When we watch March Madness we watch very young, extraordinarily gifted men burn like roman candles. It is a carnival, less a display of basketball prowess than an ecstatic frenzy. We see the spirit carrying the body to places it literally cannot go. There are shows of incredible effort and passion, fevered battles for loose balls, defense played on the edge of exhaustion, wild last-second drives to the hoop. But also: shots crush the back iron; muscles drown in adrenaline; so many turnovers. The tournament is like the most spectacular party you barely remember, the one where the floor bent to the beat of the music, where you could not speak, only scream, where your veins ran with gold, where you loved everybody.
Archives For Benjamin Polk
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).
There are few things in basketball as deflating as watching an opposing midrange jumpshooter on a hot streak. You know that, even with his impressive arsenal of fades and stepbacks, when he shoots that beautiful 18-footer over his defender’s outstretched hand, he is taking the least efficient shot on the floor. He is doing exactly what you want him to do. And still, the ball goes in the basket.
For the most part, the Wolves defended DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay the way that you hoped they might. They walled off the paint, prevented layups, kept the two long slashers off the free-throw line, stayed at home on three-point shooters. There are a few quibbles here and there–we might’ve liked to see Andrei Kirilenko give Gay less room to maneuver at the point of attack; they blew a rotation with two minutes to play that resulted in a DeRozan three-point play–but, in general, when we see anybody besides Dirk Nowitzki circa 2010 taking contested long-range twos, we can conclude that the defense has done its job. Nevertheless, there were Gay and DeRozan deploying their full array of pivots, hesitations and crossovers, hitting contested jumper after contested jumper.
Still, a team could do worse than allowing its opponents’ two best scorers–both unreasonably accurate from outside and preying on mismatches–to tally 51 points on 46 shots. Much more problematic, if you ask me, were a) the Wolves’ inability to fully capitalize on their 40-16 free-throw advantage and b) their inability to parlay moderate leads into decisive leads, to complete the job of beating a team that, for a while, was begging to be beaten.
Lets dispense with part ‘a’ quickly, because it is both aggravating and tedious. The Wolves, as they do, got to the line a lot. And, just as typically, they missed 25% of those free-throws. They missed three out of their last six free-throws and, of course, Ricky Rubio missed the one that would have tied the game at 94 with 1.7 seconds remaining. There, done.
Now for ‘b.’ The Raptors played some stretches of truly listless defense, in which, for instance, Alexei Shved was allowed to dribble unimpeded to within five feet of the hoop and loft an uncontested floater and Chase Budinger was given free reign to run off flare screens, rise up with a nice, clear look at the hoop and hit some perfectly relaxed, unimpeded jumpers. What’s more, the Raptors were saddled with the problem that neither Jonas Valanciunas nor Aaron Gray seemed capable of single-covering Nikola Pekovic without blatantly fouling him.
And so, in the first three quarters, the Wolves were able, with relative ease, to cruise out to leads of nine, eight and 11–but no more than that. That they were unable to extend those leads into more forbidding territory is a testament to their simple lack of consistent execution. A case in point are the minutes following the third-quarter Andrei Kirilenko three that gave the Wolves their one and only double-digit lead. Ricky Rubio penetrates the Raptors’ defense but delivers a pass to Pekovic’s feet. Derrick Williams falls over while attempting a rather ornate spin move in isolation. Luke Ridnour dribbles the ball out of bounds. Rubio attempts to initiate the offense by entering the ball to Kirilenko at the elbow; but AK does not fully seal his defender and Rubio’s pass is too casual. Rudy Gay jumps into the passing lane and streaks to the other end of the floor for a breakaway dunk. The Wolves go to a 2-3 zone in order to contain Kyle Lowry’s dribble penetration–and yet Lowry still manages to split the two backcourt defenders and hit an open floater at the third-quarter buzzer.
And things only got worse over the first few minutes of the fourth quarter when Rubio got his rest and J.J. Barea took the opportunity to perfect his ball-pounding, clock-killing, impossible-jumper routine. Its worth noting that at no point during the 12-4 run that brought them back into the game did the Raptors look particularly dynamic on either end of the floor. Minnesota’s slack execution simply allowed them to crawl back into the game.
By the time Rubio had settled things back down with a series of shrewd pick-and-rolls, in the process remembering to take advantage of Pekovic down low, the one truly shining matchup advantage at the Wolves’ disposal, Toronto had gained a measure of confidence. Their defense started to buzz, Gay and DeRozan got hot. It ended badly.
Although in our hearts we always suspected it to be true, we couldn’t help feeling a little distressed over Rick Adelman’s admission yesterday that he is considering walking away from the Wolves this coming summer. (Though you certainly can’t blame the guy for wanting to actually live with his ailing wife, especially after a pair of seasons as cosmically aggravating as these past two.) We can talk all we want about Derrick Williams’ development or Nikola Pekovic’s contract, but the truth is that the middle-term future of this franchise rests entirely upon the relationship between Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Take out one vertex of that triangle and, one suspects, the entire spindly structure might collapse.
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.)
On the surface, the Nuggets and the Wolves in their current state of frontcourt decimation seem to share a common profile. Both teams run radically simplified half-court offenses and generate many of their best looks off of opponents’ turnovers. Both teams rely heavily on the energy and wiles of their backcourts and depend on dribble penetration to create looks. Neither team shoots threes well; both teams require on heavy outputs of energy to play their game.
But two crucial differences make those commonalities merely superficial. The first is that while Denver is absurdly deep, rich with players who fit the profile of their team’s game, the Wolves are down to their last nine ragtag dudes, many of whom are not what you might call All-Star material. Its a lot easier to sprint up and down the floor when you know that a breather is right around the corner and that your team won’t be the worse off for it. The second is that the Wolves play that way by necessity, out of desperation, while the Nuggets do so by design. When you play with such simplicity, chaos and pace, you are in the Nuggets’ wheelhouse. And nobody does it better; if you get drawn into their game, particularly on their home floor, where the thin air seems to corrode your lungs and turn your legs into noodles, the Nugs will run you through the thresher.
The Timberwolves were playing without three of their four essential players and therefore faced an insurmountable talent disadvantage. They missed many free-throws and even more threes. They labored to salvage tiny scraps of offensive production. They lacked the personnel to seriously impede their opponent’s offensive execution. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. Once revealed, the patterns are relentless. Nevertheless, some observations on this loss in Portland:
At the beginning of the season, as the Wolves added white dude after white dude to their roster, we discussed the team’s unprecedented racial makeup. We wondered about the potential interactions between these strikingly white Wolves and their mostly white fanbase. We discussed the Wolves’ potential as a kind of old school/new school hybrid, a stylistic melange that would incorporate and complicate nearly every archetype in the NBA pantheon.
More specifically, we wondered about Ricky Rubio’s recovery and whether his reunion with Kevin Love could possibly live up to our wild hopes. We wondered how Love would mold his newfound superstardom and how that stardom would interact with a new, suddenly competent, set of teammates and with a fuller expression of Rick Adelman’s offense. We wondered what moves Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved might bring to the dance. How would J.J. Barea’s antic freestyles play against Kirilenko’s humble, heavily structured game? What does a Shved/Rubio backcourt feel like? Does Brandon Roy even have knees? And what is a Shved anyway?
It’s strange to listen to coaches and players and announcers attempt to make sense of the Timberwolves’ current situation. Over and over we hear testaments to the team’s professionalism and resolve, evocations of the stoic warrior ethos: we keep playing; we play with who we have; we all sacrifice more; someone new has to step up. And from their perspectives, this makes sense. After all, even with a lineup as decimated as this, what else are you going to do? The games are on the schedule. You have to play them. The only alternative is a kind of numb, Anthony Randolphian apathy, which, while probably justified by the circumstances, only makes things more painful.
But the hard fact of the matter is that the Wolves–particularly now that they are without J.J. Barea and Andrei Kirilenko–are so undermanned, are stretched so thin at every position that their chances of beating competent NBA teams are awfully remote. Despite the stoic rhetoric, you could see the heft of this realization weighing on the players’ faces at the end of this game. Deep inside, they know: When they play their guts out against good teams, they lose by less than ten points. When they are truly mismatched, or when they are not quite at their best, they get hammered. At certain moments the absurdity of it all seeps through the cracks. What is happening here? Where is Kevin Love and why is Mickael Gelabale getting serious minutes for an NBA team? Why are we even doing this? That’s despair talking. And–get this–we’re not even to the All-Star break.