Timberwolves felled by Parker and Paul
Two ways you can tell it's late in the NBA season:
1) Combined, the Wolves' last two opponents were missing four of their seven stars (for the Spurs: Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, for the Hornets: Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovich)
2) The following was an actual exchange on Wednesday night, between Wolves announcers Tom Hanneman and Jim Petersen, following a lengthy digression on Twitter and Facebook.
Petersen (affectionately): Oh, the internet.
Hanneman (with no trace of irony): It's changed everything!
My feelings about the San Antonio Spurs and their coach Greg Popovich are no secret (not crazy about them) and can be largely summed up by two offhand comments by Petersen during Tuesday's telecast. First, despite their undeniably great trio of stars, the Spurs, said Pete, "are Popovich's team, top to bottom." Second, Tony Parker, the team's electric point guard, and one of the league's most dynamic players is kept, under Pop's watchful eye "on a short leash." Nothing like that old college standby of patrician coaches intentionally confining--or, um, "leash"-ing--their athletic young charges. Love it.
For fans like me, though, who are probably more interested in great athletes performing creatively and expressively than in the Spurs faithfully adhering to their coach's structures, the main point of interest from the last two games were Parker and his magical counterpart on the Hornets, Chris Paul. And for Wolves fans specifically, their matchup with the T-Wolves own playmaker, Sebastian Telfair.
The point guard position has been a puzzle for the Wolves all year, with four players (five if you count Mike Miller, six if you count Rashad McCants, but lets not) at some point taking a crack at it. It's become clear as the season has worn on, though, that Bassie is the Wolves' only genuine option. Among the current runners up, Bobby Brown has so far shown that looking for (not to say hitting) his own shot is pretty much all he brings to the table--he seems to have no sense, outside the borders of his own one-on-one move, of the shape and flow of an offense. And Kevin Ollie is now a walking demonstration of one of the cruelest, least appealing aspects of pro sports: the way that even moderate age can erode the talents of incredibly skilled athletes. Ollie was once a solid NBA point guard but the sad fact is that he is now too slow to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates, much less prevent his opposite number from doing same.
Partially because of the imbalance created by Mike Miller's overzealous ballhandling and partially because Telfair has taken it upon himself to catalyze the Wolves' offense in the absence of Al Jefferson, he (Bassie) has lately been pretty bold about shooting the ball (he's averaging 12.4 shots in his last five games). Now, Telfair's recent scoring has gotten him some national attention and I have to say that I love the gutsy, aggressive attitude. But, let's face it, although he did hit three consecutive huge shots late in the Hornets' game, the guy's not a great shooter, even when he's on (38.6% on the year, 43.5% in the last five games).
When he's at his best, Bassie makes aggressive, penetrating passes early in a possession, using his wizardly ballhandling to bring pace and urgency to the Wolves' offense. But, especially in games against heavyweights like Parker and Paul (my new favorite English comedy duo), when his pride tells him to respond in kind to their astounding playmaking, his scorer's mindset has led him to hold the ball too long, to stifle the offense's flow as he (over)dribbles, trying to create his own look.
The other fly in the ointment has been Telfair's defense. Though he's terrifyingly quick with the ball in his hands, his lateral movement is only average for an NBA point guard (by the way, that's still really, really fast). For that reason, in three of the last four games--against Parker, Paul and the Knicks' Nate Robinson--he's been constantly playing catchup, attempting to recover (and often fouling) after getting beaten off the dribble.
What I'm trying to say: Telfair is the team's best point guard by far. And with those handles, the feverish pace at which he plays and that very Brooklyn mixture of intensity, solemn confidence and high-stepping flash, he's probably my favorite T-Wolf. But the guy is still figuring things out; when he tries to answer the best guards in the league shot-for-shot, that fact is painfully obvious.
Love and Theft
Speaking of figuring things out, I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention how well and insanely hard Kevin Love played against San Antonio and New Orleans. As everybody knows, the kid has his shortcomings. He can't jump at all and he's not very strong, so he gets his shot blocked on the regular; he has this very adolescent way of incredulously appealing to his elders on the bench when things don't go his way; he's still very much a novice defender; and he still looks awkward, like the game is too fast for him, in pick and roll and drive and dish situations, when passes seem to instantly come out of nowhere--its pretty common to see balls bounce off of his hands, chest, face near the basket.
But my gracious did that dude ever battle against the bigger and stronger Kurt Thomas and Hilton Armstrong this week. He had 11 rebounds against the Hornets and a whopping 19 against the Spurs; let me tell you he fought for nearly every one of them. What's more, he's developed a sense of calm with the ball in his hands; he's simultaneously a little more patient and a little more decisive on offense. He's starting to be able to create his own shot and starting to be able to finish around the basket with some consistency--he had 40 points on 22 shots in the last two games combined. I'll tell you, Love will probably never be an MVP and he will probably never be beautiful, but he's already becoming a pretty good basketball player.