Author Archives: Andy G

An Unexplainable Letdown (Nuggets 100, WOLVES 85)

It’s hard to tell what’s worse: how badly the Wolves were beaten on their home floor tonight by the Denver Nuggets (who had won just 3 of their previous 22 games, and accordingly just fired their coach) or the lack of a good excuse for the loss. The Wolves had yesterday off; Denver did not. The Wolves had their healthy starting five, which is supposed to be a competitive group. After jumping out to a 19-12 lead with a nice mix of Andrew Wiggins baskets leading the way, Kevin Garnett checked out of the game. There was 5:04 to play in the first quarter when Payne subbed in for KG, and the Nuggets proceeded to go on a 14-8 run to close out the quarter.

The second quarter?

Denver won that one 34 to 16. (!)

Flip got T’d up walking off the floor for halftime, just for good measure, so the Wolves trailed by 18 when the ball was first inbounded to open the second half.

And things never really got competitive. There was a stretch where Gary Neal Hero Ball looked like it might lead a comeback, and a Zach LaVine three got it within 9 at one point, but there were never enough defensive stops; specifically, there were never enough defensive rebounds.  Kenneth Faried celebrated Brian Shaw’s recent termination by breaking out of a slump for 18 pounds and 14 rebounds.  Jameer Nelson led a Nuggets second unit that just ran the Wolves off the floor, and – in the halfcourt, broke them down time and time again with spread pick-and-roll action. Nelson had 12 points and 9 assists off the bench in +19 action.

A telling stat was Kevin Garnett’s +5 in 21 minutes of action, compared to Gorgui Dieng’s -15 and Adreian Payne’s -12. The defensive positioning of the Wolves second-string bigs is all over the place, right now. It was much less how great KG was than it was how undisciplined his backups were. Gorgui is getting barked at by just about everybody right now; even Ricky yelled at him when he expected a ball screen that wasn’t arriving like it should. After the game, in brief remarks, Flip seemed perplexed about Gorgui, and why he is a step slow on rotations. He wondered if he was hitting a “wall,” which is tough to interpret, considering Gorgui is not a rookie and hasn’t been playing heavy minutes this year (averaging 29.1). I don’t know what has stunted Gorgui’s development after such a promising first season, but he is struggling right now in certain ways that he has not in the past.

Along with their defensive struggles, the Wolves really played poorly on offense tonight. (It was possibly the worst game of the season, if you take into consideration that they had their entire starting five healthy, at home, against a struggling opponent.) Too many possessions had Ricky stationary dribbling and Martin or Neal running around in a Kyle Korver impression. The Wolves are at their best when Rubio is creating on the move, utilizing his unique vision and passing skills. Mo Williams was perfectly capable of executing the sets the Wolves ran tonight. That was disappointing to see. Martin shot 3-15 from the field. Neal shot 6-13, converting some difficult jumpers in a game-worst batch of -19 minutes.

Rubio had a points assists double double, with the minimum 10 and 10 of each. Wiggins actually played pretty well, perhaps joining KG as the only Wolf who could say that at game’s end. He was honored before tip-off for his fourth straight “Rookie of the Month” award. His Rookie of the Year honor is an inevitability at this point, and he continues to impress with different scoring moves.

Aside from Wiggins playing well, the silver lining was tanking-related: Denver was a sneaky contender to tank the rest of the season out, having quit on their last coach and losing so many games in a row. By beating the Wolves tonight, they move 8.5 games ahead of the Wolves which is pretty much out of reach. The Wolves should finish the year with the third or fourth worst record (and therefore the third or fourth best draft lottery position) depending on whether they catch the Lakers who are 3 games ahead in the standings right now.

The Wolves play next on Saturday, against a Portland Trailblazers team that is much better than the Denver Nuggets. Flip assured the media that there’d be a much better performance next game. I guess we’ll see.

Until then.

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Sunday Post: Weekend Wrap-Up, Power Forward Auditions

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The Wolves have 4 power forwards right now, two of which will be free agents this summer, and the other two of which have player options due to be exercised or waived by October 31, 2015. The remainder of this season will be an audition of sorts for some of them.

The Wolves dropped both games in their weekend back-to-back.

On Friday at Chicago, they faced an undermanned Bulls team that was missing Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, and lost Taj Gibson to an ankle sprain less than ten minutes into the contest. Despite the health advantage (to be fair, the Wolves were without Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Bennett, and Robbie Hummel, but none of those players are even as good as Gibson, let alone Rose or Gasol) the Wolves could not pull this one out. A theme throughout the game was a Timberwolf playing overaggressive defense, and being burned by a sharp backdoor cut, or spin move, or other intelligent counter that allowed an easy basket to a player who probably wouldn’t create a good shot by himself against disciplined defense.

In some ways, the Bulls game felt like the Wolves let one slip away. The final score was 96-89.

Saturday’s game was a more fun contest for two reasons: the Wolves played well, and they went down to the wire against a legit title contender; the same Grizzlies team they beat at Target Center a couple weeks ago behind Ricky Rubio heroics.

The Wolves opened last night’s game with a distinct defensive identity set by Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett. They forced turnovers on 7 of the Grizzlies first 14 possessions.  (The Grizz ended the game with 24 turnovers.) Of those 7 turnovers, 3 were Garnett steals, and 2 were Rubio steals. Watching this team defend with these two on the floor at the same time makes me wish the Wolves had pried Garnett from the East Coast a couple years ago. In the 34 minutes that Rubio and KG have played together, the Wolves have an absurd defensive rating of 79.7. They led 24-18 after the first quarter. Hot Grizzlies shooting combined with poor Timberwolves bench play in the second quarter (LaVine struggled like it was December 2014 or something) swung things, and the Grizz led by 5 at the half.

In the second half, the Grizzlies set the tone early, with punishing defense that forced the Wolves to settle for difficult jumpers; jumpers that did not fall. On offense, they had Marc Gasol scoring on Pekovic, and then when Pek went to the bench (he did not return, citing foot pain) Gasol went to work on rookie Adreian Payne. Gasol ended the game with 27 points and one of the best all-around performances we’ve seen at Target Center, this year. The newsworthy event of the game happened in the midst of a big Grizzlies run, when KG was hit with his second technical foul and was ejected from the game. Bennett Salvatore saw Garnett slam the ball on the ground and interpreted that as showing up the ref. According to Flip after the game, KG was mad at himself. In any case, the fans who came out to see KG play only got 2.5 quarters of it. He was done for the night. The technical foul call seemed unnecessary, putting it mildly, but it was also an embarrassing look for Garnett, who is here right now primarily for veteran leadership.

The early portion of the third quarter was disappointing, because the Wolves allowed themselves to be bullied by aggressive defense. That changed when Andrew Wiggins started attacking, drawing a pair of fouls that sent him to the free throw line. Payne also helped turn the game’s momentum by crashing the offensive glass. He kept two possessions alive that ended in Wolves points. The defense tightened up when Gorgui was assigned Gasol, and the Wolves turned a 15-point deficit into a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter. Payne’s stint following the Garnett ejection was the best ball he’s played in his short Wolves tenure. There is a lot that I don’t like about how his game looks right now (funky shooting form, poor defensive awareness, turnover prone) but when he simplified his approach and crashed the boards, he was effective.

Memphis pulled the game out down the stretch, largely because Gasol was such a difficult one-on-one matchup. He only missed 3 shots all night. Gorgui drew a “hooking” foul on one Gasol post up, which led to Marc getting a technical of his own. After that, Gasol knew he was getting the benefit of the doubt star treatment, and sure enough Gorgui was whistled for light contact on the next possession. Kevin Martin hit a pair of threes to make things interesting, but missed a third one — wide open after he head faked in the corner — that would’ve likely forced overtime.

Now that this team has (most of) its health back, I don’t really think moral victories in home games are possible. They play like a good team, and good teams should expect to win at home. That’s an encouraging sign for next year. Andrew Wiggins, who I have barely mentioned, had 25 points last night and looks like he’s quickly approaching star-caliber play. With Wiggins on the wing, Rubio at point guard, and at least three solid big men between Pekovic, Gorgui, and KG, the Wolves should have high expectations from now on.

Some scattered jottings on other Wolves happenings:

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The Return (TIMBERWOLVES 97, Wizards 77)

Where to begin?

The game itself, I guess.

The game

The Wolves opened up the game with some predictable nerves. And as nerves often do in basketball, they seemed to help on defense and hurt on offense. Washington built a 13-1 lead and the Wolves did not make a field goal until a Pekovic layup with 5:27 to go in the first. While that technically broke the seal, the offensive struggles persisted through the end of the opening period. Adreian Payne committed three turnovers in short sequence, and the score was 20-11 Wizards after one.

Things turned around in the second, for two main reasons: (1) the Wolves defensive motor continued to run hot, and with appropriate rotations and discipline; and (2) Kevin Martin got hot. He had 16 points in that quarter alone (he ended with 28), mixing his crafty foul drawing skills with jumpers off the move, and an open corner three for good measure. Rubio made some uncharacteristically poor decisions, botching a contested layup on a 2-on-1 next to Wiggins, and then throwing the ball into the stands on the next possession. I did like one play he made with Garnett that was a little bit reminiscent of Celtics KG action – Garnett set a down screen like he used to for Ray Allen (I think this one was for Martin, but cannot recall specifically) and when both defenders hedged toward the cutter, he pivoted for position, and Rubio slid a bounce pass through traffic to him. He was then fouled on the layup attempt. KG’s a great screener — often accused of an illegal screener — and that action will be there with a heady point guard like Rubio surveying the floor.

The defensive effort and focus continued throughout the second quarter, and by the time Martin’s scoring work was done, the score was tied at 42s at the break.

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Saturday Jottings: Wolves Beat Suns, Anthony Bennett’s Future, Late-Game Offense

Last night’s win over the Suns was one of the season’s most fun games, for a few different reasons.

First and most obvious: It was a close game, involving a whole bunch of fourth quarter lead changes, and the home team pulled it out in the final minute. Specifically, the Wolves’ biggest basket came on a Rubio-to-Wiggins pick and roll where the next Rookie of the Year showed off his athleticism and poise by absorbing contact and finishing in traffic. Anytime the Wolves beat a decent team on a big play involving Rubio and Wiggins, the vibes will be positive.

Second, the fans came out and the arena had new energy. This was presumably, in large part, due to the Garnett-trade news. There was a period of time between when the trade was announced and the confirmation of when KG will debut here (next Wednesday, not last night) and I can only imagine that a lot of fans bought tickets for the Friday night game hoping it might be the first one with The Big Ticket back in the lineup. Garnett is not yet back in Minnesota, but the team made sure to play a bunch of promo videos on the big screen which was the crowd’s consolation prize (well, along with the big win). But there was a bigger-than-usual turnout last night, and the fans clearly enjoyed the show that Ricky and Wiggins put on. This team is 12-42 right now, mind you. This sort of win/loss record, which is unfortunately common, has traditionally not led to good crowds in the second half of the season. Last night was an exception.

Third, and most perhaps most under-the-radar, Ricky Rubio’s minutes restriction has been lifted and he’s back in full duty. Rubio played 37 minutes of really good basketball, last night. He had the Jason Kidd-style stat line, approaching a triple double with 10 points, 14 assists and 8 rebounds. Ricky had so much control over this game. Kevin Martin was hot early, so Ricky got him the ball. When Wiggins was feeling left out, Ricky chucked a 50-foot pass up the floor, forcing the youngster to chase it down and reward himself with a layup. Later in the game, again after some Martin shots went up, Ricky made a concerted effort to get the new guy, Gary Neal, some touches. He even looked off Martin to make sure this happened. He’s got that “pure point guard” brain that calculates the flow of the game in real time and understands where the ball needs to go to keep everyone happy and — more importantly — to keep the points coming. Ricky’s plus-minus of +14 was the game’s best by a 6-point margin.

All in all, it was a good win against an undermanned, but plenty competitive Suns team.

Some other Timberwolves issues, looking ahead:

* Anthony Bennett is about to enter a two-front battle for his Timberwolves future.

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KG Returns: Initial Reaction

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You already know the news: Kevin Garnett is coming back to Minnesota to play for the Timberwolves. In a trade-deadline deal that required Garnett’s signature to be official (he had a “no trade” clause that needed waiving) the Wolves are sending Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn for KG.

On pure basketball merits, I don’t find the trade to be particularly interesting or controversial. Young is, well, younger. He’s 26, with a future career ahead of him that could be brighter than his already-accomplished resume’ to date. But he struggled mightily for long stretches this year, and only came alive recently when his veteran teammates returned from injury. It would be disingenuous at best to say that the Wolves gave up an important long-term asset in this deal.

They didn’t. If they were in the hunt for a playoff spot this year, or had reasonable expectations for a playoff run next year, I might feel differently. But that’s not where this team is right now, with its best player in the middle of jump-shot reconstruction and its best prospect only 19 years of age.

More on Young: not only is he a “tweener” whose most natural position of small forward (and the one he was playing recently, with better results) is the same as Andrew Wiggins’, but he has the option of becoming a free agent at the end of this season and the Wolves certainly had a better understanding of his intentions in that regard than the fans do. For all we know, Young was planning on leaving the team this summer and signing somewhere else.

So the cost was not very significant, in my view.

The return, on the merits, was also fairly insignificant.

Don’t get me wrong, Garnett is one of the greatest forwards to ever play. He’s an MVP, a champion, and a future first-ballot hall of famer. If this franchise EVER has a better player than KG we’ll be seeing a short-list “Greatest of All Time” candidate.

But KG isn’t The Big Ticket anymore. He’s 38. He turns 39 in May. He can still play a little bit — he’s posting very close to league averages in advanced stats like PER and win shares — but his potential value to this T-Wolves team is not in his statistics or his in-game production. We don’t think “league averages” when we think of KG, and especially not in the 20 minutes he is playing, per game this year. He’s not going to make an impact in games, on the floor. Not anymore.

So yeah, the boring side of this trade is the basketball part. Thad wasn’t a particularly important piece of the Flip Saunders puzzle, and neither will Garnett be.

I like the trade for two basic reasons, and I dislike it for one. I’ll start with the part I don’t like, and keep it short.

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Wheeling & Dealing on a Tuesday

The Timberwolves made a trade today. And then they made another trade. By off-day standards, this was a lot of activity giving rise to a lot of internet discussion. So let’s sort it out and see what to make of everything that went down.

Trade Number 1

Wolves get:

Gary Neal
2nd Round Pick

Wolves send to Hornets:

Mo Williams
Troy Daniels

Trade Number 2

Wolves get:

Adreian Payne

Hawks get:

2017 1st Round Pick (lottery protected through 2020, after which it becomes a 2nd Round Pick)

Let’s get a few things out of the way before getting into the real meat of these transactions:

The Guards Swapping Uniforms

Mo Williams doesn’t matter to the Wolves. His contract expires at the end of the year and he was providing nothing of value to the development process of this young Timberwolves team. As a shooter, he might help the Hornets who are trying to make a playoff push.

Troy Daniels doesn’t matter. He’s an undersized shooting guard who could not, and never would crack a crowded wing rotation that includes Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad, not to mention Zach LaVine.

Gary Neal — who I like for aesthetic, style-of-play reasons — also doesn’t matter. If his contract isn’t bought out before he ever dons a Wolves uniform, he’ll play out this season and become a free agent.

These three guards are eminently replaceable. None of them would or could impact the future of the Timberwolves franchise in a meaningful way. As for the “present,” well, they wouldn’t have much effect there, either. Not with Rubio back in the lineup to play point guard, and Martin, Shabazz, and Wiggins all in need of minutes on the wing.

The second round pick is an asset, which makes the Charlotte end of the deal a (very) minor win, in my opinion.

Now with that out of the way, the serious portion of today’s events: the trade for the Hawks rookie forward, Adreian Payne. And more controversially, the trading away of a (protected) first round pick to get him.

Some Timberwolves History

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Notes on a Big Win

I don’t have a lot of time to write today, but last night’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies — by far the Wolves’ most impressive of the season — deserves some acknowledgement on the blog. With that in mind, here are some quick notes about the game, and things I’m noticing of late:

  • Ricky Rubio’s fourth quarter was the obvious narrative takeaway from the game. He was having a solid, far from spectacular game, when he checked back in with 7:24 to play and the Wolves trailing by 6. He scared fans to death when he went down hard after a layup, and immediately checked himself out of the game, loudly cursing and hobbling his way to the locker room. The drama only increased when he quickly returned to the arena, to a big ovation, and checked back into the game to play the part of hero. He hit the big three to cut the deficit to 1 with under a minute to play. Then he stole the ball from Zach Randolph, Michael Jordan-versus-Karl Malone style, and was immediately fouled in the bonus. He swished two free throws for the lead, and the Wolves got the necessary stop to seal the win.
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