“We need to get some type of roll going here and, like I said, you do it by winning on the road.” Much of Rick Adelman’s post game presser (televised on FSN North) focused on the Wolves getting on a roll. Clearly impressed by a dominant win over a solid Philadelphia 76ers team, Coach is smelling blood on this East Coast back-to-back and it’s coming from Boston. Tomorrow night, the Wolves take on Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. If you watched the game tonight, you can’t really blame him for looking ahead like a guy playing with house money. This was the best his team has looked all season. Which is strange, when you consider that Kevin Love, continuing the search for his shooting stroke, had just 6 points on 2-10 shooting. (Before I forget though, Love was a beast on the defensive glass and his 5 assists reflect a quick maturation from earlier games when he met cold shooting with forced action. He shared the ball tonight.) It’s doubly strange when you consider that Nikola Pekovic had an inefficient 6 points, and 5 rebounds in 27 minutes of action. Pek never found a groove all night. The Timberwolves’ two best healthy players struggled, yet they won by 17 points on the road against a team that played in Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
So what exactly was going so well?
The early going was actually a shootout where both teams could not be stopped. When Philly had the ball, they posted up Jason Richardson on Luke Ridnour, which either led directly to scores or double teams which allowed open, successful jumpers. While I don’t blame Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, or whoever calls the Philly plays from wanting to diversify (some coaches will keep going “to the well”; others don’t want to be “taken out of their game”) the game shifted right around the moment that Philly stopped posting up Luke. He did steal one ball on a nifty poke, so maybe that led to the change. In any case, the Wolves went on a 21-8 run to close the quarter, after a neck-and-neck, 13-13 start. Josh Howard was WHITE HOT coming out of the gates with 10 first-quarter points, mostly off of jumpshots. Howard later extended his range to beyond the arc, and finished the game with 16 points, 10 rebounds and arguably Game MVP honors.
While we’re on Howard, he isn’t Andrei Kirilenko–especially the Adelman-infused, souped-up version we’ve seen in the season’s opening weeks. But he is a pretty damn good replacement at low cost. Josh Howard does three things that will help the Wolves rest AK47′s spazzing back without undue stress: 1) Defends, and defends with versatility. You can tell that Adelman wants to switch as much as possible on down screens (“pin downs” as NBA circles seem to call them) and Howard can guard almost any position. 2) He has a nose for the ball. Just like Kirilenko does. When he’s in a spot on the floor that could feasibly allow him to gather a rebound, he stays there and pounces on it. When he is not, he surveys the action and might even release downcourt to steal two points. (He didn’t do that tonight, but he has in other games, recently.) 3) He moves without the ball. A MUST for any Kirilenko replacement worth his salt. Howard (and seemingly every Timberwolves player) is moving intelligently without the basketball.
As the game went on, the Wolves three-point shooting was, for once, the key to success. (Coming into tonight’s game the Wolves were shooting an NBA-worst 28.6 percent from 3.) If you remove Love’s 1 for 5, the rest of the team shot 12-20 from downtown, an UNSUSTAINABLY-HIGH 60 percent. Malcolm Lee was 2 for 2. Derrick Williams was 3 for 4. Alexey Shved, with a team-high 17 points, was 4 for 7. Shots were falling. But let’s be real: The Wolves didn’t squeak this one out on fluky shooting. They led by over 20 deep into the 4th Quarter and kicked the Sixers’ ass almost start to finish. The only scare, if you can call it that, was referenced by Adelman in his presser and happened when a few Wolves blunders in the 3rd Quarter led to Sixers transition buckets. But that mini-streak was halted by a Josh Howard trey, quickly followed by an Alexey Shved trey, and defensive stops abound. The Wolves were the better team tonight and find themselves back at .500 with momentum on their side.
* The stuff that J.J. Barea does was working tonight. That’s how I have to phrase that, because it seems equally (or more) likely to not work so well. If tonight’s MVP wasn’t Howard or Shved (it was a balanced effort, difficult to hand out a “game ball”) it was Barea. He had a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists, befitting of a team-best +12 in 27 minutes.
* Luke Ridnour’s 10 points in 21 minutes deserve mention for one quick reason: He was doing something that will be of benefit when Ricky returns and the two (presumably) share the backcourt. He had Jrue Holiday draped all over him, even off the ball, and he was using screens in all directions not just to get open but sometimes to clear himself for easy buckets. The game’s opening possession looked like a set play on first watch; Luke getting an uncontested layup off a high-low pass. But on rewind, it showed Jrue cheating on the screen, Luke walking him right into the thick of the screener’s middle, and zipping back to the hoop where the passer found him waiting. With Ricky and Shved both excelling at creating plays, Luke would be well advised to hone his best “cut and shoot” skills. He did that tonight more than once.
* On Philly, just have to say this about Jrue Holiday, even if I’ve already said it before. He’s the best on-ball point guard defender in the NBA. If I’m trying to stop Chris Paul in the playoffs, I’d rather have Tony Allen. But if I want to annoy a sub-superstar point guard for 48 minutes, give me Jrue.
* There’s a certain “trust” about Alexey Shved that somebody who writes better than me will describe before his career–maybe before his rookie season–is over. The closest analogy I can think of is to an NFL quarterback. In my opinion (as somebody whose football career–albeit at the quarterback position–ended after 7th Grade) NFL quarterback would be the most difficult position in sports. First there is just trying to see over 6’5″, 330 pound lineman to deliver passes. But then there’s the speed of the game that seems to require such precise timing that the good ones–the Manning’s and Brady’s–they throw to spots instead of to players. They chuck the ball and somebody goes and gets it. It’s about trust. If the receiver runs the wrong route, or runs the correct route too slow or too fast, it’s incomplete or intercepted. There’s just a split second for the QB to make a decision and the good ones make it. The bad ones don’t. Or can’t.
Basketball isn’t quite that fast. Point guards aren’t aggressively pursued for punishment by mouth-foaming behemoths. But they do have a shot clock, and in pick-and-roll situations usually have no more than an instant to deliver a great pass. Safe pass? Anyone can make that. But Shved–and Rubio–aren’t satisfied with those. Not all the time. If a game ends and Shved hasn’t delivered an open dunk (or two or three) on a silver platter to Nikola Pekovic (or Kevin Love or Greg Stiemsma or Derrick Williams) he’s unfulfilled. To do this, and many other decisions Shved makes, requires so much trust. Trust in himself to know where his teammates should be, and trust in those players to be there. Shved throws without thinking. He made one “careless” turnover late in the 2nd Quarter where he flipped the ball behind his back on a secondary break only to have it stolen. Some coaches would lose their shit over that pass. Not Adelman. Not with this player. Shved and Kirilenko showed with their Olympic team a level of synchronization on offense that is simply not seen in the NBA. The only thing I can think of that compares is the 2002 Sacramento Kings. Also coached by Adelman. Also influenced heavily by European players. (And Chris Webber, whose Detroit-raised game looked plenty European.) Just keep an eye out for this. One moment Shved or Kirilenko will fire a pass that seems directed at the d-bag in shades sitting courtside. But the next three will lead to shots that *shouldn’t* be there. It’s crazy. Shved also plays defense with trust of teammates. Defending the dribbler on screen-and-roll, you’ll rarely see Shved “body up” his man, risking a stupid foul. He allows the ball screen to run its course, practically turning his entire body to just run around it. He knows he’ll get a hedge. The thing he does to catch guards by surprise is to play this game of cat and mouse and then jump high when he anticipates the (seemingly inevitable) flip-over pass after he conceded a fairly-solid screen. He caught Turner by off-guard on this tonight. I don’t know if Shved’s off-ball defense is textbook (on a baseline switch tonight, Damien Wilkins successfully sealed him for a surprise post up), or for everybody, but the same instincts that guide his “one step ahead” offense are visible on both ends. He’s a unique player; clearly a favorite of this blog.
Big one tomorrow. Haven’t beaten Boston since The Trade. I hate the Celtics. Pat loves them. If @PDWolves seems schizo, there’s your answer.
Season Record: 8-8