Minnesota Timberwolves fly close to the Suns


The Timberwolves are punished by their own inexperience in lots of ways. Chief among them is their malignant inconsistency, their tendency to completely forget how to play for extended periods of a game. On Sunday, the Wolves outscored the Suns 86-71 in the first, third and fourth quarters and played the kind of energetic, spirited basketball that is essential for them to be even remotely competitive. Most importantly, with their second-half comeback, they showed that they can still conjure up a little life, that they haven't despaired of the season completely. 

But, oops, there's such a thing as a second quarter. And in that one, the Suns blew the Wolves' doors off; in a matter of minutes, as the Suns rained threes and ran with abandon, the Wolves became demoralized and amateurish. They played totally frazzled offense. They lost their minds on defense. This is totally typical.    

Surf Solar

The Suns are not what you might call the Timberwolves' ideal matchup. I've dwelled before on Steve Nash's ability to create seemingly limitless possibility out of the limited material of your standard NBA offensive possession; on his use of subtle feints, hesitations and sleights of hand in creating baffling angles, in making the humbly real imaginary.

Somehow, at age 36, Nash is performing this wizardry as well as he ever has. But for just a moment I'd like to show some love for Nash's great foil, Amar'e Stoudemire.  Stoudemire seems to have settled for mediocrity as a defender and rebounder, but as an offensive player, the dude is pretty close to perfect. He's not quite the utter destroyer that he was before his knee injury, not quite as fearsomely athletic, but his game has become subtler and more nuanced.

Lets not get it twisted: Amar'e can still do some serious finishing at the rim, but he's also developed a gentle, accurate jumper. What's more--and, for me, it took seeing him up close to really notice this--Stoudemire has become adept at playing in open space, in creating angles of attack without the ball, enabling and responding to Nash's on-ball excursions. Once he gets the ball, he displays a rather stunning ability to subtly manipulate his huge body in the small spaces near the rim, making impossible shots look simple.

Right, so the Suns are a lot more talented than the Wolves (and we haven't even talked about Jason Richardson or Channing Frye). But the Wolves also struggle mightily in two crucial areas: stopping the ball in transition and rotating to open three-point shooters. When playing Phoenix, who play fast and shoot threes better than anybody in the league, and who, at the moment, are totally locked in, this is a serious problem. 

Pretty Poison

During the Suns' magnificent and terrifying second-quarter run, the Wolves simply could not get a handle on defending the pick and roll. No matter how often Channing Frye popped out for wide open threes (six times in the first half), the Wolves time and again overplayed the ball-handler and sagged into the paint, and then failed to recover in time to challenge Frye's shot. Phoenix forces you to make impossible defensive choices: protect the lane against Nash's penetration and Amar'e's rolls to the hoop or guard the three-point line?

So, when Nash and Stoudemire were in the game, constantly threatening the basket, this was forgiveable. But both were on the bench during most of Frye's assault, leaving Phoenix without a viable inside option. And still, there was Ryan Hollins hedging inside, repeatedly unable to anticipate where the ball would go. And there was Frye, hanging out wide open beyond the stripe with a nice, clean look at the hoop. Its hard to understand.

But then, in the third and fourth quarters, the light started to shine. The Wolves began to summon up the energy to challenge those outside shooters. Kevin Love (a career high 22 boards) and Al Jefferson (16 of his own) started to pursue rebounds and loose balls with a lusty vigor we haven't seen in months (Phoenix, it must be said, was not at their most...motivated during this run). And the Wolves, for the first extended period in weeks it seems, finally settled into the flow of the offense, finally found a way to get the ball, in rhythm and in good position, inside to Big Al.

It certainly helped that for much of this run the Wolves employed a lineup consisting of Love, Ramon Sessions, Wayne Ellington and Ryan Gomes, terrific ball-movers all of them. You may have noticed that Jonny Flynn'a absence? This is because, for much of Flynn's floor-time over the past few games, the Wolves don't seem to be running much of an offense at all; it's mostly just a game of watching Jonny dribble and waiting for something to happen. On Friday, Matt Guokas the Orlando Magic' color announcer had this to say: "[Flynn] is really not aware of the time, score, clock, teammates...if he's getting paid by the dribble, he's making a lot of money." That's harsh, but I can't say I disagree.     

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