Sometimes the simple game flow image tells 90 percent of the game story. Last night the Thunder built an early lead — 10 points after the first quarter — and never looked back. The Wolves almost had the lead cut to 5 at half, but Luke Ridnour blasted Russell Westbrook as he attempted a desperation trey at the horn, sending him to the foul line for a gratuitous three points. The 8-point halftime deficit was as close as the game would get from that point forward, with much of the second half showing the Thunder ready to blow the game completely open. They led by as many as 17 points at different moments and ultimately won by 16. It was not a close game, nor was it a particularly interesting game to dissect. But there were some sub plots.
The Thunder are good.
If ya don’t know, now ya know — Oklahoma City has a great pro basketball team. Here’s something interesting about that: OKC’s winning percentage is .727 — obviously great — which if the season ended today would mean improvement for the FIFTH consecutive season. Coach Scott Brooks takes an undue amount of heat (Bill Simmons took his umpteenth jab at him during ESPN’s pregame show, not-so-subtly suggesting that Russell Westbrook’s temper tantrums are somehow on Brooks) for a coach who inherited an incredibly young, 1-12 team and has molded them into a steadily-improving Western Conference superpower. Obviously the talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — on full display last night — is the overriding factor in the Thunder’s success. But there’s so little to criticize about such a successful team that it seems discussion for discussion’s sake leads to Brooks getting ripped way more than he should.
In any case, the Thunder are awesome and reminded everyone of this last night. Durant was his usual studly self. He poured in 27 smooth points along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. When standing near the Wolves sideline during free throws, he took a moment to extend well wishes to Rick Adelman and family, dealing with a scary medical situation. Dude is true class. Russell Westbrook, whose volatility perhaps makes him less endearing to fans, was the better of the two superstars on Friday night. Russ had 37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds. When he’s hitting that mid-range pull up he’s just a half-click below LeBron James on the Unstoppable Scale. His historically-ridiculous explosiveness was on display when he was isolated one-on-one with Alexey Shved. Shved is very good at staying in front of dribble penetration, erring on the side of backing off too far. But Westbrook made him look knee-deep in quicksand, cruising past back-pedaling Shved for an easy two.
So yeah, the Thunder are good. This isn’t news, but it is the primary piece of information gleaned from last night’s loss at Oklahoma City.
Ricky & Shved
As the Wolves’ playoff chances disintegrate over the next couple of weeks and we search for REASONS TO WATCH, I think the progress (or regress, as the case has been for Shved, recently) of the Wolves guards stands near the top of the list. Last night they both played well. Ricky had a respectable 13 points on 5-12 shooting to go along with 9 assists to 1 turnover and 5 steals. His energy level is incredible. Perhaps he benefits to a degree from having so little pressure to be a shooter, but Rubio expends tons of effort while constantly in motion on offense and never letting up in his pursuit of steals and charge draws on defense.
In January, Shved’s shooting percentage had the same free fall as the Timberwolves’ winning percentage. He shot just 32.4 percent for that entire month, spanning 10 games. In February, entering last night’s game he wasn’t much better; he was hitting 34.9 percent over 9 games. Last night — for one game, anyway — he got his groove back, scoring 17 points in 25 minutes, connecting on 7 of 12 shot attempts. I see three reasonable theories that could explain Shved’s regression after such a strong start to his rookie season. First is the proverbial “rookie wall.” Perhaps his legs wore down from playing the NBA schedule for the first time. Second is that the league got around to scouting his tendencies. Coaches and scouts could see that Shved doesn’t respond well to physical defense and he’s much more likely to pass after driving toward the hoop than he is likely to go strong to the rime.
Third, and most interesting I think, is that Rubio’s return may have had a negative impact on Shved’s productivity. A possible reason for this would be that Ricky’s return to the starting lineup meant a sharp decrease in the amount of time that Shved shares the floor with finishers of assists Pekovic and Kirilenko. With Pekovic, Shved was developing a nice synergy on high pick and rolls. With Kirilenko, those baseline dive cuts often coincided perfectly with Shved’s driving jump passes, leading to open layups, late in the shot clock. In December — a good month for Shved — he played 20.2 minutes per game with Pekovic. He played 22.7 minutes per game with AK. In February, with Ricky mostly integrated back into full-time point guard duties, those numbers dropped to 10.2 mpg and 5.8 mpg, respectively. In January, the drop was much less dramatic, so this is certainly not a clear answer to the “Why is Shved struggling?” question. But it could be one contributing cause.
What about playing Ricky and Shved together?
They’ve only shared the floor for 174 minutes (8.7 minutes per game for the 20 games they’ve both played). 116 of those minutes have come with either J.J. Barea or Luke Ridnour also on the floor, meaning Shved was slotted at small forward. So we’ve really only seen the Ricky & Shved backcourt for 58 minutes, this year. A natural response to that would be that the Wolves are better served by Shved leading the second unit while Ricky leads the starters. Last year’s Thunder had an extreme case of talented playmaker surplus with Westbrook and James Harden. They shared the floor together for 19.8 minutes per game. Right now the Rubio-Shved backcourt is only playing 2.9 minutes per game. For the experimental remaining of this season, I’d like to see that combo playing together more than that.
Pek: No show?
Nikola Pekovic had a decent-enough start to last night’s game, scoring 5 points and pulling down 2 rebounds in the first quarter. The problem was he ended the game with the same 5 points and 2 rebounds. When the Wolves play the Thunder, the one clear advantage they have is at the 5 position. With Pek struggling to do anything last night, the Wolves had no chance. It’s too bad because they had an unusually productive night from the bench (59 points) so a hot night from Pekovic might have at least meant an entertaining barn burner with both teams in the 120’s.
D-Thrill at the Rim
I know I’ve said that I’ll stop harping on this and just accept Derrick Williams for what he is. But I guess I lied because I’m about to copy and paste Derrick Williams’ shooting chart from nba.com into this post:
There it is. The 94 field goals out of 199 field goal attempts at the rim is what stands out. 47.24 percent is bad. Andrei Kirilenko shoots over 62 percent at the rim in greater volume than Williams. Blake Griffin makes 64.5 percent. Some good-to-great forwards, like Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and David West fall in between, but do other stuff like make jumpers and draw fouls to boost their effectiveness. Williams has the leaping ability to make it look like he should finish around the bucket. But it doesn’t seem to happen very often. Last night he took 9 shots within 3 feet of the rim, and made just 2 of them. He was 3-14 for the game and played just 23 minutes. The Wolves were -16 in those 23 minutes, meaning they were even-up with the Thunder for the other 25. Williams is not having a terrible season. His 14.4 PER and .080 WS/48 suggest slightly below-average play. But his inability to finish around the rim is maddening. If we’re criticizing, his 0.7 assists per 36 minutes could use a doubling or tripling, too. He has a ways to go before being accused of having a remotely savvy all-around game. Since he wasn’t traded before the deadline, I expect the Wolves to keep working with him, if nothing else but to boost his potential trade value when the right time comes.
Next up are the Golden State Warriors at Target Center on Sunday afternoon. The Dubs won an overtime thriller at home last night against the Spurs. Should be a tough one. Until then.
Season Record: 20-32