After consecutive road losses on consecutive nights, to the Kings and the Blazers, the Timberwolves are now 1-5. Obviously, this is not the start they had hoped for. The team made easily its worst showing of the young season in Friday's 121-109 loss to Sacramento. Which is too bad considering that the Kings are terrible and the Wolves had already beaten them once. But the Kings were helped out by Brad Miller's return from a drug suspension. Though Miller has lost a step or three, it was apparent that his shooting and high post passing had a huge positive effect on his team's offensive flow. Sacramento was also helped by the fact that the Wolves seemed unwilling to adopt the kind of defensive effort and basic technique that "wins games in fourth and fifth grade," in the words of assistant coach Jerry Sichting. True that.
The Wolves gave a much better effort in Saturday's 97-93 loss to Portland. It was a spirited, exciting game, especially in the fourth quarter. After Mike Miller tied the game at 87 with one of his soft, high-arcing threes, the two teams traded baskets for the last two minutes of the game. During that stretch, Al Jefferson began seeing the benefits of having a pure shooter on his team. The Blazers chose not to double-team him and risk leaving Miller open outside. So Jefferson got to work one-on-one against Joel Pryzbilla; Big Al shook him on three straight possessions. Unfortunately, the Wolves couldn't keep the Blazers from responding to Jefferson with baskets of their own. Finally, down by two with 30 seconds remaining, the Wolves missed three layups in traffic (two by Jefferson and one by Kevin Love) and that, my friends, was the game.
Much of the team's rough start can be filed under the "haven't figured out how to win yet" category. In three of those five losses--"Oklahoma City," San Antonio and Portland--the Wolves had golden opportunities to win or tie the game and squandered them through some combination of mental mistakes and poor execution. This is the kind of thing one imagines will improve as the season proceeds.
The Small Dance
But other factors seem a bit more problematic and possibly point to some deep uncertainty as to the team's style and identity. After the Dallas game, Coach Wittman made reference to the current NBA vogue for "smallball"--teams using smaller, quicker lineup--ushered in by the Suns' and Warriors' lean, fast-paced offenses of recent years. In a number of ways, the Wolves seem to have embraced this vogue. They have chosen to play the (barely) 6'10" Al Jefferson at center. They drafted Kevin Love, a (barely) 6'9" power forward and have lately been starting him alongside Jefferson. Also, since Sebastian Telfair's return, they have been using a number of three-guard lineups--most often Bassy, Randy Foye and Rashad McCants, all of whom are under 6'5". There is an implicit tradeoff in going with a small lineup: you choose to give up size inside against bigger teams in exchange for more speed, flexibility and shooting on offense. In the process, you hope to cultivate an athletic, swarming defense similar to the kind that Golden State used to smother Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs.
The Wolves, though, have so far been hurt by the drawbacks of going small without seeing any of the benefits. As they did in the first game of the season, the Kings' big men took advantage of the Wolves' lack of frontcourt size, shooting a combined 14-21 on Friday. Portland's long, athletic frontcourt, particularly LaMarcus Aldridge, hurt the Wolves as well. Aldridge scored 24 points on 8-15 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds. Many of those boards came when Love or Jefferson had inside position; Aldridge simply used his strikingly long arms to grab the ball over his opponent's head.
Running is supposed to be the hallmark of a small lineup but with the exception of a few minutes in the second quarter against San Antonio, in which Telfair pushed the pace and got his team quick scoring chances, the Wolves haven't been able to get out on the break; they've only scored 19 fast-break points in the last three games combined. Most often, with three guards on the floor the Wolves have played one-on-one, halfcourt basketball, settling for long, contested jumpers. Very unfashionable.
What's more, the Wolves' roster is not really suited to the full court game. Phoenix and Golden State were filled with long-armed, rangy athletes who subverted the concept of traditional positions on the floor, who could create chaos and confusion and overwhelm you with threes. Think Sean Marion, think Al Harrington. Love and Jefferson (to say nothing of Craig Smith and the MadDog) are not of this mold. They are more traditional back-to-the basket forwards who don't really have the speed or conditioning to run the floor consistently. Corey Brewer is closest to this model but, although his energy and explosiveness are pretty inspiring in the open court, he just too poor of a shooter to stay on the floor. With the personnel they have right now--Love and Jefferson, plus their one-on-one oriented guards, Foye and McCants--the Wolves are less like fast-breaking smallballers than a halfcourt team without a center. They're caught in a style-less void, their play and personality fluctuating throughout the game (and playing mediocre defense, to boot). It's possible that Jason Collins's return will inspire Wittman to tailor the lineup to his team's strengths, but, to tell you the truth, I'm not terribly optimistic.