The Wolves three-game road trip — began on Friday, ends tomorrow night — spans the entire NBA spectrum. Friday night was at San Antonio, where the Spurs are the league’s gold standard of consistent excellence. Tonight was at Memphis, last year’s Western Conference finalist that has a new coach (Minnesota’s own Dave Joerger, who replaced Lionel Hollins) and –importantly — does not have the services of Marc Gasol, who is out with a sprained knee ligament. Tomorrow night is at Boston, where the Celtics are playing above their heads with an 11-14 record. Boston has a rebuilding roster and — despite the early success of Coach Brad Stevens — seems like a lock for the lottery. The mini tour includes the upper, middle, and lower classes of the current NBA, and in descending order.
The Spurs were 17-4 heading into the Minnesota matchup. Despite a stellar Kevin Love performance (42 points, 8-9 3pt field goals) the Wolves came up short. Love ran out of gas, trying to carry his team and go blow for blow with the Spurs Offensive Machine. Tony Parker, rested relative to Love, went to work in Winning Time. He navigated the Wolves defense to the tune of 12 points in the final 7:35. Parker scored 29 in the game and dished out 6 assists. When facing San Antonio — by far the league’s best-executing team offense — it’s always difficult to tell if they’re that good or you’re that bad. On Friday, the Wolves clearly struggled to defend. Their offense, without any help from so-far superstar scorer Kevin Martin (more on this later), was almost enough. But allowing 117 points will rarely result in a victory. The Wolves lost by 7. It was a splendid game to watch, but with a bittersweet result of defeat that seemed like wasting a special Kevin Love performance. The loss dropped the Wolves record down to 11-12, once again below .500.
Tonight was a far different matchup. At Memphis, the Wolves faced a Grizzlies team that was 2 games under .500 and struggling without its team MVP and leaguewide Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol. Behind more Kevin Love domination and a J.J. Barea scoring surge, the Wolves build a lead as high as 19 in the second quarter that fell down to 10 at the half. Barea was playing his usual style (dribble-happy, improvisational) and it was working for a while. He had 13 points on perfect 4-4 shooting (3-3 from downtown) in the first half.
Things got uglier in the second half, but the Wolves never quite surrendered their lead. It dropped to just 2 points more than once. Mike Conley was having his way on offense (28 points on 12-20 shooting) before injuring his knee and leaving the game with just 3:54 to play. I don’t know the extent of the injury, but he did go to the locker room. It was 95-92 with just over two minutes to go when Pek — on consecutive possessions — drew fouls on Zach Randolph. Each time he converted both free throws. Paired with some timely defensive stops, the win was sealed up.
The final score was 101-93. Love ended the game with 30 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. Pek chipped in 19 points on just 12 field goal attempts. He only grabbed 5 rebounds. The combined 14 rebounds of The Bruise Brothers can probably be “blamed” on Corey Brewer:
Brew had 12 rebounds, which is well above his season average of 2.6. He was active in other areas as well, including breakaway dunks (duh), baseline cuts for layups, and three steals.
Before wrapping this up, a teamwide statistical dichotomy deserves more attention. In digging around the trove of advanced stats at nba.com, I noticed something interesting about the Timberwolves:
Digging a little deeper, it appears that the difference mostly lies on the offensive side of the floor. Statistically, per possession, the Wolves have the league’s third-worst 4th Quarter offense. (They score just 96.2 pp100 in the fourth, which sets them slightly ahead of Detroit and just behind the tanking Sixers.) This is interesting because the Wolves also have the league’s best — as in 1st Ranked out of 30 — offense in first quarters. What gives?
You’d think the lineups would be mostly the same with the starting unit playing the first 7 or 8 minutes of the 1st Quarter and the same 7 or 8 to close out 4th Quarters. One obvious area of change is pace. The Wolves begin games with a pace of 104.55 possessions per game. No other team in the league plays at such a high average pace for any quarters. (Just eyeballing it, the leaguewide pace seems to slow down with each passing quarter of games, which is consistent with common sense (early game jitters and excitement give way to some physical fatigue and sharpened focus)). In the 4th Quarter? The Wolves pace drops to just 95.31 possessions per 48 minutes. That’s still top-10 in the league in fourth-quarter pace (9th, as of this writing) but a far drop from their first quarter blitzes.
Breaking it down by player reveals other interesting findings. In first quarters, the team scoring leaders are:
* Kevin Love: 8.4 points, 3.0-6.1 FGs (48.6%), 1.5-1.7 FTs (89.7%), 1.0-2.1 3Pt (45.8%) 1.4 assists, 1.0 turnovers
* Kevin Martin: 6.3 points, 2.3-5.1 FGs (44.1%), 1.2-1.2 FTs (96.4%), 0.7-1.4 3Pt (45.5%) 0.8 assists, 0.5 turnovers
* Corey Brewer: 4.8 points, 1.8-3.5 FGs (51.2%), 0.8-0.9 FTs (85.7%), 0.4-1.2 3Pt (35.7%) 0.5 assists, 0.6 turnovers
* Nikola Pekovic: 4.7 points, 2.0-3.6 FGs (55.8%), 0.7-0.9 FTs (76.2%), 0.0-0.0 3Pt (0.0%) 0.3 assists, 0.4 turnovers
* Ricky Rubio: 3.2 points, 1.1-2.5 FGs (45.0%), 0.7-0.8 FTs (89.5%), 0.3-0.5 3Pt (46.2%) 2.9 assists, 1.0 turnovers
In fourth quarters, the same guys perform as follows (bolded where difference is big):
* Love: 4.3 points, 1.3-3.6 FGs (36.8%), 1.0-1.2 FTs (86.4%), 0.6-1.9 3Pt (32.4%) 0.9 assists, 0.6 turnovers
* Martin: 5.7 points, 1.7-3.9 FGs (42.9%), 1.8-2.1 FTs (89.2%), 0.5-1.4 3Pt (36.0%) 0.4 assists, 0.2 turnovers
* Brewer: 2.8 points, 0.9-2.4 FGs (39.1%), 0.7-0.9 FTs (82.4%), 0.2-0.8 3Pt (18.8%) 0.2 assists, 0.4 turnovers
* Pekovic: 3.7 points, 1.3-2.3 FGs (54.9%), 1.1-1.5 FTs (75.8%), 0.0-0.0 3Pt (0.0%) 0.1 assists, 0.2 turnovers
* Rubio: 1.4 points, 0.4-1.8 FGs (21.9%), 0.6-0.7 FTs (83.3%), 0.1-0.3 3Pt (16.7%) 1.5 assists, 0.5 turnovers
These are basic, per-game numbers not adjusted for playing time. Love in particular is affected by this as he plays so much (11.1 minutes) in first quarters and the fewest among starters (7.1) in fourth quarters. But the percentages show significant drops from the high-paced starts to the bogged-down finishes. Ricky is an abysmal fourth-quarter shooter despite beginning games with very solid marks. Love is a killing machine at the start of games, but shoots at sub-mediocre clips during Winning Time. Martin and Pekovic seem to be relatively constant no matter the pace.
Despite Love’s drop in scoring efficiency, he ranks best — BY FAR — in team performance while he is on the floor during fourth quarters. The Wolves offensive rating in the 7.1 fourth-quarter Kevin Love minutes per game is a solid 106.5. His fourth-quarter “net rating” (team’s plus/minus, per 100 possessions) is +6.8, WHICH IS THE ONLY POSITIVE FOURTH-QUARTER NET RATING ON THE ENTIRE TEAM. (Sorry, caps lock got stuck.) Interestingly, the team defends much better in fourth quarters with Love on the floor compared to his starter teammates. Love’s fourth-quarter defensive rating is 99.7. Next-best among starters is Rubio with 104.0. Pekovic is 109.9. Martin is 111.0. Frankly, I have no idea why Love’s defensive rating is so much higher than his teammates in the final period.
These stats, viewed under a microscope don’t fit neatly into a narrative. Despite Love’s fourth-quarter shooting woes, the team is obviously performing well when he’s on the floor. But the pace issue seems like a real one, particularly in the cases of Rubio and Brewer. This is one area where the optimist in me expects Budinger’s return to help. When the game slows down, the Wolves will want more sets that begin with Rubio handling the ball and end with a competent shooter catching and firing. Or feeding Love in the post. Both scenarios bode better with Bud spreading the floor than with Brew’s chaotic energy that fits at home in a more frenetic pace.
Anyway, some things to keep an eye on as the season moves along. With tonight’s win the Wolves are 12-12, back to .500. They’ll have a great chance at another win tomorrow in Boston.