A lift in the fog
Wolves' color commentator Jim Petersen knows basketball, for sure, but the dude is as gratuitous a homer as they come. Still, after praising the Wolves probably a little bit too effusively during their stellar first quarter against Memphis, he said one true thing: "we're seeing games that look like basketball games." This may not sound like much to your average non-Woves fan but you and I know better. After a quarter-season of ridiculous, aimless play and psychological meltdowns, actual, bona-fide basketball games are like an epiphany.
The Timberwolves have now won four games in a row for the first time since 2007, not to mention six of their last eight. These words are as pleasantly strange to write as they are to read, I assure you. The last two came on Tuesday and Wednesday--the first, a tight, uneven game against a pretty bad team, the second an absurd blowout against an incredibly bad team.
In the Wolves' first meeting with the Memphis Grizzlies, an overtime victory, Al Jefferson's unguardability in the low post pushed them over the top late in the game. This time, the Griz chose to solve this problem by playing in front of him and, more successfully, by swarming the strong side of the floor and aggressively double teaming as soon as he caught the ball. Al looked a little flustered, struggling both to score and pass out of the pressure. Because of this, the Wolves were rarely able to create the ball movement necessary to find open shooters on the weak side and they missed many of the open shots they did get. A team even marginally better than Memphis would probably have made a back-breaking run during this dry spell but, luckily, the Wolves weren't playing any of those teams. So, rather than being down by seven (or fifteen) with 1:30 left in the fourth, as they undoubtedly would have been against San Antonio or Orlando, the game was tied.
At that point Randy Foye took matters into his own hands. First, he hit a deep pull-up three to break the tie. On the ensuing possession Memphis isolated O.J. Mayo on Foye at the top of the key. Mayo had, in both games, basically been able to get any look he wanted; true to form, he used his heavy first step to blow past Foye. But, this time, Foye followed Mayo to the basket and exploded off the floor to swat the shot off the glass and preserve the win. For a team that, apart from Jefferson, has been remarkably incapable of making big plays late in games--I believe "the clutch", is the term--Foye's gutsy step-ups, not to mention the Wolves' 94-87 road win, were pretty significant.
On Wednesday, at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Foye picked up where he left off. Taking advantage of the fact that the Thunder sport terrible uniforms (that these anonymous off-blue numbers are the replacement for the Sonics' disco-futurist classics is possibly the greatest insult of the whole Clay Bennett debacle) and play terrible, indifferent D, Foye hit his first seven shots, three of them three pointers (I'm not actually totally sure the unis had anything to do with it but that defense: yikes). Not only did the Thunder give him ample room to shoot, but whenever Foye beat Desmond Mason, his primary defender, (which was every time he tried) he was granted a completely clear path to the basket. By the time halftime rolled around (and the Thunder had all but conceded the game), Foye had hit nine of his 11 shots (including 5-7 from three), for 26 points along with four assists.
The Wolves, basically, did whatever they wanted to do. Their shooters were always open, they got to every loose ball and rebound, they ran the floor with abandon, they drew fouls. The Thunder, who sport the worst record in the NBA, looked like a disheveled, beaten team; when the game finally ended (after some hilariously exaggerated Rodney Carney fourth quarter antics including: two ridiculous scoop shots he had no business making; a nearly airballed free throw; two dunks in which, I swear, Hot Rod's head was above the rim) the Wolves had a 129-87 victory, their second-most lopsided win ever. On second thought, I guess this one wasn't very much like a real basketball game.
But back to Foye. Competition level notwithstanding, Foye looks like a free man after being relieved of his point guard duties. And playing alongside Sebastian Telfair, a point guard whose creativity and aggressiveness help open up the floor and create passing angles, doesn't hurt either. The point guard's mandate to share the ball and shepherd the offense seemed mainly to encumber Foye's game, causing him to both shoot and pass less decisively. Now that his scorer's mentality and one-on-one skills have a context within the offense, all of his movements and decisions seem more natural and confident. He played with force in both games, attacking the basket, quickly and fluidly releasing his jumper and playing his grittiest defense so far this year. And, ironically, he's now even passing the ball better. Against Memphis, he found Jefferson with a piercing, shallow angled pick and roll pass that led big Al easily to the hoop. It was the kind of play that Foye rarely had the confidence to make as a point guard.
Winning is Fun
It's hard to know what exactly to make of this recent surge, aside from the fact that it has made watching Wolves games considerably less painful. We can point to some real improvements: they've moved the ball better and played better defense. It's helped that Sebastian Telfair has been getting more burn and that Foye has settled into his role as a two-guard; it's helped that Rashad McCants has played less; it's helped that Kevin Love has played better (by the way, when I mentioned last week that Love rebounds well, it was an understatement--he's actually in the top ten in the league in rebounds per minute; he's picked up 22 in his last 43 minutes played alone); it's really helped that none of those last six wins have come against teams with winning records.
Though they have, without a doubt, played better in the last two weeks, that soft competition has obscured some real weaknesses. They've had long episodes (like their two most recent first quarters) in which they've played fast, flowing offense, but they also continue to endure ragged stretches. Like, for instance, the aforementioned fourth quarter dry spell on Tuesday or, much worse, their amazing eight-point, 1-16 shooting second quarter in the first Memphis game. Now that McCants is on the very end of the bench and Mike Miller still can't find the gumption to shoot more than five times a game, the Wolves' second unit is very much lacking in firepower. With no focal point and no inside presence on offense (the 6'8" Love often plays center alongside with Carney, Telfair, Brian Cardinal and Miller or Gomes) this group has a difficult time generating enough ball movement to create good shots. And their size disadvantage up front--forwards Jefferson, Love and Craig Smith are generally all looking up at their counterparts--continues to be a problem on defense. But, for now at least, disaster has been averted and the nightmares of November and December are becoming a hazy memory.
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