With Hockey Day in full effect on Saturday, it left the local channels blistering with high school, college and professional hockey games while anyone hoping to catch a Timberwolves game against the 76ers with a poorly cropped, low definition broadcast from the Philly side of the telecast world.
It shocks me when there are professional basketball games in 2011 not being broadcasted in high definition. While I realize this is a first world problem, it was sort of symbolic of the effort I saw from the Wolves as my eyes bled the unknown pain of basketball viewing from a decade ago.
It’s hard to fault Corey Brewer for Kevin Durant’s utterly gonzo 47-point, 18-rebound spectacularium on Wednesday. Brewer ardently chased Durant all over the floor, worming his way around countless screens, recovering quickly to challenge every last shot. But Durant is a phenomenon. He plays a classic shooter’s game, running the baseline, curling off of screens, dropping subtle jab steps and hesitations, raising the ball above his head and calmly flicking his wrist with such miraculous economy that the movement itself is almost impossible to perceive. This would be an apt description of vintage Rip Hamilton except that Rip Hamilton is not 6’9″ with tentacles for arms (and he never was much of a three-point shooter). Brewer was the Wolves best defensive option against KD, and he never had a chance.
Corey’s admirable defensive effort was largely typical of the Wolves’ in this game, as was his solid shooting and tenacity on the boards. Unfortunately, Brewer’s game was typical in other ways too. Along with all of the great and surprising things the Wolves did came some devastating mistakes, some glaring and some subtle.
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.
This is one of those times I wish we were the Knicks. Not for their world renowned Garden, rabidly entitled fan base or sensationalistic coverage, but for Clyde Frazier. Only his effortless effervescence could adequately capture the highs and lows of the Wolves recent play. Not that I’m unappreciative of our man Jim Petersen, who does a swell job in his stead, but Jim specializes in good ‘ol fashioned straight talk. We need a man like that. However, there’s also times we need to just chill and no one does chill like Clyde.
Luke Ridnour is far from a swirling dervish. There’s no wheeling and dealing, nor will his ubiquity leave anyone reeling. In fact, he’s perfectly average in every way. But he may be the most important player on this team. He doesn’t inhale rebounds like Kevin Love or have Beasleyesque scoring binges, however he’s the only Wolf who can provide some semblance of order amidst the chaos that is our offense. Occasionally I’ll check out the visiting locker room for a peek at the game plan on their whiteboard. Oftentimes, I can’t make much sense of the diagrams or terminology, but tonight I had no such problems. Numero uno, in bright red ink was “1st option=Dead”.
Apparently the Wolves got some of that much needed composure for Christmas. Either that or they should’ve asked the schedule makers for more games against the Cavs.
Of course this game started off as any other; Luke Ridnour continually sagged off of three point shooters, Michael Beasley mistook activity for achievement and a collective ineptitude was displayed in defending any Cavs possession that required more than one pass. Add these troubles to Kevin Love being lost amidst the forest that is Anderson Varejao’s unkempt mane and our boys were off to an early deficit which presumably would lead to their latest loss away from Target Center. Seventeen first quarter points certainly didn’t seem like the sign of good things to come.
“Obviously,” said Kurt Rambis after this harsh game, “what plagues us as a ballclub is our composure in late game situations.” That it is indeed obvious makes the point no less salient and no less worth repeating. The Wolves are glaringly young and inexperienced; this resonates through nearly every game that the team has played this year. In past seasons, the Wolves were defined by a simple, bitter fact: they were much less talented than nearly every other team. Watching those teams play, one was rarely tempted into false optimism; the crushing runs just seemed inevitable.
But that’s not quite the case this year. I’m guessing no one would look at this team’s roster and confuse them with the Miami Heat, but this season the Wolves are able to do many of the things that actual basketball teams do: they build leads; they make runs; they pose matchup problems; they manage to entertainingly compete with other basketball teams. What aggravates is the way the small but glaring mistakes accrue throughout a game, taking on a sinister collective weight as the Wolves inch closer to another single digit loss.
Playing point guard in the NBA is hard. Each possession in a professional game is a fluid landscape, a field of constant, seemingly chaotic motion. Good point guards nearly instantaneously perceive patterns in that chaos and respond with decisive movements of their own, movements intended to complete the pattern, to give final meaning and shape to all that motion. This requires, obviously, outrageous skill and quickness, but also a capacity for a holistic, practically sub-cellular physical decision-making and creativity.
Kevin Durant’s arms are long. Comically long. No chest, no rib cage, just the gangly, awkward frame befitting a Tim Burton character. All arms. Upon taking the court amongst the chiseled chests and sculpted shoulders of his teammates, an uninformed observer would rightfully presume KD to be the team’s weakest link. “Look at him!” they’d exclaim, “It’s a wonder he can even move without tripping over himself!” Much laughter and mocking would ensue.
This of course would also be the scene where Kevin reveals the talent belied by his physique, carving masterpieces of the competition with an unnatural grace and precision. He’d score in bunches. He’d score from the perimeter, driving to the basket, from the line, fading away and on the occasional slam just for good measure. Having converted his tormentors, their mouths agape in awe, Durant would saunter out of the arena with the same humility with which he arrived, arms dragging behind him all the way.
The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced the team has waived guard Maurice Ager. Ager appeared in four games for the Wolves this season, averaging 3.8 points in 7.3 minutes. He was originally signed by the Wolves as a free agent on Sept. 24, 2010.
This is probably for the best. Ager seems like a good guy but he was in over his head. Seems like a prime candidate for some quality D-League burn. It’s not clear whether this means that Luke Ridnour will play this evening against New York, or that Sebastian Telfair will be flying solo, or that the Wolves are on the verge of signing one of the other point guards they worked out this week. If they go the latter route, my vote is for Sundiata Gaines, for no other reason than this awesome moment (sorry about the excess Reggie Miller):
Update: Gaines it is:
The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced the team has signed free-agent guard Sundiata Gaines. To make room on the roster, the Wolves last night requested waivers on guard Maurice Ager.
Gaines, a 6-1 point guard, appeared in 32 games for the Utah Jazz in 2009-10, averaging 3.3 points and 1.2 assists in 6.8 minutes per game. He is probably best known for hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Jazz a 97-96 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 14, 2010. It was the first NBA three-pointer of his career. Gaines also appeared in five playoff games with Utah in 2010, averaging 2.2 ppg.
Say these words out loud: “the Wolves are 3-0 in the preseason.” What enters your mind? Do you maybe sense a faint welling of hope in your heart? Do you give a weary little chuckle, telling yourself, “hey relax bro, I’ve heard that song before”? Are you perhaps reminded again of the inherent emptiness of all language? Coach Kurt Rambis, can you help us out?
“It means at some point it won’t mean anything.”
This isn’t working. Left to our own devices again. (That is an actual quote, by the way). Here are some things we can say:
Defend Brooklyn (Park, I mean Center)
It’s been observed by many that the Wolves are already more competitive defensively this pre-season than at any point last year. Many will tempt you to ascribe this to some kind of moral renewal, an inherent spiritual superiority over last year’s lackluster squad. I’m here to tell you not to give in to that temptation. Do you really think that Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Damien Wilkins and the rest didn’t want to compete, that they just weren’t trying hard enough? Nope, not true. The difference is that these players are, as a group, simply quicker, more explosive, more energetic than last year’s crew.
Try this on. A Wolves second unit in the fall of ’09 may have looked something like this: Sessions, Wilkins, Ryan Hollins, Sasha Pavlovic, Kevin Love. On Tuesday it was more like: Luke Ridnour, Martell Webster, Wes Johnson, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Tolliver. See, not everything is getting worse.
No matter the cause, against Denver there were long stretches of sustained, aware, active, NBA-ish defense. Big guys protected the rim. Players rotated to open shooters. They got their hands in passing lanes. They helped each other out. Did it help that for much of the game the Nugs trotted out Shelden Williams, Gary Powers and Eric Boateng? Yes it did.
While we’re discussing the topic of the newfound spring in the Wolves’ step, the team also looked much more comfortable and fluid in the open floor. Part of this has to do with the aforementioned influx of length and quickness. Part of this was that (tentatively, hopefully) revitalized defense. But part of this was also the presence of one Luke Ridnour.
Now, I remain skeptical of the de-facto exchange of Ridnour for Sessions. But Ridnour–who is very pale and very thin and yet has a lively little bounce to his step–seemed wholly fluent in the offense, comfortable and poised in the open court, willing to attack the defense as a means of opening up passing lanes (rather than, say, blindly and recklessly). Which reminds me: Jonny Flynn hasn’t even set foot on the court yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Against Denver, Beasley improved somewhat on his poor shooting night against New York, but a lot of that inconsistency was still in effect. He did manage to attack the basket from time to time, putting the defense on its heals and drawing contact. But he also spent some time eased back into the driveway mode that Pruiti leans on him for: the ball-stopping, contested flat-footed jumpers; the carelessness with the ball; the fading, off-balance shots.
Beasley, as has been oft-noted, is goofy. He likes a good laugh. He likes to shoot half-court shots during warm-ups. He likes to yell at the Gremlins on the rim when he misses. Does this mean that he’s destined to hoist up the occasional wrong-footed, floating behind the backboard jumper with 18 seconds left on the shot clock? I don’t know, it might.
Hey, Zach Harper, I think its time for a new bees-related Michael Beasley video. How about this one?
We may be through with ’80’s (and early-mid-’90’s) hip-hop, but it is not through with us.