The Wolves lost their ninth game in a row on Saturday, 95-93 to the Blazers. But in the strange way that certain losses in the course of an 18-win (and counting!) season can be refreshing, this one didn't feel too bad. Unlike their previous two games, bad losses to the Warriors and Lakers, in which our Pups appeared to have no hope of being competitive, they actually looked like an NBA team, one that could semi-regularly shoot the ball into the basket and even occasionally prevent their opponent from doing so. But for Brandon Roy's typical late-game hypnotics, they actually could have maybe won.
Mike Miller is the T-Wolf most blessed with the ability and experience to fill the scoring void left by Al Jefferson. But Miller has been burdened by some strange, misplaced notion of selflessness that caused him to pass up even the most pristine looks at the rim. Luckily for the Wolves, Ryan Gomes has not been similarly troubled.
Throughout the season, in addition to being warm, agreeable and chatty in a very un-NBA way, Gomes has been willing to perform lots of unpleasant tasks. He's played out of position and taken on an exhausting array of defensive assignments, guarding everyone from Kobe and Lebron, to Carlos Boozer and Ron Artest. All this seemed to take a toll on his offensive game. For much of the year he was on the margins of the offense, shooting poorly, unable to find a niche or a rhythm. But in the last ten games he's hit 50.6% of his shots and averaged 19.4 points per game, both major improvements over his season averages.
Against Portland, he hit 13 of his 18 shots, including a fading Kobe-esque 18-foot bank shot and a huge, contested three that brought them within one point with less than a minute left. Gomes' willingness to shoot tough jumpers in difficult situations has certainly distinguished him from Miller, but that's not the most important part of his surge.
With Big Al in the game, Gomes was often forced into a perimeter player's mode, forced to play outside in, to use his skills to create looks. Now, Gomes is a solid ballhandler and shooter, a terrific finisher at the rim and a versatile defender, but he is neither particularly skilled nor particularly dynamic. At first glance, in fact, it can be hard to detect any distinguishing style beyond just basic, modest basketball competence.
But Gomes does possess one very unique skill, beyond even his gift for conversation: an ability to envision the shape and flow of play, and a knack for using that vision to place himself in advantageous positions. He unobtrusively floats to empty space on the court, frequently materializing unguarded at the basket ready to receive the ball for an easy layup. And in Jefferson's absence, Gomes has been emboldened to be even more aggressive without the ball, cutting to the hoop with purpose, searching for open space and angles of attack. As opposed to Miller's false modesty, Gomes seems to have an authentic understanding of his own skills and their role within the scheme of the game. The fact that this understanding has recently coincided with a spate of hot shooting is one of the few saving graces of this current Wolves' swoon.