Timberwolves let one melt away

Timberwolves let one melt away

Photo by Creative Location

Its not often that you can say that the Timberwolves ought to have won a game. But, if we're being honest with ourselves, they really ought to have beaten the New Orleans Hornets last night. The first half was one of their season's finest extended stretches of play. They attacked the defense on every possession. They moved without the ball, creating passing lanes and open space. They passed with purpose and intuition. They even played more-than-competent defense on Chris Paul, the League's finest point guard and man so intensely serene that his inner light visibly shines. They played, in Kurt Rambis's words, "a style of ball that I would be proud to coach." Then things got complicated. 

We all understand good basketball when we see it. How and why it happens, though, can be a little mysterious, even to the participants themselves. You can play with great effort and with the best of intentions and the shots still don't fall, the passes still don't quite click. The mystery seems to be particularly deep for the Wolves; progress comes in moments of enlightenment that arise without warning and, just as suddenly, die away. One could argue that this inability to understand and replicate one's own successes is one of the defining characteristics of a young, immature team. For whatever reason, though, in the third quarter, the T-Wolves suddenly stopped doing all of those aforementioned great things. They stopped moving without the ball; they made mental errors on defense; they forced passes; their offense became predictable and stagnant.

Jonny Flynn typified this game's bewildering arc. The first half was Flynn's finest stretch of play to date. He played with energy and composure. He had the vision to make penetrating passes and find players cutting to the basket.  He took, and made, mostly good shots. He seemed to understand the movement and flow of the offense, and his place at its center.

Now, I like Jonny Flynn and truly enjoy watching him play; I'm already sick of talking about his shortcomings and I  was really excited to write these nice things about him. I'm bummed out that I can't really do that anymore. After that magical first half, whatever deeper understanding Flynn seemed to have gained was gone. He lost the ability to impose purpose and coherence on the offense; like his teammates, he pressed and became unglued. This became all too apparent at the end of the fourth quarter.

Up by a point with 1:42 left, Flynn made what looked like a possible game-winning play. Outnumbered on a two-on-one break, he cleanly stripped the ball from Peja Stojakovich and then, falling out of bounds flicked it to a teammate, saving the possession for the Wolves. It was a shockingly great play, which Flynn proceeded to waste by  literally dribbling out the shot clock. The ball never left his hands the entire possession, which ended with a desperate 21-foot airball and a shot clock violation. Flynn was lost again the next time down the floor. Again, he dribbled aimlessly for much of the possession, unable to create an opportunity for himself or his teammates. Again, he forced a shot with little time remaining. He looked like he had no idea what he was doing.

Finally, the play that really stung. With 3.9 seconds remaining, the Chris Paul prepared to inbound the ball, with his team down by a point. Now, everybody in the building knew what would happen here: Paul would almost immediately get the ball back and take the final shot. So it was kind of surprising when Flynn lost sight of Paul, who cut to the basket, received a soft pass from David West, and easily banked in a two-footer. The end. Why would Flynn turn his head and body away from his man and towards the 6'10" West, well-covered and stranded 30 feet from the hoop?How could he possibly have forgotten, even momentarily, to keep an eye on the man he was guarding, one of the three or four best players in the world?  Like I said, its kind of mysterious.  

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