Timberwolves anger King James, pay the price

I personally think basketball is way too beautiful and complex and weird to ever be accurately boiled down to the grammar of wins and losses. Clearly, winning the game is the goal of every player and team that steps on a court and is the (bear with me) narrative tension that gives shape to all of the game's aesthetic emotional and intellectual rewards. But to me these riches--the layers of style and skill, the interplay of bodies in space, the deeply perplexing social politics--are just way more interesting than simple wins and losses. So much more goes on in a basketball game than a final score would indicate and I find it depressing that even the players themselves  tend to reduce every game to the one, cold binary stat (probably as a function of the kind of insane competitiveness that allowed them to become pro athletes in the first place). Nonetheless, I've played on enough losing teams in my life to know that, if you don't win once in a while, shit gets bitterly depressing. And that quagmire of disappointment and futility starts to keep you from playing with the freedom and style and effort that the game deserves.

The Desert of the Real

The Wolves have clearly reached this point. The team seems to have burned through the grace period of optimistic goodwill granted by Kevin McHale's ascent (or, depending on how you view it, demotion) to Head Coach and that crushing but entertaining and well-fought loss to the Jazz. The bewildering blown layups and bricked jumpers of the losses to the Spurs and Lakers gave way, on Monday, to a hapless, defeated effort against the floundering Sacramento Kings--an unwelcome return to Wittman-era malaise.  Not only are the Wolves now missing even relatively easy shots at a  staggering rate (in the last four games they've shot: 41%, 36%, 42%, 41%), they've also returned to their nasty habit of forgetting to play defense for important stretches of the game--their soft pick and roll defense and slow rotations allowing open outside shots; their poor inside help giving free reign to penetrating guards. 

On Wednesday, the Wolves stayed more or less competitive with the Cleveland Cavaliers for three quarters. But those same defensive lapses were evident (this time it was Delonte West who exploited the Wolves soft middle and Wally Szczerbiak who hit from outside--Wally could always hit the open ones) as was the Wolves' tendency to forget about Mike Miller and Al Jefferson, their only reliable scorers. Plus, and most ominously, it was clear from early on that Lebron James could get to the basket--or, as he tends to draw three or four defenders every time he bats his eyelashes at the hoop, find a wide open teammate with a searing pass--pretty much whenever he felt like it.  You just knew that if the Wolves had the temerity to be within ten points in the fourth quarter, Lebron would roundly punish them for it and that they'd never have the guts to recover. Sure enough, a seven point fourth quarter deficit turned into a 23 point loss.  And although it was marginally less humiliating than an entire fourth quarter of Rodney Carney and Brian Cardinal (which we were blessed with in Sacramento), its always a little disheartening when a visiting player gets a standing ovation as he leaves the floor.

The King of Rock

I'm convinced, for a number of stats-y reasons (reasons like this one and this one), that Lebron is the best player in the league. But he's certainly not my favorite player. He's not really a great shooter and he has none of the grace and fluidity of movement that make players like Kobe and Dwyane Wade so pleasing to the eye. Lebron's movements are kind of mechanical and un-lovely. Because of his incredible strength, he doesn't need Jordan's nuance and creativity to get to the rim; he simply bulls his way there with all of the unhurried economy of a layup line.

Don't misunderstand me: Lebron has got skills.  It took seeing him in person to appreciate how decisive and creative a passer, and how smooth a ballhandler he is. But the real revelation was the sheer force with which Lebron James plays basketball. Everything he does, from a crossover dribble to a fadeaway jumper, he does with greater power and velocity than anyone else on the court. (I'd like to find a way to describe to you how incredibly large and athletic the guy is without using the usual lazy, slightly racist and dehumanizing sportswriterly terms--"monster," and "beast" come to mind--I guess what I'll say is that its rather miraculous that Lebron James and, say, me or Harold Bloom for instance, could be considered part of the same species.) At the end of the third quarter, he took a feed from West and dunked with simply unbelievable...speed, I guess; he just kind of flew at the hoop. The Wolves guarded him with their best healthy defender (Ryan Gomes); they trapped and doubled him; they stuck a smaller, quicker guy on him (the petulant Rashad McCants, who managed to end up sitting on his skinny bottom after an explosive Lebron cross). None of it prevented James from his usual violently productive work. I must say, I understand the appeal.  

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