Timberwolves feeling the chill


     Photo by Kristin

It's been a gloomy few weeks here in old MN. There's the cold; there's the variously frozen precipitation; there's the creeping gray. And did you notice that until Tuesday, the sun basically didn't rise for like two weeks, just kind of revealed different shades of dim?  Well, the Wolves seem to be mired in this same winter malaise. After a serious teaser on Friday in which, for the second straight time, they lost to the Hornets on an easy, buzzer-beating layup (yes, layup) the Wolves are now back to scuffling to stay out of third-quarter garbage time.  

In New York...

As evidenced by their shockingly awful 132-105 loss to the Knicks on Tuesday, one of the Wolves less admirable qualities is their tendency to get drawn into a frenetic style of play by the NBA's fastest-paced teams. This might seem strange to you considering that a) the Wolves themselves are the league's fourth fastest crew, averaging 98.6 possessions per game and b) fast, frenetic games are stupid-fun to watch. 

But I'd ask you to consider a few qualifying points. First, the Wolves certainly are fast by design, but they're also fast by accident. They turn the ball over on a whopping 25.5% of their offensive possessions (that's good for third-worst in the NBA), which means they create nearly endless opportunities for their opponents to run, making for a much faster game with many more possessions for both teams. Top it off with the fact that the Wolves play some abysmal transition defense (only Memphis gives up more fast-break points per game), failing to get back quickly and failing to match up in a coherent way, and you've got yourself a torrential bleed of easy baskets.

What's more, all of the other teams on the top of that pace list--Phoenix, Indiana, Golden State, Denver--are loaded with three-point shooters, allowing them to exploit the perimeter space that opens up when everyone rushes madly to the hoop. The Wolves, with the strange recent exception of Corey Brewer, are most certainly not. This makes it almost a statistical impossibility for them to keep pace with the league's other sprinters; even on their best nights, they simply can't score enough to do it.

Finally, although a fast, open-court style of play is indeed a major facet of Kurt Rambis's offense, rather than mimicking the Warriors' gunning mania the Wolves are meant to play fast in the precise, measured mode of the Lakers. They're meant to move the ball with intention and coherence, to shoot within the flow of the offense and to value their possessions. When they race to keep up the likes of the Knicks, as they did on Tuesday, they rarely do any of these nice things. In games like this, generally the faster they play, the more careless and inattentive and decadent they become. As Knicks announcer Clyde Frazier said of Jonny Flynn after a night of confused possessions, forced shots and extended ball-handling odysseys, "that's more hocus-pocus from Flynn, than focus".  Say word, Clyde.   

Ohio Players

Despite their notorious pace, the Wolves only occasionally write their own distinctive signature on the game. More often, they're simply absorbed into whatever style their opponent sees fit to play. So if the Wolves seemed considerably more disciplined on Wednesday, in their 109-95 loss to the Cavaliers, it was probably just because the Cavs themselves are so unhurried and methodical.

Even though Cleveland in no hurry to force turnovers or blow the game open, defense provided the most striking contrast between the two teams. Until they lowered the sails in the fourth quarter, the Cavs played unfailingly conscientious D. They rotated aggressively and thoughtfully, always anticipating the Wolves' next pass so as to arrive at the target just as the ball did. They routinely directed the Wolves ball-handlers into the teeth of the defensive help, forcing them to make tentative, predictable passes. By contrast, the Timberwolves defense was totally reactive, unable to anticipate the next pass, always a step behind the ball, always frantically chasing open cutters and open shooters.

But the most enduring impression of the game by far was simply that the Cavs are a grotesquely better basketball team than the Wolves. Even playing without their two starting guards, Delonte West and Mo Williams, the Cavs were easily able to counter all of the Wolves strengths. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaq just absorbed Al Jefferson, made him look helpless and tiny. Anderson Varejao nullified Kevin Love with his crushing defense and humbling energy on the glass. And did I mention their three-point shooters? And did I mention Lebron James?