Archives For Benjamin Polk

Its not that the Wolves were listless or lackadaisical in the first quarter of this game. They were playing hard, conscientiously attempting to execute their offense and make solid rotations on defense. No, the word to use might be “uninspired”: the offense was stagnant and uncreative; they were bricking jumpers; they were allowing the Mavericks open looks in the midrange and in transition. It was pretty mediocre.

But that all changed when Ricky Rubio and his aura of great, oceanic positive vibes entered the game. He threaded a one-handed bounce-pass to a cutting J.J. Barea. He dropped a stomach-churning hesitation move on Elton Brand and then calmly dealt the ball behind his back to Derrick Williams in the corner (who missed the wide-open corner three, but thats cool). He denied passing lanes, frantically dug at ballhandlers and fought around screens. In traffic, surrounded by Mavericks, he bounced a pass through his own legs, past an astonished Elton Brand to a diving Greg Stiemsma. The building was stunned, ecstatic, then stunned again.

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The Wolves, as we had sensed all season long and as Zach meticulously charted earlier today, have been a monumentally poor three-point shooting team this season. Poor enough to be mentioned along the worst three point shooting teams of the post-Rockets era; poor enough to evoke the memory of Nikoloz Tskitishvili. But though the phenomenon was all too real, you had to have the feeling that it couldn’t last. Chase Budinger would return; Kevin Love would find his stroke; the market would self-correct (as it always does, right?). It just seemed statistically improbable that the insane specter of competent NBA players bricking open jumper after open jumper could sustain itself over the course of an entire season.

Likewise, though, we should not delude ourselves into believing that Wolves’ transcendent shooting display in Philly will become their new standard. 13-25 from behind the stripe is simply not something you’re going to see every day. Instead, as Rick Adelman has been reminding us all season, in both cases–hot or hopelessly cold–we should be examining the kinds of shots the Wolves¬†are taking and the precision and creativity with which they create those shots.

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big-beautiful-buckOn Friday night, I made passing reference both to the Wolves’ anemic third quarter and to J.J. Barea’s tendency toward overdribbling and playing too fast. Barea tends to play a more even-keeled game when the offense is functioning well, as it was in the first half on Friday; he played within the context of the offense, scored 11 points on seven shots and dropped five dimes. But when the Wolves bog down offensively, Barea tends toward those bad habits. A perfect case in point is that third quarter, in which the Wolves scored 11 points on 19% shooting, committed five turnovers and had four of their shots blocked. It was pretty ugly and Barea was at the center of the ugliness. Two plays illustrate my point.

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I know that it seemed as if the Warriors only took control of this game with their commanding 19-2 second half run, that, until that point, the game was the Wolves’ to win. After all, didn’t the Wolves did boast a double-digit first half lead and play evenly until that rickety fourth quarter? But despite some nice bench play from the likes of Shved and Cunningham, the answer is: only sort of. The truth is, the Wolves never put together an extended stretch of truly competent play. Their offensive execution was painfully inconsistent and while they defended with effort, their defense was marked by some serious structural problems. As Zach told us yesterday, this is no time to panic. The return of this many important players at one time is bound to cause some awkwardness and disarray. But lets not sugarcoat things: this was a pretty bad game from our Wolves.

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It is a Kirilenko.

Friends, this is a familiar feeling. I’m not talking about losing close games in novel ways although that has been a Timberwolves specialty for years. I’m talking about that moment in which a Wolves season descends into pure, wild, effing absurdity. We’ve learned the hard way that this can happen at any time. It can happen because a team rebels against its coach or because a bad team finally succumbs under the weight of its own soul-sucking badness or, as is currently the case, because a genuinely entertaining and competitive squad has been pulverized by injury. In any case, the fourth quarter of this very strange game was a descent/ascent into a state of wasted, anarcho-schizoid carnival.

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Welcome to the NBA everybody. You gut out a thrilling victory in a grueling game against one of the league’s most intense, physical teams. You expend copious energy, both physical and emotional. Then you get on a plane and do it all again the next night. Of course, while the Pacers are a well-coached, defensively oriented team, they don’t hold a candle to Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls.

The Bulls are, as is their custom are sitting atop the league in defensive efficiency, allowing a cruel .93 points per possession. Yes, they’re missing a certain famous former MVP, but they still boast some guys who really like to get after it: namely, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, among others. The Bulls’ ability to pressure the ball and then recover to all five positions should you change sides of the floor is unmatched by any team the Wolves have played this year. Unless of course you count the drubbing these very Bulls put on the Wolves in the preseason.

And yes, I realize that a) that was a preseason game and so b) who cares and also that c) the Wolves were without both Nikola Pekovic and Luke Ridnour. Nevertheless, the Wolves have only intermittently been able to create offensive continuity with their guard play. Their best offensive moments have come either when the team is fluidly executing Rick Adelman’s sets or when a guard, be it Brandon Roy, J.J. Barea or Alexey Shved, has taken it upon himself to break down the opposing defense. Unfortunately, nobody disrupts offensive continuity and atomizes the five opposing offensive players as well as Chicago. And should Luke Ridnour or Shved or Roy–remember, JJ Barea will miss the game with his foot injury–attempt to attack the Bulls by himself, well that just plays into the hands of the Bulls’ swarming defense.

Adding to the problem is that the Bulls have real matchup advantages in the frontcourt, which has been the Wolves’ strength. Luol Deng vs. Andrei Kirilenko is essentially a wash; both players are long, elite defenders and crafty, efficient scorers, although Deng is asked to shoulder a much greater share of his team’s load, both on offense and in terms of minutes, than AK. But then the real problems begin. Joakim Noah is the kind of long, active center that gives Pekovic fits (observe the way that Hibbert disrupted Pek’s offensive game last night). And, recent defensive improvement notwithstanding, Derrick Williams showed very little ability to stay with Carlos Boozer in their preseason matchup.

The Wolves’ great hope here, as it has been before, just may be their bench. Dante Cunningham and Greg Stiemsma seem to me to be well equipped to take on Boozer and Noah defensively. And whether or not Cunningham can actually match Taj Gibson’s intensity (very hard to do, but I bet he can) that matchup should be pretty furious stuff, particularly if the game is close. Still, while matchups circumstances seem stacked against the Wolves, they surely seem to be oceans ahead of where they were two weeks ago. Tonight will be a great test of just how far they’ve come.

 

Andrei Kirilenko patrols the paint

As I alluded to last night, one of the most encouraging elements of the Wolves nice start has been their basic competence on defense. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re a Wolves’ fan of long standing you know the thrill in the blood induced by those simple words. Great defense isn’t truly satisfying until you’ve been made to watch (and cheer for) hours and days of awful defense; and lord knows we have. Its true that the team hasn’t played many offensive juggernauts so far–of the Wolves’ five opponents, only the Nets have managed to crack the top-25 in offensive efficiency. Still: the Wolves are allowing just .93 points per possession, good for seventh in the league. That is happy news no matter who you’re playing.

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Image by Trey Kirby

Ah yes, Gerald Green. I remember him. The stunningly talented, emotionally immoderate young wing the Wolves landed in the Kevin Garnett haul. The slam dunk champion at the exact moment of the contest’s baroque low-point. The totally vacant defender. The unconscionable gunner, preening and exultant after making a jumper and inconsolable after missing.

More recently, we found him willing the Pacers to victory over the Wolves this preseason, showering his former team with impossibly reclining fades and zero-angle turnarounds. Late October, the final minutes of blowouts, random chunks of early second-quarter: these are Gerald Green’s moments. So it was striking, and a striking testament to Indiana’s lack of backcourt depth, to see Green on the floor preparing to defend in the final seconds of Friday’s tie game. Striking also–but unsurprising to anyone familiar with the above antics–to see how egregiously he lost track of Chase Budinger on that last possession, allowing the Wolves’ guard to stroll unimpeded from the three-point line to the hoop, receive a pass from the well-guarded Andrei Kirilenko and softly lay the ball in as the horn sounded.

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Brick city.

Its a bit embarrassing to look back on what I’ve written on home openers of years past and find an optimism that ended up being thoroughly unwarranted. In those back pages, you’ll find glowing talk of the newfound wing athleticism brought by Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley. You’ll hear about the possibility inherent in the triangle offense and the inevitability of an endless river of Mike Miller threes. So yeah, a little embarrassing. This is partly because new beginnings and the feelings of renewal they bring on and, oh yes, partly because the Wolves open at home against the Sacramento Kings nearly every year. Its enough to stir the optimist in anybody.

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I’ve made the case before that Derrick Williams’ development–either in becoming a consistent three or being traded for one–is essential to the Wolves’ coherence. With a consistent, dynamic wing scorer, the Wolves’ newly acquired white boy stew actually makes sense; without it, the team still feels to me haphazard and misshapen, an oblong collection of Stiemsmas and Shveds and Budingers and Kirilenkos.

I still hold to that notion, but if you want a genuine picture of incoherence, you should try that same collection of players without Kevin Love at its center. Because the Wolves’ lineup that showed up in Chicago on Friday night was about as wayward and rudderless as a team could be. Of course, in terms of sheer gloomy apathy this crew doesn’t hold a candle to last season’s daydreamy Wes Johnson/bored Anthony Randolph nadir. But when it comes to not-an-actual-NBA-team lineup collage, its pretty hard to beat the Wolves’ Barea/Roy/Kirilenko/Cunningham/Stiemsma starting five. Or how about this one: Conroy/Shved/Budinger/Williams/Amundson? I don’t even know what those words mean but those dudes did actually share the floor during Friday night’s third quarter.¬† Anyway.

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