The Timberwolves have lost six games in a row; this is a fact. But, as opposed to their apocalyptic, blowout-ridden early season slump, things haven't felt hopeless. For large stretches of this losing streak, the Wolves have played generally competitive basketball and showed moments of real comprehension. Unfortunately, during these past six games they've also begun to pretty exhaustively chart every conceivable possibility for how to lose a basketball game. We had the total blowout in Detroit, the last-second blooper against the Bobcats, a blown lead in Washington, and endless missed free-throws against the Bulls. Then there was this strangely schizophrenic Sunday evening tilt with the Thunder.
After the game, Kurt Rambis blamed inconsistency of defensive effort, an inability to consistently conjure the kind of energy and intensity that they so often show while in the fevered throes of a comeback. "They've got to find a way to play that way the whole time," he said, "it just comes down to defense." There's certainly truth to this statement. The Wolves do tend to save their best, most frenetic D for the most hopeless moments. The Thunder game was no different in this respect; it wasn't until the third quarter, facing a double-digit deficit that they found the will to really aggressively rotate to open players, contest shots, and challenge passing lanes. But inconsistency wasn't the problem exactly.
Instead, after noticing some of this game's striking plus/minus numbers--Ryan Gomes: -27, Al Jefferson: -37(!), Ryan Hollins: -22, Jonny Flynn: -13; Kevin Love: +24, Darko Milicic: +35, Damien Wilkins: +19--we find that the Wolves bench played extremely well against the Thunder's second unit (and even, at times, against OKC's starters) while the Wolves' starters got soundly punished by their counterparts. Oklahoma City starting point guard Russell Westbrook's stirring triple-double (22 points, 10 boards, 14 assists) attests to the fact that he is much too tall, strong and fast, for either Jonny Flynn or Ramon Sessions. Kevin Durant was, as always, impossible to guard. And Al Jefferson couldn't seem to solve the riddle of Nenad Krstic on either end of the floor (here's a start Al: he likes to shoot 15-footers).
As those crazy plus/minus numbers indicate, despite being so out of game shape that he contracted death rattles and turned a sickly shade of pale gray after ten minutes of action, Darko Milicic played like bananas on fire. On one typical fourth-quarter sequence, as the Wolves put together a 13-0 run, he showed nearly every reason why he was a) the second pick of the draft and b) irresistable to the Timberwolves.
First, with the Wolves on defense down by two, he trapped two straight pick-and-rolls with more energy and skill than we Wolves fans are used to seeing out of our big men (Ryan Hollins, please pay attention). Largely because of these efforts, the Thunder were forced to take a rushed, contested jumper; Darko successfully boxed out his man, the tall, powerful Serge Ibaka (seriously Ryan Hollins, you're watching right?) and gathered in the rebound. Then, on the ensuing offensive possession, he caught the ball in the high post and flicked a no-look bounce pass to a cutting Damien Wilkins for an easy dunk. A relatively athletic seven-footer who can rebound, play defense and pass? This is like crack for these Wolves. The crowd chanted his name; it was like his birthday party.
Most amazing was the way that the offense flowed during Darko's, as opposed to Jefferson's, minutes. The Thunder made a point of denying Big Al the ball by fronting him, most successfully with Nick Collison. But the other Wolves, in Rambis's words "have such tremendous confidence in Al," have such reverence for his sublime one-on-one skills, that they often become preoccupied with forcing the ball into his hands, forgetting the offense's natural rhythm and movement (this was especially problematic with Jonny Flynn, who continues to have problems giving the O coherence). When the Wolves' guards did manage to enter the ball into the post, the Thunder would immediately trap Al on the baseline forcing him to either make a pass to the weakside (not his strength) or take a difficult jumper. The result was stilted ball-movement and forced, last-second shots.
Darko, by contrast, was neither the focal point of the Wolves' offense, nor of the Thunder's defense. Partly for these reasons and partly because he is a much more instinctive, skilled passer than Al, the ball moved much more naturally when he was in the game. This game, particularly the fourth quarter, provided an interesting window onto the challenge of integrating Jefferson's special set of skills into the Wolves' team concept. The Wolves need to be able to exploit, without becoming enthralled by Big Al's low post scoring ability. And Al himself needs to learn how to make prudent, timely use of those abilities without slowing the offense to a crawl by holding the ball. Can a player whose game is predicated on a slowly unfolding series of post moves fit into a dynamic, fast moving offensive system? Is Darko the real thing, or a stern-faced mirage? We're still figuring this out.