The Wolves beat the Pacers last night. They didn’t just beat the Pacers, but they handled them from start to finish. They led by 20 at one point in the first half, and ended up winning by 13 points. It probably rivals the victory at Oracle as the season’s most impressive.
My subjective reaction is one I’ve had after many Timberwolves wins during the Ricky Rubio Era:
The Wolves are a better team when Kevin Love shoots a ton of threes.
Love played incredible last night, scoring 42 points and pulling down 16 rebounds. My favorite part of his performance was how he hunted three-point shot attempts, realizing how strong the Pacers defense is in the interior. He ended up shooting 10 of them, making 5. When he does that, it removes him from the high post where he is effective at initiating offense, but also serves as an obstacle to Ricky Rubio’s playmaking. Against the Pacers, a freed-up Rubio dished 17 assists, setting a personal record that matched the franchise’s best in history.
My subjective feeling is barely supported by the numbers, this season. In wins, Love shoots 6.5 threes per 36 minutes versus the 5.9 per 36 that he shoots when the Wolves lose. But, to my eye, this season hasn’t properly tested this hypothesis because of the heavy reliance on high-post sets. Instead of Ricky Rubio wheeling around picks, looking to set up shooters and dunkers, we’ve seen much more emphasis on feeding Love behind the elbow to allow him to make a play. According to nba.com’s player-tracking data, Love touches the ball 86.9 times per game, which is more than Ricky Rubio’s 84.1 and much more than any non-point guard in the league.
Love has probably benefited individually from the shift to Princeton Offense, and it’s quite possible that the team has too. His own assist numbers are way up over career average. The team has an offensive rating of 108.3 when Love is on the floor; a number that would rank 4th in the entire league. But that phrasing is a little bit misleading, because the best offensive teams are also at their own best when stars are on the floor. For instance, the Heat have an O-Rtg of 109.8 (best in the league) but it jumps even higher to 111.7 for the 30+ minutes per game that LeBron and Bosh are on the floor. The Blazers score over 110 points per 100 possessions when Lillard and Aldridge on the floor.
I realize I’m nitpicking a point here. Kevin Love is not the problem, and the Timberwolves when Kevin Love is on the floor have been quite good. But my feeling is that stretching the floor for Ricky Rubio might bring the added benefit of better fourth-quarter offense. The Wolves get pummeled in fourth quarters. We know this and don’t need to rehash it here. (But if you want it verified, click here.) Some of those struggles have seemed tied to referees swallowing their whistles on Love’s attempted foul draws. Some of the struggles seem related to a “stickier” offense that doesn’t flow as smoothly when the chips are down. Perhaps Love stepping out to the perimeter, challenging his large opponent to close out and widening some of the passing lanes for Rubio, would help a bit; just enough to bring this team’s real record (26-28) closer to its advanced stats (Pythagorean?) one (34-20).
A few other notes:
* The Dante and Mbah a Moute defense was once again very good. Great, even. In over 24 minutes of action, the tandem had a D-Rtg of about 80. When Gorgui joined them for a few minutes, the Pacers’ first 8 plays were 6 missed shots and 2 turnovers. That group can “hold down the fort” pretty well, with consistent defensive effort and ability.
* Paul George had 35 points, many of which came against the top-notch defense of Mbah a Moute. George is one of the best perimeter players in the league. Sometimes I wish the Wolves drafted him instead of Wes Johnson.
* J.J. Barea played alright. He had 12 points on 6-10 shooting. Of course, there was that play when J.J. saw Roy Hibbert — one of the best interior defenders in recent NBA history — waiting at the rim, and decided to attack. Roy volleyball spiked the pathetic attempt almost at a 90-degree angle into the hardwood floor. Oh, J.J. [Eds note: This isn't right. It was Mahinmi; not Hibbert. Thanks to Dane Veerkamp for the correction.]
* Speaking of J.J. this afternoon marks the trade deadline. Will anything happen? Peter Vecsey tweeted some buzz-worthy RUMINT last night about Kevin Love, which even prompted a response from Flip Saunders:
Who knows what’s actually true?
But that’s what is out there now.