Friends, the longest night of the year has come and gone. The lockout is now, miraculously, a bitter memory. Ricky Rubio, Rick Adelman, Derrick Williams, the svelte, newly athletic Kevin Love and all of the rest of your Wolves will soon take the floor for an actual, certified NBA game. So how’s this gonna go? This year’s Wolves are a strange amalgamation of moving parts and oddly shaped puzzle pieces. Although we’re hopeful that something new and great is about to begin, there are still scads of unanswered questions hanging in the air. Zach, Myles and I have no better idea than the rest of you how this will all play out, but here’s our best shot untangling some of the riddles that will inform the Wolves’ season. All that’s left to do is play basketball. Read on…
Archives For Darko Milicic
Now that the first two weeks of the NBA regular season have been cancelled, we can get back to focusing on what we’re all really here for: videos for black metal bands with only a coincidental relationship to basketball; recaps of ten-year-old playoff games; dispatches from the front lines of Kevin Love’s beach volleyball career. Oh, and obviously updates on the status of our Wolves on #NBARank.
Well, spots 250-300 certainly do make strange bedfellows. And I do appreciate the Mellvillian mental image of Anthony Tolliver (#289, 3.4/10) and Darko Milicic (#256, 3.76/10) sharing a nice wooden bed (in an old Nantucket Inn, while the cold rain beats down outside). Darko does bear a certain resemblance to old Ishmael: he’s a born ruminator, a fellow who just might find himself “involuntarily passing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral,” who just might have to restrain himself from “deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off,” who is a mystery to himself, who seems permanently lost at sea.
But although Darko’s astonishing natural gifts might seem to have blessed him with some kind of divine chosen-ness, his passion for basketball is no match for Ishmael’s obsession with The Whale. Watching close to 100 of Darko’s games in the past year, both of these qualities have been pretty easy to see. (Take a look at that crew of players between 250 and 300. The only players even approaching Darko’s talent level are Yi Jianlian, Jonny Flynn and Michael Redd. That’s sad company.) He is well over seven feet tall; he has supple feet; he handles the ball with rare ease. Unfortunately, he also seems intimidated by his own gifts and desperately afraid to succeed. We’ve seen too many dunks turned into layups, too many blown three foot jump hooks, too many looks of resigned relief as he settles down own the bench to believe otherwise. I’ve said it before: playing with Rick Adelman, a coach who loves those skilled, finesse Euro big men, seems like Darko’s last chance.
Anthony Tolliver might be the flip side of Darko’s cursed dubloon. Too small to be a four, not quick enough to be a three, he yet managed to score efficiently (58.6% True Shooting) and make the Wolves nearly four points per 100 possession better on defense. He rotates hard; he challenges shooters; he attacks the glass; he’s got a nice little jumper. (He is clearly the harpooner on the Wolves’ doomed vessel–um sorry, are you tired of this yet?) The contrast with Darko could not be more stark: Anthony Tolliver obviously loves to play basketball.
There are days when it’s really difficult to be a Timberwolves’ fan. The season is grows long. The weather changes in strange ways. The accumulated disappointments and tiny humiliations, the constant losses begin to take their toll. Did you know that Rudy Gay was drafted just after Randy Foye? Did you know that Deandre Jordan was drafted in the second round, three spots after Nikola Pekovic and one spot after Mario Chalmers, whom the Wolves traded away for basically nothing?
Did you know that the Wolves’ last three lottery picks are now, in no particular order: playing on another continent; missing 21 out of their last 25 shots (and looking terrible doing it); “resting”? That the Clippers had lost consecutive games to Cleveland, Toronto and Milwaukee, allowing two of the three to shoot over 50%? And that the Wolves managed just a gnarly 35.4% against that same crew of Clips? Well it’s all true.
It’s funny how the schedule works out sometimes. Kevin Love has been engaged in a heated battle with LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin for the past month over an All-Star spot. Now that he’s been named to the team, he has to face them both before Sunday’s festivities. How’s that for congratulations?
Well, let’s ask LaMarcus…
“First of all, I have nothing against Kevin Love, he is a really good player. But I thought All-Star was about making your team better, making your record better. But now I know: It’s about stats, not record.”
How’s that for passive aggressiveness? It’s disappointing that his ire wasn’t directed towards Tim Duncan, an actual undeserved candidate, but then again, his bewilderment with Kevin’s selection was equally understandable on this night. Not only did the Love and the Wolves starters go scoreless for the first eight minutes of the contest, LaMarcus nearly outscored our entire team in a first quarter where we could only muster 14 points to his 11.
On Friday, in my conversation with Sam of Raptors Republic, I said this about our Wolves: “they are grotesquely inconsistent when it comes to playing team defense, sustaining the kind of effort, awareness and concentration that a team needs to compete…the Raptors were worse than terrible in [the last] game; the Wolves are more than capable of returning the favor.” God, did that ever turn out to be true.
Well there’s very little to say about this game. The Timberwolves just did that thing that teams do from time to time: without warning or explanation, come out of the tunnel and play terrible, listless basketball. When great teams do it, they can struggle against even mediocre opposition. When the Wolves do it, they get killed by everybody. Still, there are some analytical crags to cling to. Let’s give it a try.
Andrei Kirilenko is really a strange looking dude. He wears his baggy shorts very high on an already high waist. His long hair is about as thin and whispy as human hair can be. Its lighter than air; it seems to just float around his long face. And that face! That face is like a caricature of a face.
Most importantly for our purposes are the arms. AK’s preposterously long arms appear to have been grafted onto his body, an ill-fitting gift from the robot/aliens hovering above us. For a man like this, with this kind of willowy, yet angular, almost synthetic body, and with his great instinct for the ball, playing the Timberwolves must seem like the greatest gift of all.
The first half of Saturday night’s game was among the best that the Wolves have played all season. They hit open jumpers. They forced Dwight Howard to put in real work for his points. Luke Ridnour found open space in the paint, hitting Darko Milicic with two sweet pick-and-roll passes for wide open dunks. Corey Brewer drove Hedo Turkoglu to distraction with his relentless, ball-denying defense and burned the aging Turk with two back door alley-oops. Kevin Love reeled in 11 hard-earned boards.
But if you paid attention, the bad omens were in the air. Stan van Gundy made a series of moves to match Ryan Anderson, the three-point gunning power forward, with Love. This forced Love to chase Anderson around the perimeter, to fight his way around screens, to recover from inside help to contest Anderson’s long-range shots. And although Love himself presents this same problem to many opposing fours, perimeter defense is perhaps his weakest defensive skill (which is certainly saying something). What’s more, all of this perimeter work pulled Love away from the basket, neutralizing some of his rebounding fervor.
When you’re surrounded, as I am at Wolves games, by two deadly smart, upper-echelon talkers, conversation tends to wander. At issue during Thursday night’s languid first half was the Cosby Show and it’s depiction of the African-American experience. Were Cliff and his brood a triumph of aspirational representation, a giant step forward from J.J. Walker’s grinning minstrelsy? Or were they a simple reflection of a naively “post-racial” liberal imagination, whistling around the complicated truths of blackness in America? Or both? And anyway why is it the job of every black cultural product to portray the full, complicated spectrum of the African-American experience? And isn’t this asking an awful lot of a sitcom?
Now I love those Huxtables dearly, but what has always gotten under my skin about the show is its eagerness to conform with the sterile, bourgeois fantasies of American success: appropriately upper-middle class professions; kids so charming they’ll hurt your teeth; serious property ownership; more late Louis Armstrong than Ornette Coleman. Again, asking a lot of a sitcom.
It’s just that I happen to prefer Ornette Coleman. And when it comes to the NBA, we can find the Huxtables’ ethos of vanilla success in the competent, businesslike way that the most powerful teams conduct their affairs–and the way the less powerful, but generally more interesting teams tend to aspire to that same bland ethos.
Well this game was just a hot mess. On display here were two bad basketball teams playing some unintuitive, unlovely, awfully bad basketball. The Wolves missed more than a third of their free throws. They turned the ball over in crucial situations. Their first half was a listless fiasco. I’ll allow Kurt Rambis to continue: “their bench killed us, our defense was sub-par tonight and our effort was…nonexistent for the vast majority of the ballgame.” All true.
And yet, thanks to the fact that the Bobcast are a decimated wreck of a club, the Wolves by all rights should still have won this game. The entirety of the third quarter was a 30-14 Wolves run. They were up by eight points with just under three minutes remaining and up five points at the 1:48 mark. How did this come to such a depressing end? Well, that’s actually a hard question to answer. There’s no focal point of blame for this game; things went wrong in diffuse, ever-shifting waves. Let me try to catch a few: