Timberwolves move toward the light


              Photo by Design Haus

Those of you who didn't show up at the Target Center Sunday night for the Wolves' 112-95 drubbing of the New York Knicks didn't just miss a rare Wolves winning streak--they also took the Clippers by double-digits on Friday evening; if you think its hard to be a Wolves fan, just try these Clips on for size--you also missed a glimpse of an even rarer bird: the Wolves playing out the final perfunctory minutes of a blowout in a mood other than morbid depression. This time it was our Wolves, and not their opponents, who got to goof off on the bench, sing along to the music during time outs and cheer the scrubs on.

And such scrubs! I'll tell you, I've never been happier to see Oley Pecherov and Sasha Pavlovic check in to a game than when each of them popped off the bench for their first action of the evening with two minutes left and their team up by 20.  And I'm happy to report that Pech plays the final minutes of a blowout exactly the way he plays at all other times: with a sleepy, bemused facial expression; with a pronounced lethargy in all phases of the game requiring exertion; and with a willingness to shoot almost instantaneously upon touching the ball.

New York Counterpoint

But the Wolves did some other things well, too, beyond basking tin the hazy glow of garbage time. The game began in much the same way as did last week's embarrassment in Madison Square Garden. The Wolves were again scattered on defense, caught between protecting the paint and guarding the three-point line and thereby doing neither. They were again drawn into the Knicks' hyperactive, quick-shooting ways and were unable to take advantage of their significant height advantage inside. Before we knew it, the Wolves were down 22-7 and another debacle seemed in the offing.

But then, for some reason, as they did in the first half of Friday's victory against the Clippers, the Wolves suddenly came alive to the world. The T-Wolves big men are taught to run to the front of the rim in any transition situation and present themselves to the ballhandlers.  During the Wolves' 20-4 first-half run against New York, both Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions were able to find those big guys--usually Kevin Love or Ryan Hollins--with sharp, early passes. This not only gave those fellows chances to score quick, easy hoops against the Knicks small frontcourt, it also initiated the inside-out action of the triangle offense and enabled the fluid ball-movement, cutting and open shots that are the offense's hallmarks. And finding that offensive flow limited the turnovers and early contested jumpers that had enabled the Knicks to run so prolifically  back in New York.

Even better, Love and Hollins's early success forced the Knicks to single-cover Al Jefferson. In addition to the aforementioned offensive execution, plus great defensive effort (not to mention Nate Robinson's painfully bad shot selection--he was 1-10 from the field), the Wolves' totally massive 34-14 second-half run was supported by Big Al's ability to school Wilson Chandler and David Lee and whichever other undersized Knick was unlucky enough to guard him.

Hatfull of Hollins, Part 2

Speaking of Ryan Hollins. Despite our report last week that Hollins was, according to more than one measure of adjusted plus-minus, among the NBA's worst players, he has received regular praise from Wolves' coach Kurt Rambis, who often commends Hollins's effort, posititivity and athletic ability. Now, there's almost no way that the Wolves' coaches are unaware of Hollins's miserable stats, not to mention his plainly visible lack of instinct and awareness on defense and his shoddy rebounding technique (he tends to chase the ball rather than boxing out). Indeed, by Rambis's own admission, Hollins is "a very raw player". I at first attributed this unwarranted praise to Rambis's motivational technique, a subtle effort to encourage Hollins to grow into the player that Rambis would like him to become.

Still, slightly dishonest encouragement is one thing and putting a guy in the starting lineup is yet another. I'm aware that this move was made in the name of balancing the first and second units (Kevin Love is now coming in off the bench) and wasn't meant to be seen as a promotion. But, guys, still. Amusingly, though, Hollins played awfully well in both of those games, hitting 13 of his 19 shots and posting a +46 in the two games combined. He showed nice touch around the basket, played energetic defense (energy has never been a problem) and seemed to basically know what he was doing. Is this because he was facing unmotivated (Clippers) and undersized (Knicks) opponents? Or is it possible that he's actually getting better? Stranger things have happened, I guess.