As time ran down in the fourth quarter of the Timberwolves' third consecutive blowout loss, Jonny Flynn stared down the Blazers' Jerryd Bayless. He began a baroque assortment of crossovers and hesitations, tossing in a flourishing high-step for good measure, as if with this one display of style and attitude in a game already in garbage time, he could redeem his team's depressing performance. Finally, he scooted by Bayless, launched himself at the basket ... and proceeded to get his flailing shot roundly swatted away by one of Portland's many long-limbed defenders. It was just another off-key moment for the Wolves, in a game filled with them, filled with moments of hesitant, tone-deaf play. Wolves fans, there was not much to like about this one.
Despite his team's poor play and his own struggles to regain his pre-injury form, after the game Al Jefferson struck a fairly optimistic, reflective tone. Patience, he said, is a term he once threw around loosely, just an empty buzz-word to appease the media. But now, in his sixth professional season, the depth of his team's inexperience sinking in, he professed to understand that "it's really gonna take some time...I guess you just have to be patient." And, pleasantly, he seemed actually to be at peace with it.
Witnessing the stark contrast between the two teams' half-court offenses -- the Blazers' O was a lovely mix of crisp motion and fluid ball movement while the Wolves continued to look simultaneously indecisive and heedless -- fans would do well to absorb some of Big Al's serenity. Despite the frustration of watching the team's cocktail of forced passes, over-dribbling and stilted ball movement, patience is a little easier to come by on the offensive end of the floor. Everyone understands that Kurt Rambis is trying to institute a complicated offense with a steep learning curve on a team with little shared history, a recovering superstar and a 20-year-old point guard. Everyone knew this would take longer than nine games.
Twice Shy, Baby
The real struggle to stay cheerful is on defense. Strangely, both Rambis and Jefferson were fairly upbeat about the team's defensive performance. Both fellas claimed to be happy with the team's progress and claimed that much of Portland's offensive success stemmed simply from great shot-making--well defended shots with time running down that simply went in the basket. From where I sat, it was pretty hard to see what they were seeing. What I saw was Portland tying the Wolves in knots, causing them to scramble with their sharp passing and off-the-ball screens, creating mismatches and exploiting them at will, causing defenders to flail with subtle ball fakes (Corey Brewer was a repeated victim).
Despite the fact that the Wolves' best defenders ('best' being, admittedly, highly relative in this context) all play on the perimeter, their on-the-ball defense has been really terrible. Just as the Warriors' Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson did on Monday, the Blazers' Andre Miller, Brandon Roy and Steve Blake had very little trouble beating their defenders off the dribble. And once beaten, the Wolves' help defense has been painfully slow to react: on Wednesday, Roy and Miller had all the time and space they needed to survey the floor from the paint. As the Wolves scrambled to rotate, the ball invariably seemed to find an open shooter.
The Wolves have seemed out of step, too, in defending pick and roll and off the ball cutters, which has resulted in so many more dunks and alley-oops than really seems dignified. And once the tide starts to turn, once their opponent has started hitting threes and getting to the rim, the Wolves have come unglued. They start to kick the ball around; their defensive confusion intensifies; their transition defense decays; their opponent continues to dunk the hell out of the ball. And so on.