Timberwolves thunderstruck


                 Photo by thelastminute

There are a few minor tragedies at play whenever the Wolves face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The first is the simple fact that the young, rejuvenated team we're watching should, in a halfway decent world, be the Seattle SuperSonics, channeling Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and Dennis Johnson, sporting the league's best nickname (by far), and rocking those majestic futuro-disco unis. But, as we all know, the world isn't even remotely decent. This being so, the team plays in Oklahoma City, is owned by a pair of seriously unscrupulous Dubya supporters, and dresses like the "other team" in a deodorant commercial.      

The second tragedy: the Wolves and the Sonics traded their respective superstars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (both to the Celtics, as it happens) and began rebuilding at almost exactly the same moment in 2007. Since then, the Thunder have assembled a group of young, dynamic ballers, led by the impossibly long and silken Kevin Durant and have, at this very moment, a foot in the door of the seriously competitive Western Conference Playoffs. The Wolves? Rebuilding again.

There is a Light...

Nonetheless, this was a nice little game for the T-Wolves, one of those "good losses" reporters like to crow about and players and coaches like to deny the existence of. Even though Durant eventually took the game over and the Wolves weren't able to execute their offense in some final crucial possessions, there were lots of encouraging moments: the frenetic defense that forced huge turnovers in the final minutes and nearly won them the game; Damien Wilkins's ridonkulous dunk on Nenad Krstic; Jonny Flynn's newly found urge to distribute the ball, especially in transition (still sure does like to overdribble in the half-court though).

And also: Corey Brewer hitting four of his first five shots, all of them difficult layups under heavy pressure: the exact kind of shots that Corey was once flipping over the backboard before flailing out of bounds. Brewer went on to play one of the best games of his career, bailing out his teammates with long jumpers at the shot-clock buzzer, making some probing passes (a long, sharp entry pass to Al Jefferson, who had just finished sealing his man and was able to stroll for a layup was a particular favorite) and playing wild-eyed defense on Durant.

As for Jefferson, he seems to be returning to form. Not only did he abuse Nenad Krstic and Serge Ibaka in the low block, but he continues to play invigorated defense. With 41.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Wolves playing defense and trailing by two, Jefferson was on the left baseline, poised to double Durant the moment he got the ball.  But instead of dishing to Durant, the Thunder's Russell Westbrook took advantage of Jefferson's absence from the lane by exploding to the hoop. Big Al, though, anticipated Westbrook's drive and, with two aggressive lateral steps, moved into Westbrook's path to take the charge. It was a moment of instinct and heavy effort on Big Al's part, the kind of play that has never really been part of his defensive repertoire before this year. When he got the call he pumped his fists and let out a cathartic bellow; Al has been showing a newly soulful energy, a noticeable departure from his formerly sulky, introverted on-court demeanor. Above all, its pleasantly obvious right now that he desperately wants to win and to bring his teammates with him.

Hat Full of Hollins

For a second last week, when Oleksiy Pecherov was logging minutes and getting seriously worked by whomever he played against, it actually seemed to me that the Wolves missed Ryan Hollins. And why not? The fellow is seven feet tall and covered in muscle. He has a soft lovely jumper; he can leap really high; he gets super-excited. But I was wrong, though. Despite Pecherov's unsightly minutes, and the praise his energy routinely garners from coach Kurt Rambis, the team didn't miss Hollins at all. The minutes Hollins played in the third quarter on Wednesday night were typical. He showed the poor defensive instincts, both on the ball and from the help side, that have been evident all year; he was clumsy with the ball; he was out-maneuvered on the boards. When Hollins replaced Jefferson with 5:55 left in the third quarter, the Wolves offense suddenly became stagnant, showing poor spacing and holding the ball, and and the Thunder's own O suddenly became crisp and efficient. 

Of course, there are many reasons for that Thunder run--Thunder backup point guard Eric Maynor's carving up of Ramon Sessions for one--but I'm convinced that Hollins's unintuitive play was a huge catalyst.  Former Mavericks stat guru Wayne Winston compiles fairly exhaustive plus-minus data on all of the players and combinations in the league. And recently, Winston reinforced our impression that the Wolves get killed when Hollins is on the floor. In his analysis, Kevin Love and Ryan Gomes make the Wolves respectively nine and 14 points better than average per 48 minutes (this, incidentally, squares nicely with the adjusted plus-minus data we were chewing on last week, not to mention what we see with our eyes), while Hollins and Sasha Pavlovic make them 13 and 14 points worse than average (ditto). Awfully bad, dudes.

These numbers and this game put into relief two of the Wolves' most glaring deficiencies. First, as we've discussed before, is the lack of a wing player like Durant who can create his own shot. Second is the lack of a tall guy to complement Jefferson and Love, both of whom are terrific, but whose relative lack of size leaves the Wolves vulnerable defensively.  Hollins, Pecherov, and Nathan Jawai have all had their chances, but none of them have been able to play consistently well, even in backup roles. None of them can move the ball the way the triangle offense requires; and none of them have the combination of instinct, effort and ability needed to play solid interior defense.