Timberwolves soar and plummet

You might not know it from the wet snow or the constant, bitter wind but, friends, it is April. Major League Baseball has started, the days are getting blessedly longer, the kids are on Spring break.  Most importantly, only a week remains of the NBA regular season. At this point the Wolves, limping out on the other side of a schizophrenic, injury ravaged season, should by all rights have no impact on the NBA playoffs.  As anyone who witnessed Sunday's dreary, uncompetitive 20-point loss to Denver can attest, they simply shouldn't matter.  And yet, somehow, the T-Wolves managed to win in Utah on Friday, against an actual bona fide playoff team, a team with the second strongest home-court advantage in the conference. This is confusing. What have we learned? 

Lessons of Darkness

Well we've learned that the Wolves, even missing a full five of their top players due to illness or injury, can beat a good team under the following conditions:

1) They shoot the ball unreasonably well.  Rodney Carney and Bassie Telfair, for instance, were a combined 14-22 from the field, and 7-11 from three-point range. And Ryan Gomes, again understanding that when you play without your top two scorers, someone has to jack up shots, for better or worse, hit 10 of his 20. Gomes earned the first technical foul I've ever seen him get and carried a sick-of-it-all look on his face all night, like this long, stupid season had finally ground him down. But he also carried the Wolves all night, refusing to give in even when it looked like Utah might run away with the game.

2) They come up with incredibly gutsy/fortuitous plays at the end of the game, the kind they almost never make. Like, for instance: Mike Miller's clutch jumper with 32 seconds left. Or Rodney Carney's flailing, maximally elevated left-handed tip in of Gomes' desperate, shot-clock beating three. Basketball sure does seem a lot easier if you can jump three feet off the floor.

3) The other team--and this is an important one--is playing their fourth game in five nights and is too fatigued to apply their normal late game pressure.  Yeah, that helps.

When, as in that dismal Sunday evening showing, none of these things are true--when the Wovles aren't miraculously shooting the lights out, when they are too discouraged to reach beyond themselves for game altering plays, when they're playing a healthy, well-rested playoff team, they really don't stand a chance.

The less said about the Nuggets game the better.  Most of the fourth quarter was played with that barely coherent, almost bored playfulness typical of late-season NBA blowouts. There was Denver's Anthony Carter lacing full-court passes to Johan Petro. There was Sonny Weems, just called up from the D-League, blowing dunks and missing free-throws. There was Mad Dog, throwing up airballs and flopping on the floor like it was game seven of the finals. There were Shelden Williams and Bobby Brown lighting up the scoreboard (to be fair to Shelden, he did have a terrific game against Utah, but against Denver's Nene and Chris Andersen, he was back to his old, unobtrusive self until George Karl cleared his bench).

Burden of Dreams

Here's something else we've learned: it doesn't look like the Wolves have an actual starting point guard on their roster. This rough season seems to have taken a toll on Sebastian Telfair's play. He and Gomes appear to be the Wolves most troubled by the constant losing; as the year has worn on, Telfair has become more and more demonstrative of his frustration--with the officials, with his teammates with the almost helpless state the team finds itself in. And he also, understandably, seems to be trying to overcompensate for the team's injury-fueled lack of scoring. You can see this frustration pervade his expressions and body language when, like on Sunday, the game starts to get away from the Wolves. His face becomes a mask; his body becomes hyperkinetic; he shoots too much; he dribbles too much; he turns it over. The problem is that both success and failure can get him into this mode.

A prime example occurred against Utah when Brevin Knight, the Jazz's backup point guard came into the game. Bassie knew that Knight had no hope of guarding him, so he (Bassie) blew by him for layups on consecutive plays. The next time down, Telfair, emboldened by his success, crossed over twice. He shimmied and shook, he attacked and then retreated. Finally, after he had already telegraphed his intentions and given the defense time to compensate, he made a move to the hoop, only to have it stripped away. 

This pains me to say, since Bassie is one of my favorite Timberwolves, but the fact is that Kevin Ollie, who I've recently accused of being totally uneffective, has been outplaying him recently. He's been passing more shrewdly, fostering better ball movement, creating better looks for his teammates, committing fewer turnovers and even playing better defense (in the six games since Ollie has become a starter, his plus/minus has been an average -3.67, to Bassie's -8). Neither of them, though, the Utah aberration notwithstanding, can finish their shots, Ollie because of age, Bassie because of some mysterious combination of small size and psychology.

When Telfair's at his best, he is able to balance his ability to attack and probe, to push his skills to their limits, with the imperative to create fluid ball movement. Unfortunately, over the past few months, this balance has been fleeting. Surely, it's hard to be a pass-first point guard with an erratic jumper on a team missing most of its effective scorers; my hope is that this team, restored to full strength and flush with talented draft picks can be a place where Bassie can flourish. Realistically, though, I think we have to hope that one of those picks is a starting point guard.