Timberwolves turn back the clock


                   Photo by Incurable Hippie

Here's something we learned on Saturday night, as the Wolves donned their "vintage" uniforms, "turning back the clock" to 1989, their inaugural season: for emerging to the world during the height of the teal revolution, the Wolves old uniforms are actually kind of sharp. In their simplicity of color and design, they compare favorably not just to their bland current duds but also to those of their '89 counterparts, the Orlando Magic, who still insist on rocking a pinstriped, synthetically metallic shade of blue that calls to mind a sort of baseball-sorcerer Mickey Mouse dressed up as an office tower.

But aside from the classy unis, the Bell Biv Devoe, and the Wang-Chung, the whole nostalgic evening begged the question: nostalgia for what? For the glory days of Scott Roth and Tyrone Corbin and the veiny-faced Bill Musselman? For playing basketball in the Metrodome? For getting made fun of for having insufficiently expensive sneakers? (I'm speaking, of course, of my 12-year-old self, not the T-Wolves) Luckily for us, by actually winning the game, the Wolves themselves failed to indulge in the blithely manufactured spirit of the evening. Beating a playoff team? Very un-1989.

In advance, the Utah game didn't seem too promising. The Wolves were playing the second night of a back-to-back, traveling from New Orleans after being thoroughly manipulated and demoralized by the newly healthy Chris Paul. And the Jazz are a physical team, who had won seven of their last nine games and whose cutting and ball movement ought to wreak havoc on the Wolves' easily bewildered defense. But, for some reason, the Jazz have recently been unable to give the Wolves the spanking they deserve.

Largely, this has to do with renewed defensive effort--apparently, not constantly being down by 20 points can benefit a team's morale. The Wolves, as expected were often unable to figure out the Jazz's motion offense--there were open cutters and open threes--but they were active, playing hard, getting deflections and generally, as Kurt Rambis put it, "doing the right things".

The "rightness" of these things showed up not so much in the defensive stats (Utah did shoot over 50% from the field and score 101 points), as in what it enabled for the Wolves' offense. For maybe the first time this season, they were able to use turnovers and rebounds to run the floor the way they've wanted to all along.

The Triangle Speaks

The dunks and layups and open transition jumpers that the running game made possible had another helpful effect. It made the Wolves comfortable and confident enough to play their season's most coherent, purposeful half-court offense. For the first time, we began to see how the triangle offense is supposed to work, how its fluid, reactive nexus of passing and motion can create open space and easy looks at the hoop. The Wolves shot a season-high 58% from the field. And Wayne Ellington, Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions all seemed to have moments of epiphany, in which the angles and dimensions of the court became illuminated, and the ball moved effortlessly.

But at the center of this was Ryan Gomes, who seems, at times to be waiting patiently for his teammates to catch up with his understanding of movement and space.  At the brief moments that they do, the ball just seems to find Gomes in opportune positions: open in the weakside corner; diving to the hoop at just the right moment; or taking advantage of an advantageous mismatch.

After the game, Rambis, in his firm, serious, narcotically calm manner, revealed one of the core goals of this (or probably any) offense: execute the principles properly and then "let the defense tell you what to do." That is: don't force yourself on the moment; accept the openings and opportunities that the natural flow of the game--the movement of ball, teammates and defenders--presents to you. Gomes is a master of this kind of acceptance. His jumper is streaky, which is perplexing, considering his consistent, conscientious approach to the game.  But when he's shooting well, as he has been in three of the last four games--he was soberingly good against Utah, hitting nine of his ten shots and all five of his free throws--he's a marvel of efficient, attuned action.

Love is a Battlefield

Another Wolf with the potential for such attunement is Kevin Love. Love saw his first game action of this season this weekend and many of his trademarks are already in evidence. We saw: the valiant rebounding (21 boards in just 50 minutes so far, plus one astonishingly intense under-the-basket battle with the Jazz's Paul Millsap); the crisp, accurate outlet passes, like the one he lofted over four player's onto the numbers of Damien Wilkins; increasingly accurate shooting (five of eight from three in these two games). And although, by his own admission, his conditioning and defensive awareness have been slower to return, he played terrifically intense, active defense in the Utah game's pivotal second-half moments.

When Jerry Sloan, Utah's venerable coach, was asked whether Love made a difference in the game, he responded this way: "You're not joking are you? He knows how to play basketball...he passes, he sets screens, its not that difficult [this obviously in reference to his disgust at his own team's effort and execution]. He just plays and makes it self-fulfilling." That's pretty high praise coming from Sloan, the terse basketball fundamentalist.

There certainly is something conservative about Love's game, from his lack of obvious athleticism (not big and strong, not quick, can't jump), to his passing skill, to his manful effort. With these "fundamentals," as they say, in hand, he's a natural at drawing the kind of gushy praise from old, white college basketball commentators generally reserved for (also white) undersized collegiate point guards with no professional future. But the fact is that Rambis's schemes require players, like Gomes and Love, who are willing to move the ball, willing to rebound and start the fast break, and who are aware enough to end up in the right place at the right time. In this way, the doughy, earthbound Love could conceivably be an essential piece to an electric offensive team--just look at the role Rambis himself played on the Showtime Lakers. Anyway, it's nice to have him back.

Unusually, the official highlights of this one contain some actually illustrative moments. Check the 1:12 mark for Love's lovely outlet pass; the 1:30 mark for a sweet hi-low pass from Wayne Ellington to a cutting Ryan Gomes; and the 2:05 for a huge Love offensive rebound and score.