Wolves’ recent two-game winning streak, plus the carnival of horrors that preceded all of this has been the fact that the Wolves have been fairly well carved up by injuries. Because of mostly solid work by Sebastian Telfair, Luke Ridnour and Wesley Johnson, the absence of folks like Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster hasn’t had had an obvious impact. (Although, two things: first, this team is 30th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency so it’s not like things have been humming along without a hitch. Second, I suspect we’ll only understand the full importance of Webster’s loss after he returns.) But the real impact of these injuries hasn’t been on the starting lineup; its been a huge loss of depth on the bench.
To wit: earlier in the year I speculated about this hypothetical second unit: Ridnour, Johnson, Corey Brewer, Anthony Tolliver and Nikola Pekovic. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But because of the aforementioned injuries, plus bumps suffered by Ridnour, Pekovic and Wayne Ellington, the Wolves sported this illustrious fivesome in the first half of Sunday’s game in Atlanta: Brewer and Tolliver with Lazar Hayward, Sundiata Gaines and Kosta Koufos. Now, that would be a pretty wicked D-League starting five but it seemed like maybe not a coincidence that the Hawks managed a 21-8 run in the first half, while the Wolves’ starters rested.
The Wolves played energetic, competitive basketball for the rest of the game–they shot 47.4% and played committed defense–but never really recovered from that first half swoon. And there’s a pretty solid reason why. A short while back I commented that when things were going well, the Wolves offense had a certain wild charm. But ok, to be honest, this wildness–a tendency to mishandle the ball, to make passes to nowhere–is mostly not charming at all. Mostly its just really aggravating. Telfair, Love and Michael Beasley had 15 turnovers between them and this carelessness repeatedly prevented the Wolves from making inroads into the Hawks’ lead.
Dark Night of the Soul
You know what else prevented that? The fact that Darko Milicic is still totally lost in the wilderness. It seems hardly possible that a 25-year-old athlete in perfect health could actually look haggard, but Darko does. His dreadful lack of confidence, his “disgust” with himself (his words), is written all over his wan face and embodied in his slumped shoulders and timid play. Darko’s line on Sunday is pretty bleak: 1-7 shooting for two points; two boards; three blocks; two assists; two turnovers.
Even the lone bright spot–those three blocks–belie the reality of the situation. Darko couldn’t stay with Al Horford who scored the majority of his 28 points (on 9-14 from the field, 10-10 from the line) against the big Serb. Darko couldn’t keep Horford away from the hoop when he faced the basket; he couldn’t recover quickly enough on pick-and-rolls to deter easy layups; he couldn’t keep Horford off of the glass or challenge Horford’s jumper. Horford is the shorter guy by at least four inches but he got his shot pretty much whenever he wanted.
Even so, as those stats show, Darko’s real damage was on the offensive end. The profile for this 1-7 nightmare is pretty familiar. Darko performs epic low-post contortions in the service of terrible, awkward shots–an off-balance twelve-foot skyhook and a ginger baseline reverse (one bricked, the other rejected) are pretty typical–and then blows the easy looks he does get.
But this isn’t even the worst of it. Because the center is generally the fulcrum of the triangle, the offense tends to flow through Darko when he is on the floor. Entering the ball into the post is meant to ignite a flurry of passes and cuts, to set the offense in motion. But Darko’s play has been so labored and so indecisive that the Wolves’ offense seems to stagnate whenever he touches the ball, those two assists notwithstanding.
Kurt Rambis appears to recognize this. So in the third quarter he began running the offense through Kevin Love (who finished with only 22 points and 17 boards–weak) on the weakside post, leaving Darko to languish out of the play. Finally, with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter he replaced Darko entirely, bringing in Anthony Tolliver and moving Love over to center, as he did against the Knicks on Friday. Love is certainly no natural “5”, but the offense suddenly began to hum and the defensive energy increased palpably. The Wolves put together their best stretch of play, outscoring the Hawks 39-30 the rest of the way.
Things could get better for Darko Milicic. His shot could start falling. And this could energize the rest of his game, give him the heart to pursue the ball and defend with some guts. But when, in his NBA career, has this ever happened? We have to begin wondering, 11 games into his four year deal, if these disastrous crises of confidence are not a definitive element of Darko’s on-court self.
Well, we pushed and they pushed back.
The Wolves ended the first half on a 14-5 run against the Hawks only to relinquish the ground they gained in a 11-21 run to open the 3rd quarter. Then in a fervent scramble to prevent another blowout, our pups scored nine unanswered, cutting Atlanta’s lead to just 7 points with enough time to pull out a win, only to be buried for good after a Jamal Crawford four point play.Final score: Hawks 113-Wolves 103.
But hey, it’s progress.
It’s doubtful anyone besides our friends from the ATL came into Target Center anticipating a W, however the home faithful must have been pleased they didn’t bear witness to another shellacking. Kurt Rambis was content with his team’s effort and is looking to build on last night’s showing. “Our team is getting frustrated by losing, obviously. But I really liked the way we practiced on Thursday and we did a good job of carrying it over to the game. We had an awful lot of bright moments tonight both offensively and on defense.”
Indeed they did. On a night where both Kevin Love and Michael Beasley struggled, shooting a combined 12-36 from the field, one of the Wolves true strengths began to show itself: depth.
Corey Brewer has shown several concerning signs of regression early into this season; a lack of confidence in his shot, uncertainty in attacking the basket and uncharacteristic defensive miscues. But on Friday night he was possibly the team’s star performer with an impressive corralling of Iso Joe Johnson alongside 18 much needed points and five timely steals. He was aggressive, decisive, and most importantly, judicious in his shot selection. Brewer still provides his own special brand of unintentional comedy, specifically on his loose limbed forays into the paint, but it was refreshing nonetheless to see him find a comfort zone. Even if only for an evening.
Minnesota’s newfound swingmen coupled with Corey’s recent lapses resulted in a refusal to offer an extension on this year’s contract, so it will be interesting to see if he can find a way to redeem himself without pressing the issue. More performances like Friday’s would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Of course the other star of the evening for the home team was Corey’s new competition, Wesley Johnson, who coincidentally is strong in practically every area his colleague is not. Wes exhibits range, comfort and consistency in his jump shot, nimbleness in attacking the basket and awareness in distributing the ball all while providing the same quick feet and long armed defensive presence. Wes was 4-6 from three point range on the evening, matching Brewer’s 18 points and took a few efficient turns spelling his partner’s defense of Iso Joe.
If there’s any glaring weakness in Johnson’s game, it’s his ball handling. His footwork and athleticism make him quite the threat to YouTube practically anyone, but an apparent inability to put the ball on the floor is a real hindrance to what could be an awesome offensive arsenal. If defenders had to respect his first step, it would not only open his game, it could make him the dependable scorer Wolves are clearly lacking. (Dependent on how you feel about one Michael Beasley.)
Regardless, the two make an impressive tandem. Given the absence of both Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster, they will have time to establish themselves and even upon their compatriots return, could make significant contributions to the second team.
As Rambis noted postgame, “We still don’t know what our team is or who we are until we’re healthy. Even then there will be more experimenting.”