What was a foregone conclusion is now an actual mathematical reality: the Timberwolves are not going to make the playoffs this year. From where we sit now–after this catastrophic run of injuries, after this recent spate of rotten, dispirited performances–it’s hard to believe that this was even a thing, that the Wolves very briefly sat in the Western Conference’s 8th spot, emanating gallons of positive vibes in the process. The truth is that by now we shouldn’t even be disappointed; we knew this was coming from the moment Ricky Rubio took that awkward, unfortunate step while attempting to double-team Kobe Bryant. It’s fine, really.
Well this was surely one of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. It has been a little bit horrifying to see how, during this rough April, the Wolves have slowly morphed into a pre-Adelman version of their defensive selves. The first half of tonight’s game was easily the apex of that nauseating transformation. Like the Rambis-era Wolves, this crew has showed execrable perimeter defense. Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Andre Miller, Danilo Gallinari…and really whoever else felt like penetrating the Wolves’ defense in the first half was more than free to do so.
Almost worse than that, though, and possibly even more redolent of their old selves, has been the team’s incompetence away from the ball. When, in a given defensive possession, the time comes to negotiate an off-the-ball screen, or make a decisive rotation, or give weakside help, the Wolves have reacted indecisively–and defensive indecision is an excellent way to give up points again and again. It was not so much a matter of lack of effort–although the Wolves’ first half was not exactly a paragon of energetic basketball–as of lack of awareness and anticipation.
In case you wanted to know almost everything I think about Kevin Love, here it is all spelled out in today’s Truehoop. This here’s the gist:
We’re all enchanted by the mythology of the high-volume scorer. We love to see players enter that altered state of consciousness in which the game is reduced to the simplicity of an attacker, his defender and the dance the two of them perform together. But Kevin Love — the superstar role player, the sweet-shooting banger — complicates this mythology. A great portion of his charm and effectiveness lies in the contradictions and dissonances in his game, the strange, unprecedented way he plays. Do we really want him to accede to the conventions of superstardom? Do we lose something essential when a measure of that offbeat magic is drained away?
In case you wanted to know what I think about “Brand New Love” by Sebadoh, I really like it.
Sometimes you lose because the other team is bigger or more talented. Sometimes you lose because your opponent is raining threes, as if some spectral force were at work. And sometimes you lose simply because your opponent plays more energetically than you did; there are scores of games like this every year. Particularly in this sprint/marathon of a season, there will be games in which neither team shoots the ball particularly well or executes their offense with any particular aplomb. In those games, the team that most effectively wills its dead legs to move probably wins.
Tuesday night’s game was like that–and if you had any doubt of this just check out the two teams’ combined 9-40 three-point shooting. With Marc Gasol sitting in a chair, wearing an ankle boot to match his large man’s suit, and with Zach Randolph still convalescing (albeit on the court), the Grizzlies did not present the Wolves with their typical matchup nightmare. And the Wolves certainly had their vibrant moments–their Love-fueled 20-6 third-quarter run, for instance. But for crucial stretches of the game, the Grizzlies simply played with more energy and verve, particularly on defense and in transition. They ran the floor; they swarmed defensively. In other words, the Grizzlies were the better team.
The Timberwolves are professional basketball players; moving on from tough losses is part of the job. The Wolves have four games in the next five days, two of them on the road, three of them against probable playoff teams. They’ll just have to figure it out. Still, its hard for me to imagine how they’ll manage to put this one behind them.
There is the obvious heartbreak of losing despite Kevin Love’s touched performance. There is the reality that four players played at least 44 minutes in a draining, fiercely competitive double-overtime game. And then there is the rather nauseating thought that if the Wolves had made a single play in the last 46 seconds of overtime, they would have won. If they could have rebounded James Harden’s three point miss; if they could have prevented Russ Westbrook from hitting that impossible midrange floater; if Love had not been called for that travel (which call, given the game’s intensity, the paucity of whistles in its last minutes and the relative insignificance of the little foot-shuffle, seems a little petty to me); if Love had switched harder onto Kevin Durant on that tying three; if J.J. Barea had hit that pristinely wide-open jumper at the buzzer…I don’t even want to get into Anthony Tolliver missing that uncontested doorstep layin, down by three with three minutes left in the second overtime. Anybody feel like playing another basketball game against another good team on Sunday?
When the Spurs ground the Wolves into little dusty pieces on Wednesday, I was disappointed but not surprised. The Wolves looked every inch the team laboring through an epic mid-season road trip, missing their starting point guard, starting center and best wing scorer; the Spurs crushed them with superior talent, energy and savvy. Truth be told, I was expecting the same thing on Friday against the Thunder. There was, it seemed to me, very little chance that this undermanned, road-weary crew could make a game of it on the road against the best team in the Western Conference.
And sure enough, there were moments in which the Wolves looked like just another version of their bad, old selves. They were shredded by opposing guards; they made absurd defensive mistakes (ah, two straight goaltends on Kendrick Perkins shots that had very little chance of going in?); during one incredibly annoying stretch of third-quarter, they took, and missed, five consecutive hurried threes. Also, though, they scored 140 points, put on one of the most inspiring displays of resolve and endurance I’ve seen in a while and maybe ought to have won the game. Did I mention how incredibly intense and exciting and exhausting this game was? I’ll have more on this tomorrow when I’m less wiped out, but for now enjoy some grades.
The cruelties of the NBA schedule are beginning to catch up to the Wolves. To begin with, they are wading through the mire of a seven-game road trip, one that seems to grow more punishing as it goes on and that includes games against the three best teams in the Western Conference. Trips like this are almost an inevitability in a season as surreal as this one. Perhaps no less inevitable is the idea that players’ bodies will begin to break down as the year wears on. Sure enough, the Wolves have fallen victim to that one too.
During this evening’s game in Sacramento, a nightmarish idea started playing through my head: that without Rubio and the suddenly emergent Nikola Pekovic, and with J.J. Barea and Michael Beasley knackered with nagging injuries, the Wolves begin more and more to resemble the team of the past two seasons. That’s a paranoid thought for sure; I’m guessing that Rick Adelman and superstar-mode Kevin Love will have something to say before that happens. Paranoid, too, because every team plays games in which their attention and energies slacken. Nevertheless, for a few reasons, this 16-point loss to the Kings brought back some awful memories.
Everybody loves March Madness and you can hardly blame them. The frantic, frayed late-game possessions; the mad, ten-man scrambles for rebounds and loose balls; the blood-thinning, oxygen starved comebacks; kids holding hands; grown men shedding tears: this stuff is truly compelling. But I will tell you now that I’m perfectly content sticking with the NBA, even as the tournament rages on.
For one thing, the players are better at basketball and I really appreciate that. But for another, even your average NBA game carries a certain narrative richness, a structural depth that the college game really can’t match. Matchups evolve over the long course of the game. Players surge and regress. Momentum wavers and shifts many times over.
Take, for example, this game here between the Wolves and the Jazz. There were at least three moments in the game when it seemed that the Wolves were poised to overtake Utah and make a significant run. And there were at least as many when it seemed that the Jazz had the Wolves buried. Wes Johnson went cold and then got hot. Nik Pekovic smashed, disappeared and then returned to smash again. The Wolves went through phases worthy, in their brevity and extremity, of a hormone-addled 15-year-old boy. First they couldn’t seem to cross half-court; then they couldn’t miss a shot; then they couldn’t manage an entry pass, despite many tries at it. Effing madness.
The NBA trade deadline has come and gone and the Wolves roster looks exactly the same as it did when we woke up this morning. The juiciest rumor had been a proposed three-team deal between the Lakers, Blazers and Wolves that would have sent Michael Beasley to L.A., Luke Ridnour to Portland (along with Steve Blake and LA’s first-rounder) and netted Jamal Crawford for the Wolves. But when we saw that the Lakers had used their picks to score Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill, we had to know that the deal had to be dead.
Now, there’s no question that it might have been nice to see the Wolves improve the roster or net a pick by moving Beasley rather than allowing him to become a restricted free-agent this summer. And it would also have been nice to land Crawford, upgrading their offensive production at the two-guard. But to my mind, the price of that deal was a little high. First of all, while Beasley alone for Crawford might not have a been an exactly equal deal for Portland, Beasley and Ridnour together seems a bit much. Ridnour has actually been a more efficient, though considerably lower-volume, scorer than Crawford over the past three seasons. He’s also a much better passer and defender, even when giving up multiple inches at the two.
Given that the Wolves claim to be pursuing a playoff spot this season, a starting backcourt of J.J. Barea and Jamal Crawford seems to be conspicuously lacking in an actual playmaker, someone who can consistently serve the ball to Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. And even if it was a Crawford/Rubio pairing the Wolves were ultimately after, Crawford has an opt-out clause in his contract for next season. In other words, the Wolves would have been trading their only healthy true point guard for a high-volume gunner who wasn’t even guaranteed to be around past July. Seems like they lucked out to me.
Ricky, we already miss you. Its hard to tell if Saturday’s performance against the Hornets was simply the product of an emotional hangover or if its simply what we can expect from the post-Ricky Wolves. Either way, it was an unlovely melange of poor shot selection, stagnant ball-movement and listless, unaware defense. As Rick Adelman put it afterwards, (via Kent Youngblood at the Strib) “I thought maybe it was the worst game in a long time defensively for us. No communication, ball-watching, not playing as a team.” True that.
It’s an ominous moment for your Timberwolves. Rick Adelman’s arrival notwithstanding, it often seemed that the only thing standing between this year’s Wolves and the gauzy nightmare of the Wittman/McHale/Rambis era was the floppy-haired Catalan hope machine. Without him, things feel a little scary.
By way of providing solace, Truehoop points out that, despite the surplus of charming smiles, warm feelings and ecstatic moments, Rubio had hardly transformed the Wolves into a titan of offensive efficiency. Last season, the Wolves scored 101.1 points per 100 possessions, this year they’re scoring 101.5 pts/100. Because of this season’s league-wide, lockout-induced offensive tumble, that number is good for 14th in the NBA, but the point remains. What’s more, according to 82games, the Wolves offense was exactly as efficient with him on the floor as off. On the other hand, it seemed clear on Saturday that without Rubio’s probing ballhandling and preternatural vision, there were fewer open shooters, fewer rhythmic spot up jumpers.
On the other other hand, as we’ve already discussed, Rubio was probably even more integral to the Wolves’ defensive renewal. The team was 3.3 points/100 possessions better defensively when he was on the floor this season. The lack of Ricky’s ability to create turnovers, disrupt the pick-and-roll game and conjure frenzied defensive energy was painfully evident against New Orleans.
So how does this affect the Wolves’ decision-making moving forward? Well, as Jerry Zgoda pointed out to ESPN, this probably means the team won’t be looking to move Luke Ridnour, the only Wolf left with any natural-born ball-distribution skills, not to mention their best perimeter scorer, any time soon. And most observers seem to agree that, short of possibly moving Mike Beasley for a draft-pick (would any vampires in the audience care to glamour the Nets into parting with their first-round pick?), the Wolves are best served by standing pat. After all, their long-term needs are still most glaringly at shooting guard and in the middle. Here’s how Zach put it in his most recent 5-on-5 appearance:
I’ll say no move for the backcourt is necessary right now. Ridnour has been one of the more unheralded role players this season and is capable of keeping Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love scoring at high clips. The key will be getting Barea healthy and seeing if Malcolm Lee can provide a spark. Now, if they want to go after Pau Gasol to add elite size, that’s a much better plan to me.
Which, yes, agreed. But can you see any combination of Timberwolves short of Kevin Love or Ricky himself that could entice the Lakers into moving Gasol? Well I can’t.
After all, Rubio’s most significant contribution, as attested to by the recent outpouring of Twitter love, was spiritual. And it was that loss–the way he made us feel, the way he inspired his teammates to play–that was felt most acutely on Saturday.