Timberwolves search for meaning

On Wednesday night, the final night of this NBA season, a full nine games with significant postseason implications were played. A scoring title hung in the balance. Rivals squared off. So it is easy to understand why an observer might take one look at the Wolves-Pistons matchup and pronounce it irrelevant. Its pretty common: "this was a meaningless game," we'll say, "it didn't mean anything".

These two teams, after all, had won a combined 41 out of 163 games, and were oceans away from any postseason hopes. They had both endured seasons of hardship, monotony and grueling disappointment. Both hit the floor without key players, some of whom had, because of injury, long ago called it a season. Sounds like a total, irrelevant drag, right?     

Well, I'm not really comfortable with such pronouncements (though in the heat of another rotten T-Wolves third quarter, I admit that I've made them myself). All of that sweat and effort, all of those dynamic, swooping movements, all of those tiny moments of emotion and expression--these all have to mean something, right? Wednesday's game was way too weird and sad to be reduced and defined by its playoff implications; all of these compelling things must add up to more than just the metallic finality of a final score or a won-lost record. 

My feeling is that any game is meaningful to the extent that the participants invest themselves in it, invest their energy and physicality, their skill and care. And this is particularly true, I think, of any event performed with the beauty and force of your average NBA game. By this measure, the Wolves did their best to make their season's final game matter.

One would think that anyone who had endured such a punishing nine months would be relieved and excited to see it end. But relief isn't what we got from the Wolves. The players were deeply disappointed for sure, but that disappointment was not primarily focused on the season's poor results; they were mostly disappointed in the simple fact that they would not be able to continue playing.  "There's been a lot of bad feelings," said Corey Brewer, "but you gotta look forward to the future. You always want to keep playing basketball." "We're doing what we love to do," said Ryan Gomes, " just sucks that we'll be sitting at home and other guys will be playing in June."

From the outset of this game, it was evident that the Wolves were interested in making the most of their season's waning moments. They played the first half with verve and creativity; they scored easy baskets in the open floor and used the energy generated by these dunks and layups to play aggressive defense. Corey Brewer sprinted the floor; Ramon Sessions, playing long minutes in place of the injured Jonny Flynn, ran the offense with skill and energy; Kevin Love moved the ball and rebounded with ferocity. It looked for all the world like the depleted, beleaguered Pistons were ready to raise the white flag.

Which is why the Wolves' sallow, aimless fourth-quarter performance was so painful to watch. Their lack of leadership, of "an impact player," as Kurt Rambis put it, has been evident all year, but never more than during this debacle. Sessions turned the ball over and missed shots. Kevin Love lost himself to sulky frustration and was benched for the entire fourth quarter (in his place, Darko Milicic did this: missed the only shot he took; gathered no rebounds; got schooled by Charlie Villanueva).  The Wolves lost their way on defense; they took terrible shots; they crumbled.

Its tempting to blame some kind of moral failure--a lack of courage or desire--for such collapses. But really, things like steadfastness and confidence in the face of adversity are learned skills.  And their lack in Wednesday's game was just another sick sign of the Wolves youth and inexperience and mediocre talent; they just don't yet know how to play. Here is what Rambis told his team after the game: "Wherever your basketball travels take you, try to remember this season and remember how you felt and do whatever you can to not let it happen again." Sounds meaningful to me.