In so many ways, Ricky Rubio’s season debut against Dallas was a mirage. Forget even the idea of someone not named Adrian Peterson performing at an elite level after nearly a year of rehab. Its hard enough to get a surgically repaired knee–and the rest of the body for that matter–to get used to the rigors of the NBA season. From the AP:
Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio will not travel with the team for a two-game road trip to Utah and Denver this week because of back spasms. Rubio missed the game against Phoenix on Saturday after being unable to get his back loosened up. Coach Rick Adelman says the team is just being cautious with Rubio, who is coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee. Rubio has played in five games this season after making his debut in the middle of last month. Adelman thinks some of Rubio’s back issues could be caused by him overcompensating for a knee that has not yet gotten back to full strength. Rubio hopes to be ready to play at home on Saturday against Portland.
As we probably could have expected, this is going to be a long process.
The Wolves covered each pick-and-roll the same way: Alexey Shved sends Harden right, away from the screen and his strong hand. But Shved doesn’t really stick with Harden after Harden refuses the screen, in effect leaving him one-on-one with Kevin Love. Because Shved doesn’t contain the ball, Love has no angle to cut Harden off and twice lets him race past him to his strong left hand for the finish.
I originally wrote that Shved was going over Omer Asik’s screens, but, as Beckley points out, this is incorrect. Instead, the Wolves were “jamming” the action, attempting to prevent Harden from using Asik’s screen, in the process pushing him away from the middle of the floor and toward his off hand.
Before I go on, look at the way that the 2011 Celtics execute this technique. You’ll see that, after jamming the screen, the man guarding the ball stays glued to the hip of the ballhandler, which limits his (the ballhandler’s) driving angles and pushes him into the lap of the sinking big man. When the Celtics execute this really well, as they do in the second instance, with Paul Pierce guarding Danny Granger, they effectively trap the ballhandler down low.
But now look at what happens to Shved. Despite attempting to push Harden away from Asik, he still gets hung up by the screen. So instead of Shved sticking to Harden’s hip and funneling him into the help, Harden is effectively isolated on Kevin Love in the paint, with plenty of space at his disposal. In other words, Love is screwed. There are elite defensive big men who can handle this situation (I’m thinking of Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard at their best), but, needless to say, Love is not among them. Check the vid (both these clips, by the way, come via Hoopspeak):
Love was not at his best defensively on Wednesday, but there is essentially no way, even on his best day, that he could ever handle Harden one-on-one in space. Now, this raises a set of questions that Beckley partially addresses: After being burned twice on this play, why not switch things up–perhaps by forcing Harden to give up the ball by trapping him off the screen, or by switching Love and Kirilenko to allow AK to contain Harden’s penetration?
Well, Adelman clearly believed that both of these options compromised his defense even more than it already was. Trapping Harden opens up the distinct possibility of a wide open jumper by either Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons or Carlos Delfino. As for switching Love and AK: I imagine that, had Adelman put Love on Delfino rather than Asik, the Rockets would simply have run an identical set, except with Delfino rather than Asik setting the screen. This would have created the additional problem of accounting for Delfino on the perimeter as well as the driving Harden. No good options left here besides executing the defense properly. Unfortunately, the Wolves weren’t up to the task.
Its hard to feel something you don’t feel. Your family tries in vain to reinvest old holiday rituals with their primordial emotion. Your band struggles to recapture the magic of a song that once sounded vital. You show up to work and unsuccessfully attempt to force yourself to care. These things happen to us and they happen to basketball players. Part of a professional’s job is forcing the body to expend the effort and forcing the mind to focus even when, as is inevitable, the heart just isn’t in it.
Neither the Rockets nor the Timberwolves were particularly successful at this task on Wednesday night. The Rockets had, just a day earlier, spent massive quantities of energy in burying the Bulls in Chicago; the Wolves merely looked as if they had. Whatever the reason–homesickness maybe, or physical fatigue or too much butter in the mashed potatoes–both teams approached the greater portion of the game with a kind of glassy-eyed, morning-after ennui. Suffice it to say, the basketball on display was neither precise nor particularly spirited.
LeBron James seems to spend entire quarters of basketball simply haunting the game’s periphery. He fades into the mesh of his team, defers to his teammates, takes only the opportunities that present themselves. Bt he doesn’t disappear, as some have claimed; he looms like some awful force rising in the distance. When you play the Heat, there’s always the possibility, as both Boston and Oklahoma City discovered last spring, of LBJ stepping out of the shadows and crushing you where you stand.
It gets worse. It turns out that even when LeBron seems to be peripheral–as in the first half of tonight’s game, when Dwyane Wade spun and sliced his way to 18 points on 12 shots–he is still exerting subtle control over the game’s narrative. There are only a few moments of LeBron’s performance against the Wolves that really stand out–hitting that string of third quarter threes or finishing that nasty half-court alley-oop from Ray Allen. And yet: 22 points; 11 assists; seven tough boards; four blocks. Yes, this is the best basketball player in the world.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.
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.
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.