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Losing My Religion, and Lots of Basketball Games

There are lots of ways of being bad in the NBA, and in the last week, which featured back-to-back home Wolves losses to powers like Charlotte and Seattle (that’s 130 losses between the three of them—this season!), I got a pretty close look at many of them. In Seattle we have the “bewilderingly constructed” bad team (the Knicks are the prime example of this). The Sonics are partially designed around a 19-year-old phenom and partially around semi-good holdovers from their last good Ray Allen-led squad. They manage to synthesize two lethal NBA archetypes: the disillusioned veteran, tugged along by his own dull inertia and the clueless youngster who gets by solely on his own talent. The Bobcats are the prototypical “ravaged by injuries” bad team. They have playing without three of their preseason starters—Sean May, Adam Morrison and Gerald Wallace—and are forced to scrape by with role players and reserves at most spots.

That brings us to our Timberwolves, the classic “talented-but-inexperienced” bad team. Such teams often play well in some stretches and then appallingly badly in others. They often seem to be equally competitive against good teams and bad. They have a poor feel for the rhythm of the game, often missing opportunities and suddenly becoming listless and ragged at the most inopportune moments (like, say, the last five minutes of the game). I’ve defended the Wolves’ honor once or twice based on the fact that they are a likeable, generally entertaining team with a ton of upside. And while I’d gladly take this team over a few others with more wins (those disastrous Knicks, or even the Sonics and Bobcats, this week’s results notwithstanding) there’s absolutely no contesting the fact that they have lost 47 of their 60 games. Wow, when you put it like that it’s kind of depressing.

The Sonics. The Sonics.

Against Seattle, the Wolves started the game in one of those aforementioned malaises and then ended on one of those aforementioned missed opportunities. It all added up to a rather heartbreaking overtime loss, but the game was a pretty exciting, competitive contest between two legit NBA teams.

One of the great surprises of that game was Kevin Durant. Purely because he scores a relatively large amount of points per game (19.5) he is the favorite for rookie-of the year honors. But those points have come at the expense of many, many bad misses, many forced shots, many possessions where his teammates do not see the ball—he’s shooting only 40% for the year and, though he takes a whole lot of them, only makes 29% of his three pointers.

A few things were evident from seeing him in person. First of all, he is very tall (6’11” and very young (barely 19). The fact that is a very junior member of a men’s club is reflected in his little-brotherly demeanor. He slumps his shoulders and kind of shuffles/swaggers in a very teenage way. And he carries that sullen, recognizably adolescent, almost embarrassed scowl—the look that says its bearer is both incredibly self-conscious but also totally oblivious to being noticed by anybody. He seemed to be pretty clueless whenever he did not have the ball, sort of floating around waiting for a pass, halfheartedly setting screens when it suited him. And on defense the less said the better. I’m pretty sure that he never once adopted anything approximating the kind of defensive stance that they teach you at all levels of basketball. That should do it.

But, I have to say, I did not expect at all the things I saw when he got the ball in his hands; it was strange, at those moments, to see him transcend the awkward teenager, gain a ferocity and sense of purpose. He has that quality shared by only the most phenomenally gifted athletes: the ability to perform incredibly difficult physical tasks at high speed and with intoxicating fluidity—as if you are watching in both fast and slow motion. He may be a pure novice at the NBA game but, I’m telling you—and this is something I did not fully appreciate until I saw him up close—Kevin Durant is a magnificently talented basketball player. Real Bobcats in the Sack The Charlotte game, on the other hand, was a total mess. The lack of Wallace on the Bobcats’ side and Corey Brewer and Rashad McCants on Minnesota’s side (concussion, thigh bruise and flu, respectively), three fairly dynamic and/or energetic players, led to a bland, spiritless game. The two teams seemed to have entered into, as Coach Wittman put it, a “non-aggression pact,” playing the kind of stolid, isolation-oriented offense and tired-looking defense that has given the pro game an undeserved bad name. Nonetheless, the Wolves managed to keep it close until the fourth quarter, mostly because of Sebastian Telfair’s aggressiveness at the point (6 of 11 from the floor, with nine assists). The big problem was on the defensive end where almost every player was terrible all game. The Wolves’ guards were constantly beaten off the dribble by the Bobcats’ Earl Boykins and Raymond Felton, particularly on pick-and-roll situations. Compounding the problem, the Wolves’ big men did not show aggressively and the rest of the team failed both to help quickly on the dribbler and to rotate to open shooters. The result was a constant stream of open looks and a good shooting night for Charlotte (51.4% from the floor and 10-20 from 3) and, most importantly, a huge advantage in free throws. The Bobcats made 23-29 while the Wolves only attempted nine, hitting five. By my math, that pretty much accounts for the entire margin of victory. Considering that there were almost no established stars on either team, the Wolves can’t really use the old excuse that their youth and anonymity was a prejudicing factor for the refs. They simply played much less aggressively than the other team, on both ends of the floor. As the Wolves began to shy away from driving to the basket, relying instead on contested jumpers, the Bobcats consistently exploited their opponents’ lackluster defense, getting to the rim and drawing fouls. The Wolves were close for much of the game, but at no point did they play like they deserved to win.

The Ballad of Little Nick

Part of the Wolves’ break-in-the action entertainment all year has been this weird, righteous spectacle involving various war veterans, rescue workers, victims of over-the-top violence or illness, and other assorted heroes. They are given tickets and jerseys; they are trotted out in front of the crowd to have their harrowing story raucously told by the PA announcer; they are given a terrifically pious standing ovation. My previous fave had been a sullen family of five who had been terrorized in their own home by unknown masked assailants for an evening. The Charlotte game, though, sported the most hyper-Dickensian, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-y hero yet. “Little Nick” (that’s what the back of his jersey said) was a perfectly adorable, tow-headed eight-year-old who had suffered some horrendous illness which had caused him to undergo 15 surgeries, after which he (heroically) decided to have his legs amputated so he could, in the PA guy’s lilting tones “run and play with his friends.” Sob. Smile.

I’ll tell you, it is mesmerizing and terrifying and hilarious (you know the kind of panicky, vomitous hilarity I’m talking about—like how it feels to watch TV news pundits smirk and quip their way through topics that actually effect real people) to watch people willingly sacrifice their most sacred, personal stories to us insatiable, impatient professional spectators. To have those stories blithely processed—not on TV; right before your eyes—into a brief, forgettable commercial advertising the so charitable heart of a pro basketball team and its simply compassion-soaked fans. I’ll say it again: a commercial.

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