Timberwolves play spoiler; we are amazed
After Friday's methodical 107-85 beatdown at the hands of the Cavs, I was all set to write about how the Wolves were unequivocally done with basketball. How this season's pain and punishment had sapped their spirits and drained their legs. How, while at one point after Al Jefferson's injury they were capable of marvelous, energetic stretches of offensive basketball they now had descended into a deep dark place, incapable of the effort needed to create good shots, unable to hit the few good ones they got. And how the spirit of garbage time, once an amusing side show, had now, with the insertion of Kevin Ollie and even Brian Cardinal into starting lineups, threatened to overwhelm their season. So this was all written in my head--and then the Wolves threw together probably their best game in the last month against the New Jersey Nets. And without Craig Smith and Randy Foye at that. Can anyone explain this to me?
Watching the Cleveland game on Friday, I got the feeling that I was witnessing the last glimmers of ambition and hope being squeezed out of our Wolves. As Lebron sat on the bench in the second and fourth quarters, resting after his nonchalant 18 point, five rebound first quarter, the game actually looked like something of a fair fight--Randy Foye hit some threes and the Wolves showed a little life. But when Lebron was in the game, the Wolves were hopeless, like all they could really do was stand by and watch themselves be overrun. And it wasn't just because of LBJ's 30 foot bombs and unstoppable, overpowering drives to the rim. The Cavs' offense suddenly crackled and hummed--the ball always finding its way to an open shooter--and they suddenly played voracious, overwhelming defense. Is it a cliche to point out that every Cavalier magically plays better when Lebron is on the floor?
In any event, with Mike Miller playing only 19 tepid minutes, Randy Foye wincing on his sore hip and everybody else missing shots with abandon, it looked like the Wolves, on the verge of losing for the 18th time in their last 20 tries were ready to shut it down for the year. Which is why, after all that futility, it was so baffling on Sunday when they handled the Nets.
No New Jersey
I think I can point to two reasons the Wolves managed to play so well. The first is that, despite being pretty talented and sort of having an outside shot at the playoffs (as much as any 30-win team can be), the Nets were pretty aimless; for whatever reason--maybe nothing more complicated than the team's strange, mercurial personality-- they just didn't appear to take much pleasure from playing basketball. It's cool, I guess; I don't always feel like playing basketball either.
Vince Carter and former T-Wolf Trenton Hassell (thinking of him smothering Peja Stojakovich for seven games still makes me a little misty-eyed) seemed at least to be invested in the game, but despite his smooth, magisterial 36 points, even Carter had that familiar faraway look in his eyes. The Nets semi-convincingly went through the motions of playing competitive basketball but, as it usually does, their lack of conviction was evident on defense--all game, the Wolves found themselves with curiously open shots and passing lanes.
Not everything can be blamed on the Nets, though; the Wolves actually did play their best, most active and fluid (not to mention accurate) offensive game in weeks. Kevin Ollie and Sebastian Telfair initiated the offense with aggressive passing and ballhandling and Rodney Carney continued his late season resurgence, showing a newfound self awareness (more dunks and corner threes, not so many wild, high-dribbling odysseys).
But the simplest, most obvious reason is that Mike Miller decided that the season's 74th game was a good time to start shooting the ball. Not all that surprisingly, considering that he is arguably the league's best pure shooter, he hit quite a few of those shots (8-14 and 3-4 from three). It had become deeply frustrating watching (and writing about) Miller, a career .40% three-point shooter, as he continually passed up open threes, continually dribbled away the shot clock only to dump the ball to a less accurate teammate with only seconds left. No doubt, Miller is a fine passer (and a gritty rebounder) but his playmaking only makes sense when it complements his shot, when it takes advantage of his ability to stretch the defense.
So much of playing well in the NBA seems to be simply understanding what you can and cannot do. When Miller takes it upon himself to run the offense, he takes the ball out of the hands of the team's real playmakers and, by playing well outside of the boundaries of his own skills, negates himself as a scorer. Maybe not realizing (or maybe fully realizing) how their praise indicted Miller's season up to this point, both Telfair and Ryan Gomes commented on how refreshing it was to see Miller shoot aggressively, and on how that aggressive shooting opened up the floor, creating passing lanes and space to cut and drive. Which is, like, just exactly what it was supposed to do, exactly the reason it seemed like a good idea to pair Miller with Al Jefferson. No big deal though, we've still got eight games to turn things around.