The Wolves are now five games into their post-Al Jefferson voyage; and, no surprise, the cosmic seas are a little rough. Much of the time (particularly in Friday's unwatchable home loss to Indiana) they've looked as lost as you might expect: uneasy and skittish on offense and game but undersized and overmatched on D. But occasionally--the second half of their surprising win over Miami last Wednesday or, even more surprisingly, for much of Sunday's intensely entertaining loss to the Lakers--they've played the frenetic, wide open style that will have to be their hallmark if they want to keep things from getting nightmarish. Arc of a Journey
More than any player I've ever watched, Rodney Carney lives in that tenuous threshold between blooper and highlight. Against LA, between bobbling passes, dribbling off of his foot and falling over without warning or evident cause, Hot Rod managed to do some fairly inspiring things, most of which involved jumping very high. The most unbelievable: with about seven minutes left in the game and the Wolves ahead by a point, Kobe B. Bryant, seemingly on the verge of entering one of his cold, game-transcending rages, set about to abusing Randy Foye on the high block. He shook right, then pivoted into the lane where he elevated for that impeccably soft, fading ten footer he almost always hits.
And it looked like he was going to stick this one too until Hot Rod, fresh off rejecting Trevor Ariza's jumper the previous possession (impressive in its own right), floated in from, basically, offscreen and swatted the shot at the height of its arc, probably 12 feet off the floor and at least five feet feet away from where Bean released it. In recent days, Kobe himself articulated that classic NBA archetype, the blocked shot as act of cruelty. But this was so much gentler and more languid, just an extension of Rodney's general state of flotation, as if he were just helpfully guiding the ball somewhere new. Like every great thing he does, it was both electrifying and fast and almost accidental.
With their fierce, ball-hawking double-teams (spearheaded by Mr. Carney) the Wolves kept Kobe frustrated and off-balance for most of the second half. And they translated that scrappy D into some fluid, attacking offensive basketball. Aided early by some less than playoff-level defensive intensity on the Lakers' part, the Wolves did exactly what Kevin McHale has been insisting they do since Big Al went down: they raced the floor. When they couldn't score in transition, they attacked the Lakers' ball pressure with dribble penetration and then kicked the ball outside, facilitating sharp, inside-out and cross-court ball movement.
Other People's Lives
Of course, once you've created an open look, the problem of hitting it remains. Even before Jefferson went down, the Wolves were, at best, streaky shooters. Now that he's gone they're forced to rely on their erratic crew of jumpshooters to step up their games. Ryan Gomes and Sebastian Telfair are both players who are aware of their offensive weaknesses. Neither are tremendous shooters off the dribble, but both have taken it on themselves to fill the vacuum and create more offense for themselves (it's one of the few times when looking for your own shot can legitimately be viewed as a selfless act).
Unfortunately, Mike Miller, the team's one truly great shooter, hasn't caught the same bug. Miller continues to pass up open shots, choosing instead to drive and kick, a situation that occasionally results in a layup for a teammate, but just as often creates a chaos of turnovers and forced shots. Let's get it straight: Mike Miller is a fine passer but he simply doesn't have the playmaker's instincts or gifts. When he's shooting the ball, he's (no joke) one of the most sublime athletes in the world. In this new, self-chosen role, though, he seems awkwardly out of place, a little heavy-footed, a little out of control.