With just under 4 minutes to go in the first half of today’s game at Atlanta, the Wolves held a 54-36 lead. In the remaining 27 minutes and 46 seconds of action, the Hawks outscored the Wolves 68 to 42. In barely more than one half of basketball, the Wolves were outscored by 26 points. How does that happen?
Luke Ridnour: Out of Position, Out of Role
The Hawks made a halftime adjustment by starting Kyle Korver in the third quarter. The Wolves went with their starting lineup that included Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour. Seems reasonable enough, why start adjusting to the Hawks when everything they had done to that point was working just fine? Problem was, the the Wolves put tiny Ridnour on tall Korver. Ricky Rubio, meanwhile, stayed on the little point guard, Jeff Teague. Korver licked his chops, remembering the damage he inflicted in the late moments of the last Wolves-Hawks game. That damage was done when Ridnour was trying to check him.
After Josh Smith and Al Horford each scored and cut the Wolves lead to 10, Korver took over. In a span of 4 possessions and less than 2 minutes, Korver hit a pair of treys and a curling jumper, cutting the once-18-point lead down to just 4. From that point on, the game was close and the Wolves large advantage was gone.
In terms of blame, this has to go to Coach Terry Porter. By this point, we all know that Luke has limitations as a defender. He’s physically overmatched as a point guard, and when he’s asked to defend bigger players like Korver, the limitations are magnified. When Atlanta opened the second half with Korver on the floor, Rubio should have been guarding him, or there should have been a substitution.
On offense, Luke’s struggles can be pinned on Luke himself. He is a limited role player and far too often today he was making crazy passes that became turnovers or taking wild shots off the dribble. On a crucial possession late in the game, Ricky flipped a behind the back pass to Luke, who quickly backed up behind the three-point line. Instead of shooting the open shot, he slashed in the lane and tried some weird runner. In a rare moment of actual insight, Dominique Wilkins pointed out that the open trey was probably the better option. Today was not Luke’s day.
Ricky Rubio came into tonight’s game fresh off of a season-high 30-minute performance against the Houston Rockets. In that game, his offense and defense were both keys to victory. Tonight, he checked out of the game with 5:01 to play in the third quarter. He wouldn’t check back in until 5:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. Unless there was a medical reason that I’m not aware of, that’s inexcusable. The first half of the fourth saw the Wolves’ 7-point lead become a 3-point deficit, and this was at the hands of Ivan Johnson and Jannero Pargo, not Al Horford and Josh Smith. Had this basic rotation been handled normally (read: get Rubio on the court sooner) the game’s outcome may have been different.
I hesitate to begin clamoring for more Mickael Gelabale minutes. But I’ll do it anyway. The 6’7″ wing can play real NBA defense against players like Korver and Pargo. Today, he also shot 3 for 3 from the field including a pair of perimeter jumpers. Rather than force the double tiny point guard square peg into this injury-ravaged round hole of a roster management question, maybe just play Gelabale while we have him. He’s looked plenty competent thus far. Tonight his 16 minutes probably should have been a few more, at the expense of Ridnour’s 34.
Al Horford’s Frustrated 2nd Gear
All-Star big man Al Horford was the game’s MVP, by a pretty huge margin. He had 28 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks. When the going was getting tough for the Hawks in the second quarter, Horford responded with aggression. He had a Kobe Bryant-like response to struggles that involved more physicality, more shot hunting, and more challenges for the officials to determine what contact is against the rules and to whom should the violation be called on. One of the reasons that Wolves’ new big man Chris Johnson had 5 fouls in 10 minutes (!) was that Horford recognized an opportunity to get aggressive, and he took it. He was very effective in the final three quarters of today’s game.
I don’t like to blame the refs for a Wolves loss. I’m not even sure I’m doing that here, but there were a few egregious mistakes made today that helped ensure a Hawks victory. On one play in the fourth quarter, Andrei Kirilenko had his arms slapped by a Hawks defender. It was plain to see, but no call was made. The resulting turnover was immediate converted to a Hawks dunk. A 4-point swing, in other words. Later, Dante Cunningham challenged a Jeff Teague dunk by trying to block the shot. If you’ve seen much Cunningham this year, you know he’s capable of making some freakish catch-from-behind swats. On this one, he caught some ball and some hand. Since Teague was flying fast, the slight contact caused him to fall to the ground. After what seemed like a 30-minute review, it was ruled a flagrant foul on Cunningham. Along with the absurdity of the call was the result: Teague made 2 foul shots, the Hawks retained possession, and scored another 2 points. With 3 minutes to go, the Hawks low led by 8 instead of 6. That pretty much ended the game.
What went well?
Pretty much everything in the first quarter, and a lot of things in the second quarter. Derrick Williams made shots, and led the team with 17 points on 7-14 shooting. Andrei Kirilenko played his usual high-level brand of all-around basketball. AK had 13 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. The only blemish on his card is the 6 turnovers, which is uncharacteristically high for AK. Ricky Rubio had 6 assists to 2 turnovers in 25 minutes of action. Like I ranted about above, that should have been more like 9 assists in 35 minutes. In any case, Ricky played pretty solid basketball for another step toward 100 percent healed. Dante Cunningham seemed to regain some of his once-incredible touch on mid-range jumpers. He had 13 points in 26 minutes. J.J. Barea did a lot of stuff — 14 points and 7 assists, along with 3 turnovers.
That’s about it. This team misses its go-to guys. Perhaps more than that, it misses its coach.
Season Record: 17-21