For one quarter of last night’s game, things were made impossibly easy for the Timberwolves. I don’t know if the
Pelicans Hornets players were sweating out last night’s Hurricanes or what, but they came out flat as a pancake and the Wolves took full advantage. Behind a steady supply of steals, Pekovic power moves, and even a flashy dime from Ricky to Stiemer, Minnesota led by 15 points after the opening quarter.
And that’s about when the fun stopped. Well, not quite, but close. Derrick Williams, who checked in near the end of the first, opened the second quarter with three straight moves that looked much more like Carmelo Anthony than the inconsistent “caged lion” that we’ve come to question as a building block for the franchise. Williams, playing out of that square-up, jab-step stance that the league’s premier 4’s attack from, began the second quarter with the following: 1) layup; 2) layup; and 3) layup and the foul. I was excited.
THAT is when the fun stopped.
In the ensuing stretch of 4 minutes 22 seconds, neither team scored much. Just 3 points each. Then the Wolves’ commanding 17-point began to crumble. Eric Gordon, whose importance to the Hornets has thus far been incredibly apparent in the win/loss column (Since Gordon was traded to New Orleans, they are 11-4 when he plays and 21-66 when he doesn’t), started attacking the hoop and, as we like to say, body hunting. He’s a bowling ball of a shooting guard and a serious matchup problem for the Timberwolves as presently constructed. Behind Gordon’s renewed assertiveness on offense the Hornets slashed the big Timberwolves lead down to just 6 points at the half.
Things just kept spiraling downward from there. New Orleans completely dominated the third quarter (30 to 15) and controlled the game throughout. Greivis Vasquez played a beautiful game, finding open shooters and, sometimes, dunkers, en route to 13 assists. Jason Smith, a bruiser of a backup big man, made 7 of his 8 field goal attempts, many of them jumpers from the elbow. The Wolves had a terrible time getting stops when they were needed most.
On the other end, the offense completely stalled. Dante Cunningham played more minutes than he is used to (39) and played one of his weaker games in recent memory. Pekovic, who looked poised to score a career high in the first quarter, cooled off and finished with 18 points. (He had 10 in the first.) And Derrick Williams, who had that 7-point burst described above, finished the game with just 9 points.
But more than anything the team continues to struggle from three-point range. Last night they shot 4 for 18; a 22% clip that is even below their league-worst 29.8% average. Not only does the clanking leave points directly off the board but it undoubtedly ends up clogging the paint and preventing other easy baskets. NBA pick-and-roll is all about spacing and defenses have less to fear in helping off of shooters against the Wolves than any other team. Without viable three-point shooting threats in the corners–or anywhere around the perimeter–the Shved and Rubio action becomes severely compromised. It is not a coincidence that the best, most fun to watch action of this season has coincided with flurries of three-point shots. Think Oklahoma City and Atlanta games. When shots don’t fall–and we’ve seen enough sample size now to view this as a roster issue, not a cold streak issue–the pick and rolls and back-door cuts become less available.
The best part of last night–the silver lining, I guess–is that all of the Wolves competitors for the 8 seed also lost. Portland, LA, Utah and Houston fell, so the Wolves didn’t fall in the standings any. But losing to the last-place team in the conference–even one that now has Eric Gordon–is never a good thing. Tomorrow night at San Antonio will be a tougher test and if the Wolves want to go .500 on the 4-game road trip, they’ll have to pass it with a win.
Be sure to check out Thursday’s Wolves Live Weekly show at the team site. Thanks again to Mark Remme and John Focke for the invitation to appear as a guest. I was pretty nervous and John made it go a lot easier than I expected.
Season Record: 16-17*
* If you want to feel better about this season, recall that last year’s Boston Celtics, who advanced to Game 7 of the conference finals, were 16-17 through 33 games. (I’m trying.)