Minnesota Timberwolves scuffle; Denver Nuggets barely notice

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Photo by John Curley

After the Wolves' 110-102 loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday night a visibly frustrated Kevin Love remarked that his team's offense was "easy to run but hard to figure out. It's hard to figure out exactly what he wants." The "he" in question is Wolves' coach Kurt Rambis;  how, Love wondered, can you please a coach who demands both openness and discipline, creativity and precision? How can a player perform when his own role in the scheme is so unstructured, when he doesn't even know when and from where his shots will come? When asked if he still had confidence in the offense, this was Love's cagey reply: "I'm confident in myself, I'm confident in my teammates." Not exactly a rousing endorsement is it? Seems like the losing might finally be taking its emotional toll. 

And why not? Rambis himself allowed that the losing "weighs on you; your options are to roll over or to fight." It must be hard, though, to put up a fight when your team can be dispatched as breezily as the Wolves were by Denver. When your opponent can spot you an eight point lead with nearly three quarters of lackadaisical play and can then, seemingly without blinking, sail to a 24-9 second-half run. When that opponent can tighten the screws at will, throttle your shooters, render your offense incoherent and stilted. When they can, without warning, transform a nondescript game into a carnival: sideline alley-oops; crisp, four-man fast breaks; a procession of feathery threes. When they can do beautiful, impossible things like this.

The Wolves shouldn't feel too bad, though. The Nuggets, after all, are a strange, mercurial team, given to fits of lethargy, but capable, when inspired, of playing fantastically great basketball. The core of the team is a spectacle of young, wealthy, manically tattooed American manhood (a pair of lips? delicate, yet ferocious hawk's feathers? an cigar smoking, uzi-toting clown? a Warner Brothers' logo? check, check, check, check). We've got: the virulently macho homophobe (Kenyon Martin), the amphetamine-y party monster/surfer dude (Chris "Birdman" Andersen), and the untroubled, nonchalant cool kid (Carmelo Anthony).

And the only reason that any of this works is because of a running on-court dialogue between Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith. On any other team--and even, at times, on this one--Smith's radiant insecurity would be corrosive. Often, his purpose on the floor seems to be to impose his chaotic will on the game, to seek self-affirmation through acts of steadily increasing ridiculousness. Thus, the cascade of deep, heat-checking threes, thus the midair theatrics (see above), thus the surly, adolescent posturing. Billups, on the other hand, has a talent for creating  coherence on the court, for knitting a team together with his savvy, thoughtful play.  (Anyone doubting this should take a look at the radical transformations undergone by the Pistons and Nuggets upon his arrivals and departures). 

The amazing thing is that when Billups succeeds in creating balance on this absurd team, Smith's radically unbalanced play becomes extremely valuable. It becomes force of unpredictability that can totally wreck an opponent without unravelling his own squad. This is what happened to the Wolves on Wednesday. Billups remained perfectly in control of the game throughout Denver's swoony first half; and when the Nuggets finally began to make their run, Smith supplied the fire and the noise. So, despite having beaten Denver once already this year, the Wolves were an afterthought in this game, nothing more than a backdrop for the Nuggets' little social experiment. Nobody likes to be an afterthought.   

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