Timberwolves have a pretty good weekend
In case you hadn't noticed, the NBA season is really long. I'm exhausted just writing about it; I can barely imagine what it must be like to play or coach. And in an insanely competitive league in which there is very, very little margin for error--especially when, like the Wolves, you are an already mediocre team beset with injuries--the inevitable mental, physical and emotional fatigue always seems to show up, grossly magnified, on the court.
Its hard to predict and understand what changes between the bad days--like Friday's leaden 102-94 loss to the Knicks--and the good days--Saturday's 108-100 victory over the Bobcats, for instance. But the very fact of those perplexing swings of energy and execution shouldn't come as a surprise.
At first glance, it's a bit hard to understand how the Wolves lost on Friday; they seemed, in Kevin McHale's words, to play "solid" defense, outshooting the Knicks 42.5%-39% and holding them six points under their season average. But in actually watching the game, it was pretty obvious that the Wolves gave a sluggish, uninspired showing. The offense was off-kilter and unbalanced, especially in the second half. Ball movement was tentative, they committed turnovers and the wrong people took shots. Mike Miller again abused his self-appointed playmaker role by taking only four shots in the second half, again deferring to less accurate teammates (Sebastian Telfair shot 11 timesduring that same time) and turning the ball over four times. Wow, am I tired of writing that sentence.
Although they did manage to get some scoring in the open court, the Knicks' offense was much less dynamic and fluid without injured point guard Chris Duhon. But it didn't matter because Nate Robinson, that exuberant, extreme leaping, 5'8" radiant orb, totally housed the Wolves. A select few point guards in the league are quick enough to guard Robinson, and a few are strong enough, but Telfair and Bobby Brown are neither. In the second half, Robinson attacked with force, muscling his way into the lane; all the Wolves could do was foul him. He took 15 second half free-throws, three more than the entire T-Wolves team. And when he didn't score or go to the line, his penetration created open space and open looks for his teammates. From the 5:47 mark of the fourth quarter on, the Knicks scored at least one point every time they had the ball. That sure doesn't sound like "solid" defense to me.
Miraculously, despite facing terrible matchups all over the floor, the Wolves came up with a terrific effort against Charlotte. The Wolves benefited from the return of Randy Foye and Rodney Carney, both of whom had missed two games with injury (Foye with an ankle sprain and Carney from a "lower abdominal contusion"--in other words, he got kicked in the nuts really, really hard) and both of whom were athletic and energetic throughout the night. Carney seemed particularly eager to play, shooting threes and jumping around all over the place.
But most of the Pups' success had to do, I think, with the strange confusion (strange especially for a team coached by "play the right way" swami, Larry Brown) that beset the Bobcats all game. The Wolves are a pretty bad pick and roll team but Charlotte did them a favor by communicating poorly and consistently blowing their assignments. Thanks to these muddled switches and rotations, the Wolves had cutters and rollers wide open at the basket all game.
The Bobcats seemed just as perplexed on offense. Forward Gerald Wallace is a straight baller: he has a lithe, kinetic body; he relentlessly attacks the basket and he plays defense with feverish abandon. Despite sticking him with Ryan Gomes and Carney, their two most active defenders, the Wolves couldn't stop his smooth slashes and spins; he scored 26 points on 8-11 shooting, went to the line 12 times and grabbed 10 boards. And it was obvious early that Charlotte center Emeka Okafor was way too strong for Kevin Love underneath. But for some reason, probably influenced by the Wolves' decision to double-team, the Bobcats went away from Wallace in the fourth quarter (he took only one shot, which he hit), and Okafor barely played during that same stretch.
Don't get me wrong, the Wolves played with great energy and made some gorgeous plays. Brian Cardinal exceeded even his typical level of blithe, manic hustle, rampant fouling and clever passing. And Kevin Love's offensive rebound and shovel pass to a cutting Hot Rod for a face melting dunk was one of many sweet moments. But, truthfully, our fellas were lucky to be facing a team that was seriously low on ambition and verve, just as they themselves had been the night before. Like I said, it's a long season.