Timberwolves: twice more with feeling


Well we're two games into this new Timberwolves era--the one in which I, at long last, somehow begin to see Kevin McHale as a sympathetic figure--and it's hard to know exactly what we've got on our hands. 

On one hand, the last two games have been the most entertaining of the year. The Wolves have played with a verve and enjoyment that we haven't seen in a while--it finally looks at least a little bit fun (as opposed to, like, morbidly demoralizing) to be a Timberwolf. What's more, there is some evidence that, just as has been suggested, McHale might actually know how to best deploy (not to mention coax) this strange collection of young dudes. 

On the other hand, both of those games were losses. In one, the Wolves engineered a miraculous choke; in the other, they were drawn into the radiant aura of a mercurial, slightly round faced demi-star. Still: definitely more interesting than watching them snooze their way through a blowout loss to the Clippers.  

Fire and Ice

Under Randy Wittman, the Wolves' offense had become sludgy and listless and hard to watch. McHale has delivered on his promise of a quicker pace and a concerted effort to push the ball up the floor.  It was immediately clear from the opening moments of the Utah game on Tuesday that the Wolves were committed to being more aggressive offensively, to utilizing the open court skills of their perimeter players and to attacking the defense before it could set itself. On one luminous fast break, Sebastian Telfair threw a scorching one handed cross-court bounce pass to a streaking Randy Foye; Foye one-touched the ball across the lane to Ryan Gomes; and Gomes finished with a deft reverse layup. It was one of those spontaneous, graceful moments of group creativity that makes basketball so lovely and that have been conspicuously absent from the Wolves' play this year.

These efforts have been abetted by a renewal of energy on the defensive end. While its true that Denver did score 116 points on 48% shooting on Wednesday, this shift in attitude has been pretty evident--the team has just been much more active and aggressive in the past few days. They created turnovers (21 against Utah) and just seemed recommitted to the whole task. 

McHale also promised to spread the playmaking responsibilities among his team. This is part of his greater argument that "there are no point guards or power forwards, only basketball players," but its also an effort to find more creative and unpredictable sources of attack and ball movement. Already we've seen isolations for Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes, as well as the sight of Gomes and Rashad McCants (newly promoted from total washout to starter)  bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense like point guards.  And despite Mike Miller's ankle injury leaving the Wolves without a truly reliable outside shooter, their floor spacing has been quite a bit better, giving everybody more room to work. These changes have seemed to benefit both Smith and Gomes  who have shot 11-17 and 10-20, respectively, over the past two games. (The same, sadly, can't be said of Shaddy, who continues to miss with ferocious regularity; he's 5-26 in the past three.)

In general, the Wolves played more dynamic, more decisive, more energized basketball. They seemed to thrive in chaotic moments, relishing the opportunity to pester their opponents and attack on offense--its a bummer that Corey Brewer can't be around to join in.  And their new commitment to tempo has showcased Foye's, and especially Telfair's creativity in the open court, all without sacrificing Al Jefferson's touches. If they can improve on their combined 7-32 three-point shooting in the last two games (Miller's return should do the trick) things could maybe be ok. So, like I said, a lot more fun.  

Heartbreaker, Dream Maker, Love Taker

I don't want to overstate things, though. I mean, its not like they actually won either of these two games. On Tuesday, the Wolves played well enough to build a 94-87 with 3:26 remaining over a shorthanded and lethargic, though still pretty good Jazz team.  They did almost everything they needed to do: largely because of Kevin Ollie's defense, they held the hobbling Deron Williams to 2-11 shooting; they held a 43-40 rebounding advantage; and they got to the line 43 times. But then they missed their last six field goals and five of their last eight free throws (four of those by Kevin Love) and botched an inbounds play down by one with 1.7 seconds left. It was a pretty heartrending way to end a game that saw a rebirth of actual enjoyment from players and fans alike.

The Denver game was, for me, the most entertaining of the year. First, we were treated to one of the Wolves' best halves in which they built a 16 point lead with brilliant shooting and ferocious energy. Then, in the third, Carmelo Anthony took the opportunity to go bananas. 'Melo is a shooting only 43% this year and he still sports that daydreamy, sweetly bored half-smile, but sweet Lord did he ever torch the Wolves. He scored 33 points in the quarter (that is a lot), almost all of them on calm, beautifully economical jumpers.  McHale's strange decision to go to a 2-3 zone (generally designed to force teams to shoot from the outside) just as Carmelo was heating up probably didn't help matters, but one got the feeling that no defensive scheme in the world would have made much difference. Dude was just epically on fire. After cold shooting early in the quarter, the Wolves fought back gamely. In one stirring stretch of four consecutive possessions, Anthony drilled two threes and two tough jumpers and was answered by two threes by Foye and two nasty Al Jefferson turnarounds. Ultimately, though, the Wolves just didn't have the firepower to keep up.

So what does all of this tell us? Well, it doesn't tell us a whole lot about the Wolves' chances the rest of the year. The NBA is full of stories of teams temporarily coming to life for new coaches only to sink back into mediocrity. But it does tell us that the Wolves are capable of competing, capable of challenging other teams, capable of playing with some passion. Right now, I'll take it.