Timberwolves succumb to Billups, Nuggets
Saturday night brought us the Denver Nuggets and Lord Chauncey Billups (seen above, in a nice t-shirt), yet another reminder of the Wolves' painful recent past. There are lots of imaginary scenarios that, as a Wolves fan, are masochistically fun to conjure--my current fave is a core of Danny Granger, Kevin Garnett and Brandon Roy: doesn't that taste nice?--but lets remember that Chauncey was actually on the team from 2000 to 2003. He played well for us, too, before we made known our preference for Troy Hudson and let Chauncey walk away to become an All-Star and the Finals MVP and...anyway.
Nuggets of Wisdom
Billups displays that very NBA combination of patience and aggression; he uses his poise and skill to slow the game, allowing his teammates to find a rhythm, rarely forcing his own offense. But when opportunities do arise, he relentlessly attacks the defense. This selective, cool-headed aggression was very much in evidence against Minnesota as Billups dropped a shockingly efficient 27 points on 6-9 shooting (he was 12-12 from the free-throw line) in just over 25 minutes. The Nuggets are just now sobering up from their Iverson-fueled lost weekend, a hallucinatory carnival of full-court passes, conscience-less shooting and mercurial defense. Like most voyages of the mind, it was pretty frightening/amazing while it lasted, but it soon became nauseously out of balance, culminating in the Denver's playoff wipeout against the Lakers. Truth be told, I blame Iverson considerably less than Nuggets' coach George Karl for Denver's epic loss of moorings but, in either case, Billups has evidently had a soothing, moderating effect on his hometown Nugs. They looked composed all game, moving the ball with patience and purpose (they assisted on 23 of their 37 made field goals) and even showing some of that swarming defense that made Karl famous in Seattle.
Denver ratcheted up this defensive pressure in the third quarter and, as against Boston last week, the Wolves were unable to solve it. In the first half, Al Jefferson had hurt both Nene and Kenyon Martin with a combination of pump-fakes, spins and drop steps. So the Nuggets chose to swarm Jefferson inside, forcing him to either pass the ball or fight through at least two defenders. As I've said before, the Wolves' natural offensive strength should be an inside-outside game between Jefferson and the guards (especially Mike Miller). But the team is still struggling to consistently make this work; they haven't yet found that rhythmic, flowing ball movement that they can rely on each game. Jefferson does not yet consistently make decisive, attacking passes out of double-teams. And his teammates often seem stymied when he does give it up, unable to create opportunities once the first option has been denied.
On Saturday, this showed up as an unwillingness to attack the basket. Because of their aggressive defense against Jefferson, Denver was left weak outside; they often compensated for this by rotating their big men out to the Wolves' guards. But Randy Foye and Sebastian Telfair were unable to exploit this by penetrating the paint, drawing fouls, creating points inside. Evidence of this was the huge free-throw disparity (the Nuggets made 26 while the Wolves took only 10) that basically decided the game.
Two factors complicated this problem: 1) Rashad McCants, probably the Wolves' best player at getting to the basket, was in full chuck/pout mode and played only 5:51 and 2) Mike Miller finally seems to be understanding that, while selflessness is a fine thing indeed, when you're shooting more than 10 percentage points better than the next best perimeter player, it might be best to just shoot every time you get the ball. Unfortunately, even with the added space afforded by the attention paid Jefferson, he hit only two of 10 shots last night, missing all six of his threes. This is all a longish way of saying that, basically, the Nuggets just played a lot better.
We Are Not Amused
As I've written, the non-hoops "entertainment" portion of an evening with the Wolves is a total reactionary shitstorm of very loud noises, adolescent sexuality, yelling and homophobia. In this vein, Saturday's game, blessedly, marked the end of "Operation Minnesota Heroes Month" at the Target Center, the Wolves' prolonged demonstration of gratitude to military veterans. Here's how it goes: two Minnesota vets are trotted out to center court; they are given signed balls, jerseys etc; the PA dude pridefully salutes "our heroes in the making"; everybody stands up and cheers.
In my mind, two things suck about this. One of the lovely things about sports fandom is that it's basically a safe, politically neutral place to channel our longing to dissolve into a group mind; to revel in our feeling of belonging-ness and, by extension, to ostracize some hated outsider (ie the other team). These nationalistic expressions bring us out of this safe, fun space, though, and bring us right back to those less savory aspects of the crowd mentality.
Worse, I think, is that the gesture of salute is totally empty. Like almost all "pro sports in the community" efforts, it does nothing concretely helpful--like, say, supporting pro-veteran legislation or even donating to the VA. And its not like its a quiet gesture either, some $2 tickets for servicemen kind of thing. By its volume, by its sentimentally exhibitionist quality, it's essentially an act of self-branding, an effort to be publicly seen as benevolent, generous, patriotic. The team, in other words, is using military veterans, their harrowing stories, their regard in the community, as content in an advertisement. Thanks, heroes.