On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves lost 97-84 to a visibly fatigued Houston Rockets team. The Rockets turned the ball over; they missed open shots; they were half a step slow on defense. They looked like they'd left a piece of them on the floor in Houston, where, the night before, they'd been run ragged by the Suns. Still, they offered a clinic on how to beat the Wolves when you're off your game: hang around and wait for the Wolves to melt down. Easy.
Learn to Forget
These current Rockets are a paradox. Because they share the ball, because they hustle and play committed defense, (not to mention that they easily fit the mold of scrappy, un-famous underdogs) they are beloved by "play the right way" purists. But because they feature a quirky, non-traditional lineup full of oddly shaped, idiosyncratically talented players, whose skills align only tangentially with the traditional but tired box-score statistics (their starting center is 6'6"; possibly their most famous current player has become known as "no-stats all-star"), and because they run the floor and shoot threes with abandon, they are also at the vanguard of everything new and weird and great about the current NBA. The Rockets are somehow both conservative and radical.
Actually, in many ways their conservatism is their radicalism. Because they share the ball, they're frequently called "unselfish," a favorite "right-way" buzzword. But, even in the NBA, selfishness is not the monster its made out to be. The problem is trust. Players have learned--because of the cutthroat world of elite youth basketball, because the league's salary system heavily favors dominant scorers, because they are all so phenomenally talented--not to trust their teammates, to trust only their own skills.
But for whatever reason, perhaps because none of their current team has ever been an NBA star, Houston's players know that if they all give up a little control, to trust each other to move the ball to the right spot at the right time, they'll all get better chances to score. The upshot of this is that, when they're at the best, they move the ball more creatively and dynamically than almost any team in the league. And this really appeals to aesthetes like me, who care more about the game being beautiful and amazing than just about anything else. So its this reliance on certain classic 'fundmentals'--'unselfishly' moving the ball, for instance--that has made this ragtag bunch unique and entertaining in a totally non-traditional way.
The Valley is Low
Suffice to say, the Wolves are miles away from such creative self-forgetting. A perfect case-in-point is the way the two teams' big men responded to double teams. When the Rockets' hale Argentine, Luis Scola, caught the ball on the block and attracted a double-team, he would decisively thread the ball between defenders, finding the the open teammate on the weak side, whose man had just left him to rotate over. As the Wolves scrambled to recover, the Rockets would unleash a volley of sharp passes, usually resulting in an open shot. Al Jefferson, on the other hand, often hesitates when the double-team comes, unsure whether to give the ball up or continue with his move. This allows the double-teamer to get into his body and disrupt the play and allows the other three defenders to rotate to their men. By the time Big Al does tentatively give it up, the defense has already recovered.
The Wolves had their bright spots in this game. Both Ramon Sessions and Al Jefferson had controlled, efficient offensive games (Jefferson hit nine of his 11 shots). Nathan Jawai was aggressive in shutting down penetration off the pick and roll. Damien Wilkins fought gamely for loose balls and rebounds. But when, inevitably, Houston found their offensive rhythm and tightened the screws on defense, the Wolves wilted. Yet again, they turned the ball over, took bad shots, blew their defensive assignments. While the Rockets have developed a remarkable group instinct for the pace and flow of the game, the Wolves often seem lost to each other, scrambling from moment to moment, un-attuned to the game's greater logic. This really is going to take a while.