Timberwolves give reasons to hope in this cosmic bummer of a season

Timberwolves give reasons to hope in this cosmic bummer of a season
Photo: Toby__/Flickr

Last week we thoroughly depressed ourselves by delving deep into this cosmic bummer of a season, the depleted effort, the many steps backward. The Wolves have lost three games since then, and have run their losing streak to 14 (and 20 out of 21). 

On Wednesday, in Charlotte, they demonstrated their full spectrum of shortcomings. They were unable to stop the ball in transition. The springy, energetic Bobcats exposed the T-Wolves' crippling lack of length and athleticism. They couldn't protect their own basket. They went through stretches of incredible carelessness on offense and were thus subject to the same kind of punishing run (and attendant despairing attitude) that have plagued them all year. 

But friends, the negativity is starting to wear us out; we want to talk about some moderately happy things. Despite everything, there have been some signs of life, signs that the Wolves' pride and competitiveness haven't completely flickered out. So lets put on our optimistic pants and discuss some reasons to hope.  

Reason 1: The Jefferson

Remember when, before his knee injury, Al Jefferson used to to enchant defenders, used to wrap them into complicated little knots, unwrap them, and then re-wrap them into different knots? Well, he's starting to do it again. Al befuddled Chris Bosh and a host of others in the first quarter of Monday's game against Toronto. He put them off-balance with his rubbery up-fake; he dropped supple baseline spins; he split a double-team with an inside pivot and lefty layup. Even more encouraging: against the Bobcats, he induced Theo Ratliff to jump for that shot-fake, then spun into the paint and finished with a flat-footed, two-handed dunk. This is a move that, three months ago, Al was simply physically unable to pull off. 

I think you'll notice that most positive things here have a caveat attached. This one has two. First, although Jefferson has done such terrific damage in the first quarter of recent games, the Wolves have been unable to go back inside later in the game. The team will endure their customary stretches of wretched offense, of stilted ball movement and contested jumpers, without Al ever touching the ball. Part of this has to do with a diminished aggressiveness on Big Al's part as the game wears on. But part of it comes down to simple execution: when the Wolves' don't space the floor and don't move the ball and begin to rely only on their one-on-one skills, its very hard for them to get the ball inside to Al in good position.

The second caveat is that Jefferson has been a contributing factor to the deep defensive malaise that has gripped the whole team. Simply put, his effort in attacking the pick-and-roll, in helping from the weakside, in protecting the basket, in simply running back on defense has not been nearly as consistent as his effort with the ball in his hands. Kurt Rambis has said many times that Al is being asked to do things defensively that he has never been asked to do before. Whether he can actually do them remains to be seen.

Reason 2: Wayne Manor

Corey Brewer has regressed back to the mean somewhat in the past month, but his drastic improvement--in shooting touch, in decision-making, in body control--has been one of the season's most encouraging stories. But although Brewer's hot three-point shooting has been a completely pleasant surprise, Wayne Ellington is the player who has hit 48.9% of his threes since the New Year (that's good for second-best in the league, dawgs).

Brewer has been hitting his shot for long enough now that it might be safe to hope that its not a fluke. Still, even when the ball does go in, that gangly, off-kilter shooting motion gives the impression of a happy accident. This is not the case for Ellington, whose balanced delivery and high arc tend to produce the satisfyingly forceful, splashy rip through the net that is one of the game's simple pleasures.

What's more, while the game once seemed to be moving faster than his ability to comprehend it, Ellington is beginning to seem comfortable and intuitive on the court. He's been able to use the floor's empty space to create open shots for himself; he's been able to move the ball within the logic of the offense; he's starting to grasp the nuances of pick-and-roll defense and offensive movement. And his fearless rebounding and energetic defense bear witness to the fact that he is one of the few Wolves whose effort has remained consistent throughout the misery. Ellington still dribbles himself into traps and throws the ball away and gets lost in the defensive wash, but it looks like he's turning into a player.

Reason 3: Golden Triangle

There have been a few moments in the last few games--moments of harmonized chakras and suddenly brilliant, self-evident truths-- in which the Wolves have seemed reasonably competent on offense. Ramon Sessions finds Al Jefferson in early position under the hoop with a sharp entry pass; Al and Brewer use a perfect handoff screen to create an open lane to the basket and a dunk; all five players touch the ball as it flows from post to perimeter and side to side, eventually finding Ellington for a wide open three.  You see, these things are actually possible! Patience with this green, young team may one day be rewarded!

Reason 4: Rubio Looms

This should cheer you up:  

Reason 5: Little Red Birds

It pleases me greatly that this fine, good humored gent has returned. I was beginning to miss the smirky intensity, the wholesome, dad-like good looks, the egregious fouls.  

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