Archives For J.J. Barea

Game recognize game.

Did you happen to catch the shot of Ahmad Rashad and Michael “Air” Jordan wallowing away in MJ’s shadowy luxury suite? Here were greatest basketball player ever, captain of dynasties, phantasmagorically wealthy man and his best cigar buddy surveying the team he (MJ) owns and the players he attempted to screw to the wall just over a year ago–in what appeared to be wordless, abject boredom. Is this a product of Jordan’s legendarily psychotic vainglory gone to seed? Maybe the resentment inherent to graceless old age, the misery of being forced to watch young fellas many times your inferior playing the game you once dominated? Or maybe that’s just what it feels like to be the ruthlessly competitive owner of the NBA’s worst squad.

Because that’s what these Bobcats are. Coming into tonight’s game against the Wolves, they had lost 16 consecutive home games. They barely edge out the Wizards for the NBA’s worst record (and unlike the Wizards, have not won seven of their last 10 games). They are third worst in the league in offensive efficiency and are tied for last in defensive efficiency. This is a very bad team.

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Here’s Rick Adelman lamenting the Wolves’ effort against Portland last night: “I just hope this game taught our guys a lesson, because for the first three quarters we hung our heads, we didn’t make shots, we didn’t compete like we have to compete.” On the face of things, even through the first three quarters, this game appeared relatively even. Both teams shot poorly overall, the Blazers just a few percentage points better than the Wolves (indeed the Wolves made one more field goal than Portland on the game). The Wolves out-rebounded the Blazers by a significant margin and played solid on-the-ball defense. Free throws were roughly even; turnovers were even.

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Yesterday, Kirk Goldsberry wrote an interesting post for Grantland about the Kobe Assist. I recommend reading it yourself, but the gist of the Kobe Assist is the idea that not all shot attempts are created equal. Some (specifically, those that Kobe takes from close to the basket) are very nearly assists because the way the Lakers play means that an astonishing 52% of his misses turn into offensive rebounds, and 32% of them are immediate putbacks. This means that 73% of Bryant’s close-range shots turn into points for the Lakers.

This, of course, immediately made me think of J.J. Barea. Looking at shot attempts through the lens of the Kobe Assist could finally help me make sense of why Barea’s play can be so often frustrating.
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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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Minnesota sports fandom entails a kind of perpetual anxiety. We worry that the rest of the country will see us as quaint or provincial, not to be taken seriously. We lost the Lakers and the Stars to more temperate climes. Our football and baseball teams, both collegiate and professional, toiled away for decades in a concrete, plastic and teflon model home, a cut-rate interpretation of some Carter-era child’s sci-fi fantasies. Gopher football has been an en-domed joke, prey to decades of charlatans, incompetents and opportunists. The Twins are called the Twins. None of this helps.

The Wolves have been the worst, though, wandering through most of their existence in a state of dorky, benighted ineptitude. Consider: their expansionary brothers, the Orlando Magic, made their first Finals before the Wolves could boast of even one All-Star; the Wolves forfeited years of draft picks in a harebrained scheme to sign Joe Smith; in order to salvage a draft pick they lost in their undying quest for Marko Jaric, they tanked a game in the most horrifically obvious way possible; you don’t really need me to go on do you?

But in the years since the Kevin Garnett trade (oh sorry, there’s another one), this anxiety congealed into something more existentially dreadful.  These Wolves’ rosters were so haphazard, their coaching so misguided, their play so callow and inelegant and futile–they were, in short, so embarrassingly bad–that we wondered whether what we were watching was actual NBA basketball at all. The anger that we have all often expressed at Kevin McHale, David Kahn, Glen Taylor and Kurt Rambis is, if you ask me, actually an expression of a deep fear, the fear that we might have invested ourselves in a doomed enterprise.

Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio’s greatest gift to their fans may have been simply restoring a sense of competitiveness and seriousness, of basic competence, to the proceedings; the fans responded to these gifts with fairly undiluted euphoria.  All of which made the team’s catastrophic unraveling at season’s end even more disheartening.

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As I was, as you were, J.J. Barea was mightily displeased by his teammates’ second-half effort last night. Here is what he told reporters after the game (via Tom Powers at the Pioneer Press):

We’ve got problems here. We just got a lot of guys that don’t care. When a basketball team got a bunch of players that don’t care, it’s tough to win games. It’s going to happen until we get players in that care: care about winning, care about the team, care about the fans…

I’ve been noticing it. But today you can really notice it. It was a brutal second half. Nobody fighting, nobody getting mad at nobody. After a game like that you got to have problems. You got to argue with your teammates. But nobody cares so we’ve got to change that.

I have three thoughts about this. First: I’m guessing that this is probably the kind of talk that prompted Kevin Love to get all up in J.J.’s grill during their loss to the Kings.

Second: he’s totally right and you can’t really blame him for being frustrated. And it takes some real ballz to essentially call out loud for the dismissal of dudes who are literally sitting feet away from you at that very moment. You have to kind of admire that.

Third: I wonder who he’s talking about. Michael Beasley’s vacant performances seem to me less about a lack of caring and more about his flaky personality. It just seems really hard for the guy to find focus and absorption in what he’s doing. Anthony Randolph seems to possess some of Darko’s melancholia: when things aren’t going well his shoulders slump, he wanders around like a lost child, he looks sad in the face. And Wes Johnson? Wes just seems happy to be there. Suffice it to say, none of the above qualities make for terribly competitive basketball players.

I like to talk about how a game’s unfolding–its ebbs and flows, the processes that shape its outcome, the feeling and texture of the performances–are more interesting to me, and ultimately more important than its final result. And I’ll stick to that assertion. Nevertheless, and despite any pretensions to journalistic professionalism (which, not too many)  I will admit this: I really want the Wolves to win.

I desperately, nauseously wanted them to win when KG was hammering away at the Lakers and Kings. I wanted them to win when they were slouching toward the lottery under Wittman, McHale and Rambis, draft positioning be damned. I wanted them to win when Rubio and Love were lighting hearts on fire. And although there’s supposedly nothing to play for at the moment, although the Wolves are fielding a raggedy crew of misfits and loners, many of whom likely won’t wear a Wolves uniform again after Thursday, I still want them to win now.

And so despite it all, despite the fact that I’m a grown man watching a bunch of young dudes play a game on TV, watching the Wolves, for the second time in a month, fritter away a 20-point lead to the grievously undermanned Golden State Warriors, I found myself: groaning, sighing, clasping my face in my hands, noticing feelings of dread rise in my gut. I don’t care that it was the penultimate game of a long-destroyed season; it still felt terrible.

They lost this game because they simply could not score in the second half. (20 points in the third quarter, 13 in the fourth, 25% shooting for the half: that’s about as close to zero as it gets in the NBA.) You can expect that a team that boasts Klay Thompson, Brandon Rush and Charles Jenkins (who is shooting 32.9% over the past 10 games but is evidently the greatest point guard in the NBA when he is being guarded by J.J. Barea) will begin hitting shots at some point in a game. But the Warriors employed what is now a familiar late-game defensive strategy against our Love-less Wolves: choke the Barea/Pekovic pick-and-roll by exaggeratedly sagging into the paint (in the process deterring people like Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph from getting to the rim); wait for the Wolves to start taking and missing outside shots. Full stop.

But I don’t want to burden you with gory details. We all know this crew is capable of some truly ungodly basketball. Let’s talk about the elements of this game that bear some relevance to the Wolves’ future.

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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.

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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.

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