Author Archives: Andy G

Wolves-Pacers Preview (& Ricky’s Shooting…)

Back to basketball tonight. The basketball that counts, I mean.

It’s been a while, as the Wolves last played one week ago; a home victory over the depleted Denver Nuggets. Tonight will be a far different test with the Indiana Pacers in town. Frank Vogel’s boys are 41-12; owners of the best record in the Eastern Conference. (Second best in the NBA, behind Oklahoma City.) Indiana’s recipe success is simple: long, athletic, aggressive, smart defenders working together as a cohesive unit. Together, they take away shots in the lane and behind the three-point line. Instead, the Pacers invite mid-range jumpers that are usually contested. Per nba.com/stats, the Pacers allow the most field goal attempts per game from 15-19 feet (just inside the three-point line) and the second-most per game from 10-14 feet. Taken together, it adds up to, BY FAR, the league’s top defense.

So that’s the challenge tonight. Figuring out ways to score. According to espn.com, the Pacers are 3-point favorites. It should be a competitive game. The playoffs are almost definitely out of the picture for this team, but it’s always fun to take on a challenge like this one against a title contender in front of the home crowd.

In other news, the trade deadline is tomorrow. There are multiple reports suggesting that J.J. Barea and Chase Budinger might be headed to Memphis in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen. There are thousands of tweets suggesting that either Kevin Love will be a Laker or that Laker fans are stupid and don’t know what they’re talking about.

It’s just that time of year. Try to enjoy it.

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Lovely Ambivalence

lovelyambivalence

[Editor's Note: The trade deadline is next Thursday, February 20. What follows is a conversation that many Timberwolves fans are having with themselves, in their own minds. Or at least I am, anyway. Enjoy.]

Mr. Pessimist: K-Love is gone. Just like Simmons predicted. Six straight years and no playoffs? Are you kidding me? And that bullshit with Taylor and Kahn refusing to offer the max? Did you read the Woj interview? He’s gone. They have to trade him, and they will. Before next week’s deadline.

Mr. Optimist: Nah, they can’t. They won’t. He’s their best player. Their FRANCHISE player. Kahn’s gone, ain’t ya heard? Flip Saunders is back. He and Love are tight. They have lunch all the time. And that stuff with the new practice facility? And the Mayo Clinic? Did you miss the part where Love said he’s looking forward — FORWARD — to playing in it and attracting free agents here. He’s looking ahead to the future. Here in Minnesota. Whats’ so hard to understand about that? He took out a full page ad in the Star Trib. What else do you need to see?

Mr. P: Well, some wins would be nice. The most they’ve won in Love’s five years here is 31. That’s not even .500 ball. Not even close. And Love barely even played that season. Oh, you musta forgot when he smashed up his hand doing knuckle push-ups. Or the part where nobody (except you?) believed that he actually hurt himself doing knuckle push-ups. Yeah, that happened.

Look, the team is flat lining and this plateau isn’t even close to where All-NBA players in their primes become satisfied. HE HASN’T EVEN PLAYED IN A PLAYOFF GAME YET! Why am I even having this conversation. Trust me, he’s gone. They’re putting on a happy PR face to keep his trade value and reputation intact. It’s smart business, but face the facts: Love is gone. Early next week, at the latest. You’ll read about it this weekend. Trust me.

Mr. O: But what are they gonna do without him?

Mr. P: Uh, keep losing? Whaddayou mean?

Mr. O: I mean, even assuming you’re right — which I don’t — what could they get for him? If everyone knows he’s a free agent in a year and a half, why would a team pay big for him now?

Mr. P: Because he’s an All-NBA forward and the best scorer-rebounder combination in the world. He could EASILY be the “2004 Sheed” that pushes a playoff team over the edge into a bowl of deep playoff runs and a championship.

Off the top of my head, the Bulls would definitely want him, and they’d send back Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and change. That’s 75 cents on the dollar, which ain’t bad. Chicago’s in an uncomfortable spot with all of these Derrick Rose injuries, but imagine if they could re-load with a Rose-Love-Joakim Noah core? That locks up Tom Thibodeau for the next half dozen seasons and they’ll probably win a championship. They’d certainly contend for a bunch of them. And Love wouldn’t leave Chicago.

Or the Thunder, where his college roommate Russell Westbrook plays. The Thunder are rolling now, but they couldn’t turn down a Love for Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb trade. Shit, they’d probably toss in a couple draft picks. Those are just two possibilities. I’m sure there are more, but you get the idea. The Wolves would take a step back, but what’s the difference? They’re not cracking this top eight in the West this year, or any other time soon.

Mr. O: Whatever man, I’m not buying it. We haven’t heard a peep about Love being shopped. He’s averaging 26, 13 & 4. Those are numbers from a different era. You don’t trade that for Serge Ibaka or Taj Gibson. You just don’t.

Mr. P: Believe what you want. Just don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

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Wolves lose at home by a lot of points.

That was a bad game. The final score was Houston 107, Minnesota 89.

It had some nice moments, but more bad ones that lasted much longer than the good. Rick Adelman wasn’t there tonight, due to personal reasons. Terry Porter took his place as chief decision maker on the sidelines.

In the opening minutes, the Wolves couldn’t defend. They started Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger at the wing spots. Corey couldn’t defend James Harden without fouling. Chase couldn’t rotate quickly enough to contest Rockets three-point shots. This theme continued all night as Brewer and Budinger posted defensive ratings for the game of 124.9 and 118.7, respectively.

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No Bruises, No Win

Wolves lost at Oklahoma City, 106-97.

Five points about the game:

* Kevin Love didn’t play. This meant a few things, but most significantly, it meant that the entire Bruise Brothers front line was missing. That’s 43.6 points, 22.3 rebounds, and 5.0 assists, gone. The Wolves don’t have a good bench to begin with. A starting front line of Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf — jokingly referred to by me as the Snooze Brothers, before the game — is not going to win against the Thunder. Earlier in the day I was surprised to see the Wolves set as 9.5-point underdogs. Maybe the gamblers knew that Love wouldn’t play.

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Wolves Report Card (WOLVES 109, Lakers 99)

We’re not really creatures of habit here and I try to mix up game wrap formats.

So I’ll borrow one from the excellent Knickerblogger site and do this one Report Card style.

Starters

Ricky Rubio: B+
Ricky had 13 assists and just 2 turnovers. Combine those stats with his 6 boards and +5 plus-minus and he deserves a positive grade even when he scored only 4 points on 1-4 shooting.

Coach Adelman yanked Rubio after an unnecessarily fancy pass in the 3rd Quarter, when the lead was shrinking. After the game, Britt Robson asked Coach if the flashy mistake was the reason for the immediate hook. Adelman replied, “We’ve been talking to him all the time about there’s a time and a place to attack the basket. And I think we were up 15 or 16 points up at that point, got the ball, and it’s one on five. And the chances are that nothing good’s gonna come out of that. Make them guard us for 20 seconds. Know the time. Know the score. And that’s just something he’s got to learn; when to pull it back. I was gonna take him out anyway for a blow, but that sealed it.”

It has become clear that Adelman and Rubio are not always on the same page. Ricky handles his late-game benchings with class, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. And tonight, I should add, Ricky played down the stretch over Barea. But there are both stylistic and substantive reasons for the times Adelman chooses JJ in crucial situations and the quick hook after the turnover tonight was yet another message, even if a more subtle one.

But all things considered, Ricky played well tonight in his 31 minutes of action. Continue reading

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A Great Comeback & A Bad Coaching Job (Grizzlies 94, WOLVES 90)

A lot of things happened in last night’s game that led to the Grizzlies winning by 4 at Target Center: Memphis played its patented Grit & Grind defense, smothering many Timberwolves possessions and holding them to just 90 points. Zach Randolph, aka Z-Bo, commanded double teams on the low block, and put up an easy 26, 12 and 4. Courtney Lee made shots.

On the Wolves end, Kevin Love played a great game; particularly in the third quarter with Ricky Rubio. Dante Cunningham broke out of his Elbow Jumpers Only shell to crash the offensive boards and and had a big two-hand flush off the dribble, in traffic. The Wolves also struggled for long stretches of this game. Especially in the first half. Chase Budinger shot just 1-5 from the field and missed a pair of wide open threes down the stretch. Alexey Shved was ineffective and played just 6 minutes. Gorgui Dieng was disruptive on defense, but was out of control just about every time the ball was passed to him.

But the big takeaway from the game was Rick Adelman’s decision to play J.J. Barea instead of Ricky Rubio for the entire fourth quarter.

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Five Friday Questions

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 12.10.22 AM

1. Is Gorgui Dieng an exaggerated plus on defense, and exaggerated minus on offense?

After learning the nature and extent of the Pekovic injury, I wrote a little bit about Gorgui Dieng. Specifically, I wrote about the question marks surrounding the Timberwolves offense when Gorgui takes the floor, and also the fact that he blocks a lot of shots and crashes the boards.

Well, in 6.4 meaningful minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans, he continued his reputation. With Gorgui on the floor, the defense was really good and the offense was really bad. In a game like tomorrow’s versus Memphis, maybe he will fit right in?

I wonder how Adelman feels about muddying the game up in the paint and trying to win in the low 90s. Gorgui seems like a one-way player in the extreme sense.

2. Now that he’s finally playing well, why is Alexey Shved removed from the rotation?

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Pek Goes Too

All-Star reserves are announced tonight on TNT.

The Timberwolves made a super funny video to promote Nikola Pekovic, a candidate for one of the slots.

They get extra points for including some Punch-Drunk Wolves art at the 0:25 mark.

Great stuff, and good luck to Pek.

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A note about the Pekovic injury

Just a quick note about the unfortunate news that Nikola Pekovic has right ankle bursitis and will miss at least 7 to 10 days before he is re-evaluated. (Given the nature of this injury — apparently a gradual onset of symptoms rather than a simple sprain — he’ll probably be out at least a couple of weeks.)

Pek will obviously be missed. Continue reading

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Finding Defense in Chicago (Wolves 95, BULLS 86)

chicagostyle

That was an unusual Timberwolves game.

They won, but that’s not the weird part. It happens half the time, after all. The strange thing about tonight’s win over the Chicago Bulls was how the Wolves won.

They scored 95 points, which doesn’t seem so odd until you consider that the Wolves average 114.1 points per game in wins (a stat that includes tonight’s game bringing it down). They won by 9, which is just a titch more than half of their average victory margin of 17.0 (again, including this game). The Wolves are one of the league’s best offensive rebounding and second-chance points teams, but tonight they pulled down only 5 boards on their own end.

Most importantly, the game’s outcome seemed to turn when the Wolves upped their defensive intensity.

That never happens.

Let’s quickly rewind to the beginning of the game.

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A Meaningful Win (Wolves 121, WARRIORS 120)

There was a game a couple of years ago against the Spurs. It was at home. It was early in the lockout-shortened season on a Friday night. I remember watching it at a sports bar after work, with some friends. We were excited about Ricky Rubio. He was just a rookie and the most popular new player in the league. The Wolves began the season surprisingly competitive, playing almost-.500 ball that stood in stark contrast to the seasons of losing that we had grown accustomed to. But it was too early, and there were too many question marks to know if it was just a lucky start, or whether these winning ways had actual lasting power.

And a strange thing happened.

The Timberwolves won.

They beat the Spurs.

It wasn’t a fluke or anything. And that was the weird part. The Wolves just played well and — for one night — looked like a better team than the world-class San Antonio Spurs.

Fans of other teams — normal teams — wouldn’t understand. The Wolves don’t do that. Not when KG doesn’t play, anyway. Sure, they might beat a good team every now and then, but they never look like the better team. It never feels that legitimate.

It never feels that good.

I was thinking about that game yesterday afternoon, and how it probably marks the highest point of confidence I’ve had in the Timberwolves since Kevin Garnett was traded. Last season’s Thursday TNT win over the Thunder was great, but something about having Ricky Rubio hobbling off the bench made it seem a little bit less meaningful. When Rubio and Kevin Love led their new team to a win over Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, it felt like an arrival; the beginning of something incredible.

My thought was that a road win over the Warriors — a team that some smart people consider a title contender — might evoke feelings similar to the ones that followed that Spurs victory; a moment that feels like an eternity ago when you think about everything that’s happened since:

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The Love-Saunders Friendship: How much does it matter?

“[Michael] Jordan was skilled at verbal blood sport; no one in the league was better at zinging other people. He seemed to know how much to bait [Bulls general manager Jerry] Krause and, when there were danger signals, just when to back off. Jordan might have his own raging emotions, but he was a master at controlling them. He was mature and very tough mentally, and he had a certain high, professional coldness that allowed him to turn on his emotions as he so chose and to use his rage as an instrument. If anything, no one in the league was more skilled at creating artificial rage when needed.

Pippen was different. His emotions were always more raw and closer to the surface, and he had far less control over them. When he got into a situation like this, especially when he had been drinking, he was not nearly as good as Jordan at knowing when to let go. As Jordan began the baiting on the bus, Pippen took it over, berating Krause–When are you going to stop taking credit for drafting me and for my career?–then loudly and angrily demanding that the Bulls either sign him to a new contact or trade him. None of it was being done lightly, and Pippen became louder and angrier on the ride. It was the voice of anger and alcohol. Finally, [Phil] Jackson held up a bottle of beer, as if to tell him that he had been drinking too much and to stop.”

–Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam

Just about everybody was happy when David Kahn was fired was not retained as Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations. Kahn made a lot of mistakes. He blew draft choices. He prioritized potential ahead of realized talent (to an unusually high degree). He didn’t know when to shut up to the press (which was awesome for fans, but bad for his team’s reputation, particularly in light of its win/loss record and standing in the league).

But when Kahn was let go, his flaw that fans focused most on was his cancerous relationship with Timberwolves star, Kevin Love. The two got off on a rocky start when Kahn would tell people that Love was the third or fourth best player on a championship team. There are rumors that Kahn was considering trading Love. And most famously, the Timberwolves refused to offer Love a five-year maximum contract; the decision which affects the team now as it might be forced into trading Love at this coming deadline, if the playoffs don’t seem realistic and a message is sent — whether by Love, his agent, or someone else in the know — that he is not going to re-sign with the Timberwolves in 2015. Even though Glen Taylor was apparently the maker of that decision, Kahn was the basketball boss and it seems highly unlikely that his input was not a key factor. When Kahn handed Love a four-year contract — literally, handed it to him — Love crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.

So with that background, Flip Saunders was to be a savior. Saunders is a good old boy in a state that treasures Good Old Boys. He might not value advanced stats — they are just “information confirmation,” after all — but the one thing we knew he would get right is Kevin Love.

And to his credit, Saunders seems to be having success in making friends with Love. In his interview with Britt Robson of MinnPost, he lauded Love’s commitment to the organization. He said that they have lunch all the time. He said that Love really does like it here.

I threw out a question on Twitter last night to gauge fan opinions on this issue: Continue reading

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Caveats, Praise, Concern & Fun Ahead

Some caveats before praising the Timberwolves before acknowledging some (minor?) causes for concern before looking ahead to an exciting weekend of matchups.

Caveats

The Jazz are bad.

It’s nice to see the Wolves win any game, let alone one on the road that begins a winning streak. But Utah is really bad and tonight’s was a game that every fan expected the team to come away from victorious.

You could counter and say that Utah started the season horribly (1-14) and had played .500 ball over their past 26 games before the Wolves home and home.

And you’d be right.

But you’d also be ignoring the significance of Gordon Hayward’s absence from Saturday’s game (he’s their best offensive player) and Derrick Favors’ absence from tonight’s game (he’s their best interior defender).

These were games that the Wolves were supposed to win.

Timberwolves Praise

And they did win!

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The past month of play

As I’m sure you already know, the Timberwolves beat the Jazz on Saturday. That game was played at Target Center. It was not close. The blowout allowed Coach Adelman to play his first round picks, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, for the final six minutes of the game. (Gorgui actually played a little bit in the first half, too.) Adelman was in a good mood after the game. When his presser closed with some jokes about a ridiculous lob pass Dieng threw from beyond the halfcourt line, it seemed as if Rick wanted to hang out for a while. Suffice it to say, it was a happier mood than the one that followed Wednesday’s loss to the Kings.

The Wolves and Jazz match up again on Tuesday. This one will be in Utah and marks the beginning of a four-game road trip that includes stops in Portland, Oakland/Golden State, and Chicago. As the Wolves are currently 2 games below .500 and 4 games out of the playoffs, they can’t afford a losing streak. Ideally they win at Utah and Chicago — where Luol Deng no longer plays and Derrick Rose is not in uniform — and steal one of the two difficult games on the West Coast. A 3-1 road trip would get the team back to .500 with some momentum after the first impressive win (whether it come at the Rose Garden or Oracle) in ages.

A few points about the recent play of the Wolves during the stretch of games I alluded to in my last post (everything since the 12/18/13 win over Portland at Target Center, which was about one month ago):

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On the Brink

onthebrink

The problem has less to do with where we are than where it appears we are headed.

With last night’s loss the Timberwolves are three games below .500 for the first time all season. Technically, they are only four games out of the playoff picture; this, and we have not even reached the season’s halfway point. It is possible that the Wolves will make a trade or figure something out with the playing rotation and find themselves in the conference’s top eight.

But the way things are going, that just seems very unlikely.

The list of problems is long:

Ricky Rubio is struggling in halfcourt offense, particularly late in close games. He is frustrated. Rick Adelman has been sitting Rubio out of recent fourth quarters. This is unpopular with fans and (so far) has not translated into wins. But it might be a necessary strategy in the short term, while Ricky continues to work on his shooting and scoring skills.

Kevin Martin no longer seems like a dynamic scorer. And as we already knew when he came here, he is a minus defender.

Corey Brewer can’t dribble or shoot, and is not a reliable one-on-one defender. He probably won’t be starting for much longer. Brewer’s ideal NBA role of spark-plug off the bench might be the only one he can execute competently. It would not surprise me if Chase Budinger (better scorer) or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (better defender) is in tonight’s starting lineup instead of Brewer.

Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are the backbone of the team and can be counted on for consistent production of points and rebounds. Love’s game continues to expand and he now creates scoring opportunities with clever passing from the high post. But neither he nor Pek has the physical capability to turn a losing game around with defensive dominance. Basically, the team needs to score at a very high rate to contend with good teams. And they haven’t been able to do that as often as we all would like.

As these team weaknesses have surfaced, the losses have piled up and the Wolves have struggled to beat any decent teams. Since the home win over the Blazers (who were exhausted and on the tail end of a road trip) on December 18, the Wolves wins have come at home against the Wizards, Pelicans and Bobcats, and on the road against the Bucks and Sixers. In that same month-long period the team lost games to the Lakers, Clippers, Mavericks, Thunder, Suns, Spurs, Kings and Raptors.

Yeah.

The season is now on a brink of sorts and not only with respect to making the playoffs.

Fans are beginning to question Coach Adelman. Flip Saunders, Adelman’s boss and this franchise’s most successful coach in history, might be doing the same thing. (For what it’s worth, Punch-Drunk Wolves is firmly entrenched in Adelman’s camp. Simply put, he’s an awesome coach and any change would be a downgrade. My only concern, sometimes, is that he doesn’t seem as intense or demanding as a developing team that struggles with focus might need. But that’s a relatively small point — he’s dealing with professionals, after all — and I’m not even sure if it’s true.) Local sports writers are blasting Ricky Rubio as another bust in a long line of draft mistakes. (Eds note: that column ignores that defense is a part of basketball. So there is that.) Kevin Love is a free agent in 1.5 seasons and Saunders will be tempted with big offers before next month’s trade deadline. The 2014 Draft is deep with high-end talent and we are a losing streak or two away from sliding some attention away from the game-to-game grind of the Wolves season and toward Chad Ford Insider posts about Kansas and Kentucky players. One can imagine a scenario where Love is traded for a young player and draft picks, Adelman promptly retires, and Saunders coaches a team that suddenly has Shabazz Muhammad in the regular playing rotation.

Those are some of the stakes as we head into consecutive games against the Utah Jazz. Tonight’s matchup is at Target Center. Tuesday’s is in Utah. It’s not hyperbole to call these “must win” games. Especially tonight’s. The Jazz, despite having some intriguing young players, are not good. They’re really bad, actually. Last place in the West.

Hey, if nothing else, the Timberwolves are never boring.

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Notes on a Disaster

The Wolves lost to the Kings last night. At home. When Sacramento was on a back-to-back and the Wolves were rested.

It might be the team’s worst loss of the season.

Some notes about the game and other issues with the team:

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Cold Kevins (SPURS 104, Wolves 86)

Losing to the Spurs in San Antonio isn’t a cause for alarm. They remain the class of the conference, significantly ahead of our developing Timberpups. However, tonight’s game was a little bit more winnable than the usual matchup with Team Popovich. The Spurs were without starting center Tiago Splitter and all-time great sixth man Manu Ginobili. Danny Green, the reliable three-and-D wing, injured his finger and did not play in the second half.

So with those opponent injuries taken into consideration, along with the Wolves unusually healthy state, (knocks on all of the wood) an 18-point loss is a bit disappointing.

The reason for the one-sided loss was clear: Kevin Martin and Kevin Love had off nights.

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No More Mr. Nice Guy… I hope.

happyandmad

Last night’s game was weird.

It wasn’t weird because of the result; a blowout Timberwolves win over an overmatched, Eastern Conference opponent at Target Center. That’s a common occurrence this season.

It also wasn’t weird because of how that favorable result came to be. Nikola Pekovic dominated in the paint. Kevin Martin made jumpers. Ricky Rubio ran the offense and played pesky defense. Kevin Love did a little bit of everything. The bench kicked ass. (Okay, that part was unusual.) Overall, the winning formula looked familiar to fans.

The game was weird because — heading into it — it was impossible to know what the ideal outcome was.

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Flipadelphia (Wolves 126, 76ers 95)

FlipSaundersadelphia

Flip Saunders’ Timberwolves traveled to Philadelphia and came away winners. By 31 points. The game was one sided at halftime and lopsided after that. Serious analysis becomes difficult when my biggest question is when Gorgui Dieng will check in the game to swing away at some blocks.

So that’s how we end up with photoshop posts.

It was a businesslike win for the once-again .500 Wolves; a win they needed and made sure they got.

A few serious observations about the game before calling it an early Monday night:

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Durant was awesome and that’s cool… But what about the Wolves?

“I’m not a must-win kind of person. When Reggie Miller comes in and scores eight points in the last however many seconds, that’s exciting for me.  If Earl Monroe came in with the Bullets and scored 100 points and the Knicks lost, that also made me happy.”

-Woody Allen

That quote applies to last night’s game. Well, it applies to being a Timberwolves fan at Target Center during last night’s game when Kevin Durant scored 48 points. Durant was splitting Corey Brewer-Dante Cunningham double teams. (Yes, apparently, that’s possible.) He was sticking so many ridiculous 3s that he rimmed out a heat check from 42 feet out (all numbers approximate). And he, of course, was served his Closer Coffee after the game for hitting a silky smooth, ice cold dagger off the dribble for the win. The quote comes from Harvey Araton’s excellent When The Garden Was Eden. I’ve used it before when doing some soul-search blogging about why I care about millionaires throwing a sphere through a ring. Kevin Durant ranks right with Jordan and Kobe as one of the greatest scorers I have ever seen. To see him drop an angry 48 on a pick-up-the-slack night Without Westbrook was something I’ll never forget.

And with that out of the way: The Timberwolves.

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