Five losses in a row and Ricky Rubio cannot return fast enough. Kevin Love’s unexpectedly-quick recovery from hand fractures, and immediate production of NUMB#RS, is not translating into wins. Minnesota is 0-3 since Love’s return. The common theme of the last three losses is building an early lead that evaporates as the missed shots and blown pick-and-roll assignments pile up. Tonight, the Wolves’ apex came in the mid-2nd Quarter when Alexey Shved and the second unit caught fire and extended the lead to 11, at 35-24. There would be no “fire” after that, unless you mean Steph Curry bombing from 27 feet. The Wolves lead dwindled to 4 at the half and it was a struggle to keep heads above water after that. Things fell apart in a catastrophic 4th Quarter that the Warriors won 26-11. Minnesota was stuck on 79 points (beginning the stretch with a 5-point lead) from the 10:19 mark in the 4th all the way to 5:28. After Kevin Love [finally] broke the seal with a bucket, the Wolves again stuck on 81 points until a Pekovic free throw at the 2:40 mark. 3 points in 7:39. There is your game wrap.
The Wolves don’t play Sunday and they don’t play Monday, so it’s worth addressing some broader questions. If you’re of the mind that all analysis is premature, or kneejerk, then don’t bother reading. I’m going off of what we’ve seen. This isn’t panicking. If anything, it’s adjusting expectation levels, which I’ve done in both directions a few times with this group in recent weeks.
Offense: Isolations or Cuts?
Of all early-season surprises none was more pleasant than Andrei Kirilenko’s dominance as an active, cutting player. It seems that as teammates passed and dribbled, AK47 waited for the perfect time to pounce on an opening through the lane and be ready for an easy assist for a dunk or layup. The action was both pretty and effective. Tonight, the Wolves opened up the game with an offense that looked much like the Knicks’. Love established position outside the block with a hand up. Pass was entered, ball was stopped and everybody watched. The problem with the Wolves doing this–as opposed to the Knicks–is that Love is not an elite one-on-one player like Carmelo Anthony is. Double teams don’t come, so there is no kick-out pass igniting a series of swing passes and newly-available options. It’s just standing and hoping Love can figure out a way to score. He shot 6 for 20 in tonight’s game, and Adelman was clearly upset after the game with the performance.
One question is: How do the Wolves incorporate Love’s skill set into the offense they were running early in the season? Another question is whether the skill sets of Love and Kirilenko can mesh very well together at all. Tonight, with less ball and player movement, Kirilenko ended up shooting 5 three-pointers–not his strong suit. He missed all of them. As a team, the Wolves shot a dismal 18.5 percent (5-27) from downtown. Love himself was 1 for 5, barely increasing his season average to 18.8 percent. He eventually tossed the hand brace to the sidelines, certainly frustrated with the poor shooting accuracy. I don’t have any doubt that Love will get his jumper going, but even if he does there needs to be better spacing and role assignment between he, Kirilenko and Pekovic. It’s a big front line with only one shooter of the three. Adelman’s a genius and will come up with some options, but it isn’t clicking just yet.
Jim Peterson showed another example of why he is as good as color commentating gets when he broke down the Timberwolves pick-and-roll defense in detail. Too often, Wolves big men hedge too softly or not at all. Some of this is a lack of foot speed for Love, Pekovic and maybe even Williams. (Certainly not Cunningham, who does an excellent job hedging ball screens.) But some of it is either effort, conditioning or both. A night after getting blown out of the gym by rookie Damian Lillard, the Wolves struggled plenty with Steph Curry. Considering that pick-and-roll is–you know–the most common set that NBA teams run, this needs to be addressed in some fashion. If Love is still getting into shape, give some of his minutes to Cunningham. If Williams lacks focus, sit him down and make him work overtime with Bayno. Pekovic can hardly be questioned for effort, but he’s a huge dude who doesn’t move very fast. They’ll have to be careful with certain matchups when Pek is on the floor. For the extreme example of pick-and-roll defensive excellence, just watch a Bulls game. Noah and Gibson could teach a graduate-level course on it. It’s a big reason why the Bulls are perennial contenders.
Ricky’s Return: You got to wait? BUT I DON’T WANNA WAIT!
MAN, THIS TEAM NEEDS RICKY BACK. The good news is that it sounds like he’s making progress and could be cleared to practice as soon as this coming week. From Jerry Zgoda:
Rubio is scheduled to return to his Vail, Colo., surgeon on Monday for a three-day visit after which the Wolves hope he will be cleared for contact practice when the team returns from this trip after Wednesday’s game in L.A…
Don’t expect his game return to be as sudden as Love’s, though.
David Kahn said he still isn’t putting a timetable on Rubio’s return, as he hasn’t done all along.
But there’s no question Rubio’s return is getting closer, maybe closer than expected, particularly if you weren’t expecting him back until Christmas or later.
Just like last season, the Wolves backcourt is a mess without Ricky. They scraped together 5 early wins–mostly before Budinger’s injury further weakened the backcourt–largely against a poor schedule. But weaknesses are being exposed and Adelman continues to exacerbate the problem by giving minutes to the overwhelmed Malcolm Lee. (Thankfully, only 15 tonight.) Alexey Shved creates shot opportunities for teammates (5 assists in 25 minutes tonight–probably should’ve been 6 or 7, given bunnies set up by Shved and missed by AK47 and Pek) but with more mistakes than Ricky would make on both ends of the floor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still high on Shved and think he should be playing 30 or 35 minutes per night (as Jim Peterson said during the telecast) but he isn’t Ricky. He’s not as tough with the ball and he’s not nearly the impact defender that Ricky is on the perimeter.
On offense, Ricky’s return should help capitalize more often on transition opportunities and create the same type of open shots that Shved does. Only because Adelman will trust Ricky more than he does Shved, those shot creations will come in greater supply, with more playing time. A fair question to ask though is whether Ricky’s innate sense of finding the open perimeter shooter will be of much benefit. Right now, the Wolves are hitting below 30 percent from 3, despite what seems like a plethora of open looks. Until Budinger gets healthy, this could be an area that even Ricky can’t help with. But even so, we all anxiously await his return.
Season Record: 5-7