What do we make of these two Wolves wins, an 87-77 win over the Clippers, and a 105-97 victory in Golden State? It appears that the T-Wolves are capable, with the right mixture of focus and effort, of playing with teams just as shorthanded and hapless as they are, and on the road at that. We know, I guess, that by not tanking games to improve their lottery position they are accruing "good karma"--we know that because Tom Hanneman and Jim Peterson each mentioned it at different points during the two games. Now while I am personally not totally sure of their position within the cycle of samsara, I do know that they've now won four of their last six games and have mostly looked pretty good doing it. Yes we can.
Tuesday night's game in LA was another object lesson in what amounts to an NBA truism: the line between winning and losing, between objective "success" and "failure," (as defined by winning games) is unbelievably fine. And, especially when talking about the league's stragglers, a club to which both these Clips and our Wolves surely belong, small gradations of effort and motivation make a huge difference. It's hard to believe, but the Clippers are even more stricken with injuries and sundry mishaps than the Wolves. Marcus Camby is hurt; Chris Kaman is hurt; Al Thornton is hurt; Ricky Davis is hurt (I know, I know); the charming Zach Randolph is staying wasted (yeah dawgs, I just linked you to the New York Post).
Which brings us to Tuesday's game. Before the season began, inspired by their trade for Camby and the Baron Davis signing, the Clips were pretty close to being my annual favorite team in the Association (last year was New Orleans). They had all the ingredients: long, rangy athletes, great shooters, young ballers and a point guard with an appetite for creative disorder. The first minutes of this game justified that hope just a little. They whipped the ball around the perimeter and shot without hesitation; Davis showed his full, disorienting array of odd-angled skip passes, aggressive, spinning drives and unexpected pull-up jumpers. But they quickly went cold from the field; and when the Wolves strolled out to a double-digit third quarter lead, it was obvious from the Clippers' defeated, exasperated body language, from their unwillingness to attack the basket and fight for boards, and from their nonchalant gunning that they were done. Consider: despite being undersized at almost every position on the floor, the Wolves outrebounded LA, 62-38.
Now, the Wolves, played pretty well; they shot the ball pretty efficiently, they played with energy, they moved the ball. And Ryan Gomes, now sporting an amazingly shaggy beard that makes him look like Pharoah Sanders's oud player (or bylophone player, or whatever) was at his best, sussing out open space on the court, diving to the hoop at opportune moments and hitting his shot (he finished the game with 13 boards and 24 points on 21 shots). But the Clips were in full shutdown mode before the fourth quarter even started. It was only a nine point game at that point, but it might as well have been 30.
On Wednesday the Wolves faced another of my favorite terrible teams, the magnificently chaotic Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are even more apocalyptically torn and frayed than either the Clippers and Wolves; they only dressed eight players (the league minimum) and were without Steven Jackson, Marco Bellinelli, Corey Maggette, Monta Ellis, Brandan Wright. That's a lot of points watching the game in very expensive, strangely tailored suits. Luckily for them, almost every player on their roster is a scorer; Jamal Crawford and Kelenna Azubuike obligingly fired away all game. Crawford was, as is almost always the case, blessedly un-conflicted about bombing threes. He'll shoot off the catch, off the dribble, in transition, with 20 seconds left on the shot clock or no time left--don't matter to Jamal. I love that skinny little guy.
Also luckily for the Warriors, they showed considerably more spirit than the Clippers had the night before; they were running the floor and attacking the Wolves up until the bitter end. But, not surprisingly I guess, it turns out that there's a reason that most teams don't generally use a seven-man rotation as the Warriors did on Wednesday (their eighth guy, a big white dude named Rob Kurz played only eight minutes although he did, of course, hit a three). As the second half wore on, the Warriors were obviously fatigued; they couldn't manage to keep up their frenetic pace.
I certainly don't mean to denigrate the Wolves' achievement. Winning any game in the NBA without your two leading scorers is no mean feat. Unlike that ugly home loss to the Warriors in March, the Wolves played game transition D. For the second night in a row, they fought hard for rebounds. Sure, the Clippers and Warriors could make pretty much anybody look like offensive savants but, as Britt Robson pointed out, Randy Foye's absence seems to have had a salutary effect on the Wolves' ball movement. Particularly when Mike Miller, Kevin Ollie, Ryan Gomes and Brian Cardinal shared the floor, all players with a good sense of timing and space and, most importantly, no inherent need to hold the ball, the offense really hummed. They sharply skipped the ball around the perimeter; they carved up Golden State's defense inside.
One sign that the Warriors aren't exactly playoff material: a lineup consisting of Ollie, Bobby Brown, Shelden Williams, Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith--y'know, not exactly Kareem/Magic/Worthy/Green/Scott--successfully saw the team through the fourth quarter. Still, competition level notwithstanding it's genuinely encouraging that the Pups have managed to stay together, managed to convince themselves that there's something worth playing for, managed to show a little heart. Karmically speaking, I think that's all we can ask for.