Timberwolves outclassed by Hawks

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      Photo by Curious Exhibitions

Two plays stand out from the third quarter of the Wolves' 112-87 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks' Joe Johnson and Al Horford were being guarded by Corey Brewer and Ryan Hollins and, rightly sensing that this state of affairs was a significant mismatch in their favor, decided to go to work. 

The first play was a pick and roll beginning on the left wing. Horford set a pick on Brewer and, seeing that Hollins had left him to trap Johnson, rolled to the basket. Johnson softly laid the ball over the trap; Kevin Love was a step late in helping from the weakside of the floor; Horford had an easy layup. The next time down the floor, Johnson and Horford again set up on the left wing. This time, Love cheated into the paint, the better to obstruct Horford's path. Seeing this, instead of initiating another pick and roll, Johnson took two dribbles toward the hoop and lofted a cross court pass to a now-wide open Jamal Crawford in the opposite corner. The Wolves were again slow to rotate and Crawford hit a three-pointer.

This sequence elucidated two rather glaring points. First, the Wolves continued their habit of playing inattentive, unfocused defense. On both of these plays, as in the rest of the game, as in too many games this year, they failed to anticipate their opponents' actions. They were slow to help from the weakside and they rotated poorly to open shooters. "Guys forgot their rotations, left people open," said Wolves' coach Kurt Rambis, "they weren't prepared to play." So there's that.

Then there's this: the Hawks simply had too many good players for the Wolves to handle.  Hollins and Brewer attempting to guard Al Horford and Joe Johnson, while the lithe, pure shooting Crawford (who would be the Wolves best scorer but comes off the bench in Atlanta) waits in the wings? I call no fair. So part of this is just youthful inconsistency, the struggles of a terribly inexperienced team in a still-young season. But the other, less pleasant truth is that, as is plainly evident when they face a team as deeply talented as the Hawks, the Wolves are just not very good. 

Strange Brew

As for Brewer, he continues to baffle. He may be the Wolves quickest player and is certainly their most explosive off the floor but he is still such a poor shooter that opponents literally run away from him when he has the ball on the perimeter. He is a committed, energetic defender but is still so spindly that he can be overpowered by the league's stronger wing players (like, for instance, Joe Johnson). He can be a crafty ball mover--as when against Atlanta, at exactly the right moment in a fast break, he found Jonny Flynn streaking on the wing for an easy layup--but still makes puzzling decisions and extraordinarily careless plays--as when he threw the ball directly into the hands of the Hawks' Josh Smith on the Wolves' very first possession. And although he often seems totally out of control, his spazzy energy and ridiculous leaping ability can be thrilling, as we all saw with this outrageous thing against the Lakers:


 

Lately though, things have started to improve. Brewer has been working with player-development rabbi David Thorpe on shooting with better balance (his natural tendency is bend deeply at the waist as he rises and then scissor his body in mid-leap in order to generate force on the shot--needless to say, this can throw off the rhythm of a fella's jumper), and on improving his often curious shot selection. And Rambis has been imploring him to challenge defenses when they dare him to shoot, not just by hitting his jumper, but by attacking, diving to the rim and forcing his defender to engage him. 

Recently, this work has proven beneficial; in the last six games, Brewer has hit 47% of his shots and has appeared more poised, more in command of his gangly body.  Although that jumper is still pretty ragged, he's been much more judicious about when he lets it fly. And he's been more chilled out around the basket, blowing fewer layups and dunks, getting to the free-throw line and even finishing with some skill once in a while. "The game's getting a lot easier," he admits "[I'm] seeing the game slowing down, learning when to make decisions, when to attack and when not to."  He still might dribble the ball off his face every now and then, or uncork a flat, knuckling jumper, but we're seeing more and more evidence of that holy terror of a Florida Gator who set fire to the field during two NCAA tournaments.  


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