The Timberwolves are not a bad team. They might even be a pretty good team. ESPN’s Marc Stein’s most-recent rankings slotted them 14th in the league; barely ahead of the middle. John Hollinger’s calculator has them a little bit higher at 10th best. But we’re past the question of whether the Wolves can be a decent, competitive team. Clearly they can after they survived the absences of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love with a better-than-.500 record. The question that sits out there is whether this can be a special team. Tonight’s loss doubled down on Sunday’s at New York in exposing the one main ingredient lacking from the Timberwolf Recipe: A go-to guy. Put simply, New York and Houston have one and Minnesota doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, there was more to this game than “James Harden was too good tonight.” For the first three quarters of the game, Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons were every bit as tough as Harden in keeping the game within striking distance. Parsons had 10 points in 4-5 shooting in the opening period to give the Rockets an early lead–one they wouldn’t normally expect with Jeremy Lin playing atrociously in the early going (and for much of the remainder). Delfino had 3 assists in short sequence in the 2nd Quarter that, again, helped keep the game close–just what Houston needed to do before handing the ball to its closer.
The Wolves had a real chance to blow the game open in the middle of the 3rd Quarter when they held a 60-46 lead. After a substitution momentarily stopped play, the Wolves relaxed and broke down on inbounds defense, leaving Toney Douglas wide open in the corner where he swished home a trey. Next time down, another breakdown meant Carlos Delfino to Omer Asik for a dunk. Next time down Parsons hit a little jumper and it was officially a competitive game again. Some baskets trading ensued that cut the Wolves lead down to just 3 points entering the 4th Quarter. You think James Harden can’t overcome 3 points? Think again.
Like Carmelo Anthony before him James Harden abused the Wolves for all of Winning Time. J.J. Barea made some tough buckets in this game, and really was a key factor in building that 3rd Quarter lead. But just when Good J.J. looked to be a potential Game MVP, Bad J.J. reared his ugly head and sent the Wolves offense spiraling in free fall. Even despite everything The Beard was doing to put the Wolves up against the ropes, smarter play from Barea probably would have swung the game in Minny’s direction. Instead, J.J. committed 3 turnovers in the final 7 minutes of the game. He also took 4 shots and made just 1. He hijacked the offense (which, admittedly, sometimes works–just not often enough) and took the team down with his struggles. In that same 7-minute stretch, James Harden had 15 points on 6-8 shooting. He had 30 for the game. That’s a go-to guy.
It’s a long season. Ricky Rubio is far from back to 100 percent. Alexey Shved is not yet halfway through with his first season on American soil. Kevin Love has not yet regained his shooting touch and Chase Budinger’s absence has yet to be filled either via his own recovery from arthroscopic surgery or trade. But a ticket to the Western Conference Playoffs will cost more than 41 wins and a .500 record. Matchups against teams like Houston–contenders for those spots–will be hugely important all year. If the Wolves are going to start winning the close ones they’ll need better execution down the stretch. Against Oklahoma City that meant J.J. taking over with improbable bombs from outside. (UNSUSTAINABLE!) Where do they go from here?
* Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic combined for 9 points on 4-21 shooting. Love had 5 turnovers and shot 0 for 7 from three. Pekovic missed some time with an illness. If not for Jeremy Lin’s bad game (8 points on 3-9 shooting; 7 turnovers) this game may not have been close.
* Andrei Kirilenko and Dante Cunningham put it all on the floor defensively. This could be written after any game that they play in.
* Ricky Rubio… His offense isn’t there. His defense is. I’ll be a broken record on this half empty/half full take until I see reason to change it. Ricky managed to draw some fouls and score an efficient 8 points, but his (-9) shows him to be part of the problematic stretch in the 2nd Half. He couldn’t do much to right the ship when it needed it. He has no first-step explosiveness right now off the dribble.
* James Harden was well trained by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant at straight-lining it to the rim. That subtle shift to one side–doesn’t matter which–barely lowers his force en route and shifts almost every bit of contact to a defensive foul. His efficient statistics mirror the lack of wasted motion in everything he does, whether it be his line to the hole or his stationary body parts on free throws. Harden is as fundamentally-sound a player as there is in the NBA. “Fundamentally-sound” doesn’t sound cool, but his White Party did. Harden = BMF.
Timberwolves Record: 13-13