There was a stretch of play in last night's game against the Clippers in which the Wolves were absolutely flying around the court. They were pressuring the ball, hitting the boards, running the floor, dunking with abandon. The crowd was on its feet, gleeful and loud. Sounds nice, right? It's a shame that lovely 13-3 run occurred only in the depths of fourth quarter garbage time, the Target Center two thirds empty, the heavy-footed Mark Madsen on the floor and the Wolves down by 29. The 107-84 beating was their second blowout loss, and their second lost, uninspired performance, in as many nights. Things, for the Wolves, are not good.
None of the Wolves were prepared to admit that they had hit rock bottom, but for their own sakes, they'd better hope this was it. The Clippers are an enigmatically bad team this year. They have a roster full of stars--Baron Davis, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman, Ricky Davis (kidding), and the newly acquired Zach Randolph--but have played terribly, jumping out to a 3-16 record. Star power notwithstanding, this home game was, for the Wolves, eminently winnable and desperately needed.
And yet they delivered one of their worst performances of the year. Al Jefferson was his old self, punishing the Clips with jumpers and baseline spins in scoring 28 points on 13-22 shooting. The rest of the team, though, was painful to watch offensively, hitting only 17 of 55 (that's, lets see, 30.9%)--and five of those makes were during that lively, Madsen-fueled endgame. As Randy Wittman pointed out, the Clippers translated all of those missed shots into early offense, attacking the Wolves defense in transition, when it was at its most vulnerable. And, led by the majestically angular Camby (12 points, 19 rebounds(!) seven blocks, major, almost rueful intimidation) the Clippers killed the disheartened T-Wolves on the boards, 54-38. Pretty ugly in other words.
My Own Prison
To a man, the Wolves claim that they are still energized and positive, that their foremost goal is to "stay together" as a team. But it's pretty clear from their exasperated on-court expressions and body language, from their timid offense and basic lack of competitiveness (not to mention the fragile shell that was once Rashad McCants) that the team is suffering from a major crisis of confidence. Most watching the game last night would point to the poor rebounding and the loss of loose balls, to the often gaping seams in the Wolves' defense and call it a lack of effort. And that's true in many ways--they looked beaten and emotionally spent before halftime. But it's not like they weren't playing hard, weren't trying to win. Playing with the abandon and intensity needed to win NBA games is the product of a certain freedom of mind; players need to be so confident in themselves and their abilities, in their teammates and in their team's style that their movements and decisions are instinctive and unencumbered. The Wolves, by contrast, (with the exception of Jefferson on the low block and Kevin Love on the offensive glass) are hesitant and indecisive, appearing to instantaneously second guess every decision and action.
Much of this crisis can, I think, be traced to the team's lack of a discernible identity. As I've written before, Jefferson's marvelous offensive gifts--his sublime footwork and soft touch--and Mike Miller's outside shooting ability would seem to suggest a certain style: an inside-outside game with the offense running through the post, capitalizing on Big Al's ability to draw double-teams. But Miller (who missed last night's game with an ankle sprain) has been reticent to shoot, too often deferring to his much less accurate teammates. And the team, either by design (as in Orlando when Wittman allowed Al to be swallowed up and put into foul trouble by the bigger, stronger, more athletic Dwight Howard) or thanks to lack of poise, often seems to forget Jefferson, relying unduly on the guards to create shots. When Jefferson is out of the game and the Wolves, pretty much by necessity, go to a smaller lineup, they seem caught between an up-tempo, pressuring style, (which they're not really athletic enough to pull off), and the more traditional halfcourt game (which they're not really big enough to pull off).
The results of this are what we see every game: an aimless, powerfully un-confident team, one that does not trust its own abilities or identity. This translates into fourth quarter collapses and lackluster efforts against bad teams but also into schizophrenic, aesthetically blank basketball. When teams like the Warriors or Knicks lose, as they often do, they at least do so on their own terms and with flare. The Wolves seem to allow either their opponent or simple inertia to determine how they play. They pose no challenge and evince little excitement. This, it seems to me, more than demanding effort, more than managing the minutiae of each play and each substitution, is the job of the coach: to give his players a stylistic home, an attitude toward the game, to allow them the space to be great.