Timberwolves fall historically

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Photo by The boy on the bike

Golden State Warriors' coach Don Nelson was in a reflective, self-deprecating mood at the Target Center on Wednesday after his record-breaking 1,333rd NBA victory. When it was suggested that his new record was nigh-on unbreakable, the grizzled, Yeltsin-esque coach begged to differ: "There are guys out there winning games 50, 60 at a time, not 20 at a time like me." Nelson professed an almost reverent wonder at the back-breaking difficulty of winning even one game in the NBA. "We fight and we scrap," he said, "but we just don't win." Certainly, it would make a difference if the Warriors had more than nine healthy players, three of them former D-Leaguers. But it might also help if Nelson promoted a defensive strategy more sophisticated than simply waiting for your opponent to score so that you can get the ball back.  

Don't get me wrong, Nelson does important work. But in so many ways, wins and losses paint an incomplete picture of Nelson's weird legacy. His freakish lineups (6'7" power forwards, three-point shooters at every position), and insistence on unrelenting speed and unrestrained individual freedom have long posed serious challenges to basketball orthodoxy. There have been times--the Warriors' 2006 first-round upset of the top-seeded Mavericks chief among them--when Nelson's hilarious, chaotic teams, with their wild play and unconscionable shooting have nearly disintegrated the molecular structure of the game.   

But Nelson has also lost 1,061 games in his career and, judging from his benignly resigned attitude, seems to have lost hope in ever coaching a competitive team again. In addition to leaving a trail of casualties in his wake, players nearly ruined by his grudge-bearing and capricious distribution of playing time--guys like Chris Webber, Brandan Wright, and Al Harrington, among others--he is also responsible for plenty of ridiculous, depressing spectacles like the one we witnessed on Wednesday night: a game filled with sloppy, incoherent play; a half-filled arena; players with little to play for save their own coach's bloated record. 

For Timberwolves fans, the game's primary point of interest was the ruthless way that the Warriors' Stephen Curry worked Jonny Flynn. Curry was taken seventh in last year's draft, just after the Wolves selected Flynn. Anyone watching this game, or this season for that matter, would have to say that the Wolves took the wrong guy. Curry, with his pubescent face and thin frame, looks like a child on the floor. But with the ball in his hands, he's all smooth, dynamic motion, with a fluid jumper and a point guard's instincts.

All night, as Curry showed off his own serious skills, he also revealed Flynn's shortcomings: the turnovers, the hasty shots, the aimless possessions. Most significantly, Curry ran Flynn ragged on defense. The young Wolf was constantly off balance, unable to fight through screens, unable to challenge Curry's jumpers or keep him out of the lane. Curry hit 12 of his 22 shots; he dished out 14 assists; he ripped the Wolves seven times. Jonny's never done any of those things.

But Flynn doesn't deserve too great a share of the blame, terrible though his defense was. His teammates didn't do any better. In a season in which opponents, including these Warriors, have more than once scored over 140 points (and that's in regulation, kids), calling any game a team's worst defensive effort is pretty bold. But this one might just qualify. The Wolves were unable to summon the effort or wherewithal to fight through screens and contest the Warriors' jumpers. And when Golden State ran their pick-and-roll, the Wolves made very little effort to either deny the pass to the rolling player or rotate to him once he caught it. Wide open jumpers, easy layups, all night.

Speaking of easy layups, more than once, Golden State's Anthony Tolliver, a D-League call-up who scored 34 points on 14-22 shooting, drove unimpeded to the lane. Much of this had to do with a classic Don Nelson mismatch: Tolliver, at the power forward was simply too quick for Kevin Love (Love, I should mention, was one of the few Wolves who put up a serious fight, as his 18 rebounds can attest). But it also spoke to the Wolves' inability to play thoughtful, energetic team defense. It was the kind of thing, said Kurt Rambis "that just should not happen." Let's recap: the Wolves couldn't get to Golden State's jump-shooters; they couldn't stop penetration; they couldn't rotate to cutters; what were they even doing out there?    

It was a testament less to the Wolves' pluck and much more to this game's absurd irrelevance that despite their irredeemable play, despite allowing Golden State to hit 56% of their shots, the Wolves managed to cut the lead to four points in the last minute of the game. No deficit, it seems, is too great when playing a team as callow and careless as Don Nelson's Warriors. Nellie has his record, but this game is well worth forgetting.     




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