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Minnesota Timberwolves exasperate, fall to Houston Rockets

Here is an essential excerpt of the Wolves' aggravating loss to Houston: There are three minutes left in the game; the Wolves are down by nine but playing in reckless comeback mode (their most effective mode, as it happens). As they are wont to do at these times, they are creating turnovers, forcing missed shots, running the floor, playing with reckless energy. Playing, in other words, the way they are supposed to play for the entire game. Corey Brewer has just been fouled in transition, and is about to shoot two free throws. It looks like they've got a shot here, right?

Well, Brewer misses the first free-throw. Then he misses the second free-throw. Then the Rockets' Luis Scola hits a contested jumper. Then Ryan Hollins turns it over by throwing the subsequent inbounds pass sort of high in the air to nobody.  The Rockets immediately find Kevin Martin, the league's most efficient scoring guard, inexplicably wide open in the corner for a crushing three. Oh wait, I can explain it: It's because nobody ran back to guard him! Game over.

The Hummingbird

I call this sequence essential because it typifies so much of what made this game difficult to watch. Stretches of inspired free-flowing play interspersed with moments of extreme airheadedness; repeated squandering of opportunities; the inability to focus their attention on the glaringly obvious. The obvious being, in this case, Martin and Aaron Brooks, the Rockets' most dangerous scorers.

The Wolves lost this game in two places: on the boards (the Rockets had a 49-40 advantage--and 15 of those 49 were offensive) and at the three-point line (Houston hit 11 of 26 compared to the Wolves' three of 13). Martin and Brooks hit seven of their 18 threes, largely because the Wolves were noncommittal in the hard work of chasing them around screens. Over and over, the Wolves gave the two gunners ample space to shoot.

Jonny Flynn, in particular, struggled to stay with Brooks. Now, Aaron Brooks just may be the quickest player in the league. And he plays unpredictably, equally likely to hoist a 25-footer as flit to the rim; the little man is not easy to guard. But Flynn is also pretty quick. Quick enough to stay in Brooks's face as he curls around screens, quick enough to avoid being repeatedly beaten off the dribble. His inability to do these things speak more to his defensive indecision--and possibly a lack of an understanding of the exhaustive, consistent effort required to cover a player like Brooks--than to any athletic deficiency. He just doesn't yet seem to have the knowledge and skills to play even average NBA defense.

The Argentine

Not helping matters at all: Al Jefferson's two game suspension for DWI. Houston's Scola, then, was free to wrangle 21 rebounds, eight of them on offense. Scola is adept at playing, as Kevin Love put it, "in between," avoiding the predictable spots on the floor, floating in open space. He pursues the ball and attacks the rim from off-kilter angles with a combination of relentlessness and thoughtful unpredictability. In other words, he's totally out of Ryan Hollins's league. In terms of playing time, Hollins and Darko Milicic were the prime beneficiaries of Jefferson's absence. And although, on both ends of the floor, Darko shows considerably more intuition and awareness than does Hollins, neither one of them was up to the difficult task of defending both against Brooks's drives to the rim and Scola's low-post witchery. Both Hollins and Milicic are long and rangy and committed, emotionally at least, to playing aggressive defense. But in making the tough decisions that disciplined offensive teams like the Rockets ask defenders to quickly make--help in the lane or stay with my man? trap the pick-and-roll or show and recover?--the two were far too tepid and indecisive.

Wolves' coach Kurt Ramis's decision, just before the All-Star break, to start Hollins over Love did have some justification. Rambis wanted to bolster the play of the second unit by pairing Love with Ramon Sessions. He wanted to inject Hollins's energy into the game's opening moments. He wanted to give Al Jefferson minutes at his natural power-forward spot, next to an athletic seven footer. This all makes sense and many of these things have paid off. Al has had some terrific first quarters; the second unit's play has, indeed, improved.

But after an initial burst of magic, Hollins has regressed back to the kind of play that, by multiple measures of adjusted plus-minus, continue to make him one of the least effective players in the league. Hollins hit all seven of his shots against Houston (mostly wide open dunks) in what must be judged as one of the worst perfect-shooting performances in league history. He was only able to secure five rebounds in his 26 minutes; he looked unprepared for the ball when it was passed to him; and we've already said what we need to say about his D. Now, despite coming off the bench, Love continue to see more minutes than Hollins. And when Jefferson plays, starting Hollins may still be a defensible position, for all of the reasons listed above. But without Jefferson in the lineup,  Hollins's wayward defense and rebounding deeply weakened the Wolves' starting unit.

With his competitiveness and great sense of the game, Love is plainly a better foil for Scola than is Hollins. In the first quarter on Saturday, the swarthy Argentine scored nine points and gathered four rebounds before Love even saw the floor. Love insists that he's content with his new role, but frustration has been seeping into his body language. For a guy as competitive as Love, this whole thing has to be a little galling.