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Blazers 102, Wolves 97: Five Things

1. Kevin Love broke his hand.  Again.

This was the big news to hit Twitter in the hours leading up to the game.  Kevin Love had an MRI exam done on his right hand and it showed that he re-fractured the same bone that he previously broke during the preseason.  Given that Love came back earlier than expected from the last fracture injury and never regained his shooting form (or anything remotely close to it) I think it’s fair to expect the team to take better caution this time around.  Love’s latest injury could likely be a fatal blow to the Wolves’ playoff chances.  Even if the team can hover around the .500 mark, they’ll do so while watching competitors like Houston (20-14), Denver (19-16), and yes, probably the Lakers (15-17) claim ownership of those final spots with records 5 to 10 games over .500.  Portland, currently 18-15, could continue to look like a playoff team, but I personally don’t think they’re that good.  One high ankle sprain to Nic Batum or LaMarcus Aldridge (or Wes Matthews or Dame Lillard) would probably mean a losing streak for the shallow Blazers roster.  In any case, the Western Conference is loaded and Kevin Love playing so few minutes of good basketball this year is going to keep the Wolves out of the playoffs, barring a major surprise.

2. Blazers Shooting

Last night Portland attempted 24 three-point shots and made 16 of them.  48 points from downtown on 66.67 percent shooting is going to mean a win for almost any team against any opponent.  Some of them were open, but that happens.  The three-point line is never covered perfectly, and certainly not against a team that also has a matchup problem in the post like LaMarcus Aldridge and a capable playmaker like Damian Lillard.  In his press conference, Adelman first pointed the finger at his own team’s lack of effort but then conceded that Portland made just about everything.  Damian Lillard’s threes (3-5) were tough to stop because they came off the dribble.  Wes Matthews’ threes (5-7) were tough to stop because some were ridiculous fade-aways.  Nic Batum’s threes (5-6) were tough to stop because he’s 6’8″ and releases the ball high without even a split second of hesitation.

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Wolves Beat Suns, Beas is Schwag

Wes Johnson Jerseys: Worthless? Or just worth less than they used to be?

Wes Johnson Jerseys: Worthless? Or just worth less than they used to be?

Okay, folks, the Wolves are winners again. Hallelujah, rejoice. They beat the Phoenix Suns 111-107 last night at home.

They did it without Golden Boy Ricky Rubio, about whom I’d written a slurptastic game preview, in which I suggested Rubio and Love were/are/will be the keys to the Wolves winning anything significant. Kirilenko, Shved, and Pek are nice bit pieces – nicer than we’ve had since 2004-05 – but they’re dispensible in different ways. Rubio and Love aren’t, unless we’d flip one of them for someone even better. Pau Gasol probably doesn’t qualify, for those of you still fantasizing about a Love-Gasol trade. If you’re reading, that includes you, Kevin Love.)

A few thoughts from last night’s game:

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“Winning Time” by Carmelo Anthony

Let’s get the qualifiers out of the way.  Coming into yesterday’s matchup with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Timberwolves had a road record of 5-8.  At home, the Knicks were 11-2.  Though both teams had the previous day off and were presumably rested, the Wolves were without their top dog, Kevin Love.  K-Love was still feeling effects from the eye gouge injury he sustained late in the Thunder game and stayed home from the trip.  Taking on the second-best team in the East without the team’s best scorer and rebounder was a tall order and victory was unlikely.  But when the final buzzer sounded and the Knicks celebrated what should have been a routine home win against an undermanned squad, Wolves fans had a bitter taste in their mouths.  Here’s a rundown that explains why.

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LeBron Hits the Accelerator (HEAT 103, Wolves 92)

When I saw that the Wolves were a 8.5-point dogs, my naive optimism dwindled pretty significantly.  Vegas usually knows what’s up.  In this case, Ricky Rubio was sitting out.  The Wolves were on the tail end of a road back-to-back.  Miami was rested.  Miami has LeBron James.  The Heat are the world champs.  After dropping a winnable one last night, this would be a challenge.  How’d it play out?  Check it out below the fold.

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Garnett [still] Got Game (CELTICS 104, Wolves 94)

KG played like his prime years tonight, albeit in fewer minutes.

I feel bad for the fans that only tuned in for the second half.  After a couple competitive quarters of basketball that left the Wolves leading by 4 points, everything came unraveled for Rick Adelman’s team.  Boston turned the halftime deficit into a 7-point lead after three.  The third quarter was largely dominated by large Celtic power forward, Brandon Bass, who scored 10 points on 5-5 shooting in the period.  The Wolves second unit, that played quite well in the first half, continued the struggles in the early fourth, seeing the Celtic lead extend to 9 points when Love and Pekovic came back in.  Those subs didn’t help and the bleeding continued.  Profusely.  Boston’s lead ballooned to 15.  In the first 6:08 of the final period the Wolves managed just 3 points, blending a toxic mix of bricked jumpers, botched layups, offensive fouls and turnovers, and above all else, missed free throws.  Despite getting enough defensive stops to hold out a shred of hope through the 6-minute mark, the game was never again a close one.

Rather than harp on everything negative, I’ll start with some praise:

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Raining in Philly (Wolves 105, 76ers 88)

Was it 2007 all over again in Philly tonight? Josh Howard thought so.

“We need to get some type of roll going here and, like I said, you do it by winning on the road.”  Much of Rick Adelman’s post game presser (televised on FSN North) focused on the Wolves getting on a roll.  Clearly impressed by a dominant win over a solid Philadelphia 76ers team, Coach is smelling blood on this East Coast back-to-back and it’s coming from Boston.  Tomorrow night, the Wolves take on Kevin Garnett and the Celtics.  If you watched the game tonight, you can’t really blame him for looking ahead like a guy playing with house money.  This was the best his team has looked all season.  Which is strange, when you consider that Kevin Love, continuing the search for his shooting stroke, had just 6 points on 2-10 shooting.  (Before I forget though, Love was a beast on the defensive glass and his 5 assists reflect a quick maturation from earlier games when he met cold shooting with forced action.  He shared the ball tonight.)  It’s doubly strange when you consider that Nikola Pekovic had an inefficient 6 points, and 5 rebounds in 27 minutes of action.  Pek never found a groove all night.  The Timberwolves’ two best healthy players struggled, yet they won by 17 points on the road against a team that played in Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.

So what exactly was going so well?

Everything else.

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What to Look for Tonight against Philly

Jrue Holiday controls the 76ers' fate

Jrue Holiday controls the 76ers’ fate

Okay, kids, game-time is approaching. It’s Wolves vs. 76ers.

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Sunday Ramblings

This is an unusually late game wrap for a number of reasons.  First, I could not watch the entire game on Friday.  My roommate just turned 30, we hosted a little party for that occasion (that later in the night had a chance encounter with Alexey Shved and much of the Wolves roster, which was fun–Shved is a humble dude, very approachable by losers superfans like myself), and while the game was on, I wasn’t able to pay close enough attention to feel like my game wrap would provide anything very meaningful.  Second, the Wolves have three days off between Friday’s game and Tuesday’s matchup with the Sixers (at Philly, 6:00 CST) so I thought posting in the middle of the downtime would be of more value to readers.  Third, this won’t be as much a “game wrap” as some observations about Wolves and NBA issues.

Alexey Shved: Starting to make shots, now what’s his ideal role?

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Unarmed (CLIPPERS 101, Wolves 95)

Twitter was going wild on the Timberwolves Injury Report front in the hours leading up to tonight’s game at Staples Center.  First, the good news:

Such. Great. News.  I can’t wait to see Minnesota’s most-entertaining athlete back on the floor at Target Center.  Should only be another week or two.

Now, the bad (for tonight’s game anyway):

That hurts.  Through 13 games, AK47 is the team’s MVP.  Without him, taking on a title contender, on the road, on 0 days rest, is not a winning proposition.  But as Chris Berman might say if he were segueing into a game in which an unexpected result occurred, “That’s why they play the games.”

To the action…

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Love’s Return…to Greatness (Wolves 97, KINGS 89)

It wasn’t easy.  Despite building a 13-point lead late in the 3rd Quarter of Tuesday night’s game at Sacramento the Wolves found themselves in a dogfight in the closing minutes.  With a minute to go, and holding just a 2-point lead, Andrei Kirilenko cracked the code of the annoying Kings zone defense, filling a seam, catching a pass and quickly flipping it over to Nikola Pekovic for an open layup.  On the other end of the floor, AK47 swatted a crucial shot of DeMarcus Cousins.  When he secured the loose-ball rebound himself, the game was in hand, with the five-game losing streak snapped.  The Wolves controlled most of this game, and deserved the win.  Since we’ve got another one tomorrow night (@ LA Clippers, 9:30 CST) I’m keeping it short, so we’re heading into the bullet format:

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Wolves vs. Kings: What to Watch For

‘Reke rocks the party

A struggling Wolves squad limps into Sacramento tonight trying to break their five-game losing streak against the Kings. Can they do it?

A few weeks ago, this would’ve looked like a gimme. But not anymore.

The Wolves are in disarray. At 5-7, they’re already in the cellar of a solid Northwest Division, just behind the 6-8 Portland Trailblazers. But if the Wolves lose tonight and fall to 5-8, that gap is likely to wide further tomorrow, with Portland scheduled to take on the Winless Washington Wi’zards.They badly need a win.

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But I don’t wanna wait! (WARRIORS 96, Wolves 85)

Five losses in a row and Ricky Rubio cannot return fast enough.  Kevin Love’s unexpectedly-quick recovery from hand fractures, and immediate production of NUMB#RS, is not translating into wins.  Minnesota is 0-3 since Love’s return.  The common theme of the last three losses is building an early lead that evaporates as the missed shots and blown pick-and-roll assignments pile up.  Tonight, the Wolves’ apex came in the mid-2nd Quarter when Alexey Shved and the second unit caught fire and extended the lead to 11, at 35-24.  There would be no “fire” after that, unless you mean Steph Curry bombing from 27 feet.  The Wolves lead dwindled to 4 at the half and it was a struggle to keep heads above water after that.  Things fell apart in a catastrophic 4th Quarter that the Warriors won 26-11.  Minnesota was stuck on 79 points (beginning the stretch with a 5-point lead) from the 10:19 mark in the 4th all the way to 5:28.  After Kevin Love [finally] broke the seal with a bucket, the Wolves again stuck on 81 points until a Pekovic free throw at the 2:40 mark.  3 points in 7:39.  There is your game wrap.

The Wolves don’t play Sunday and they don’t play Monday, so it’s worth addressing some broader questions.  Continue reading

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Another One Gets Away (Nuggets 101, WOLVES 94)

Rick Adelman needs to fix the guard rotations before too many winnable games are handed away. Photo – David J. Phillip, AP

The Wolves extended their losing streak to 3 games on Wednesday, dropping a crucial game against a divisional foe that might be joining the Wolves (and Mavericks, Jazz and Warriors) in the battle of the playoffs fringe.  Despite a fantastic surprise in the minutes leading up to tip-off (more on that in a second) and a large 1st Half lead, the Wolves offense sputtered in the 2nd Half and a winnable game was lost.  This game was relatively simple, with one great thing slightly more than offset by one really bad thing.  Those two things:

Kevin Love unexpectedly returned to the starting lineup.  And was immediately back to his All-Star form.

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Reflecting on the Alexey Shved Signing

Alexey Shved’s signing is making David Kahn look good

The 5-4 record of the Minnesota Timberwolves is defined by crosswinds: In one direction blows a continuous breeze of injuries: damaged knees, bizarre knuckle and foot ailments, an ankle sprain (to a player seemingly-immune to such things), with the sum being a depleted roster and lots of improvisation we didn’t expect. The other blows all the way from Eastern Europe – Moscow to be exact, improbably flitting CSKA stars Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved into Timberwolves POBO David Kahn’s lap all the way over here in Minneapolis.

Kirilenko and Shved have exceeded expectations and helped the Wolves team gather needed wins in a competitive Western Conference. Kirilenko is the team’s MVP by a wide margin, thriving under Rick Adelman’s player-movement offense, perhaps to a degree never reached before in his career, even in his prime as a member of the Utah Jazz.

Kirilenko is playing at a high level, and is being paid as such; last offseason, he inked a two-year deal worth $20 Million, which includes a player option on the second year – worth about $10.2 Million – allowing him to explore free agency if he chooses. All things considered, it isn’t a great contract, only because with the level of play he’s quickly reached, we would all wish he were locked up for 3-4 years instead of just one.

Shved’s contract, on the other hand, is looking mighty fine.

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A Better Effort (Warriors 106, WOLVES 98)

A few years back, Harrison Barnes was supposed to be The Next Kobe. Expectations have since dropped, but his NBA career is off to a solid start.

I knew I wasn’t [completely] overreacting to that bad loss on Wednesday night.  Despite the injuries that have overhauled the Wolves starting unit, the team still has enough talent and grit to play competitive basketball.  “Competitive basketball” would have prevailed against the Bobcats that night.  Last night’s game was fun to watch because expectations were low and the game remained in doubt into the closing possessions.  Unfortunately, the comeback was incomplete and the Warriors prevailed.  The “Good Job. Good Effort.” feel to this loss was on clearest display on the game’s pivotal possessions.  Dante Cunningham had just pulled down one of the most impressive offensive rebounds I have ever seen.  He FLEW through the air from the top of the key and collected Luke’s missed trey at a ridiculously high point.  Cunningham was then fouled and, after a Warriors timeout, hit a pair of free throws to cut the deficit to 3 points with under 3 minutes to play.  Golden State ran a high ball screen for Jarrett Jack (Steph Curry had fouled out of the game) with David Lee being the screen and roller.  Cunningham defended the entire play perfectly, even anticipating Lee’s spin move to a lefty turnaround.  Lee somehow managed to make the shot. Tip the hat to Lee, because he played a great game against a slightly-overmatched team.

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Half & Half: A 2-Part Game Wrap (Wolves 90, MAVERICKS 82)

In the interest of getting some much-needed, early-in-the-week sleep, I’m doing this wrap in two parts–first and second half splits.  So the first half is being written at halftime.

1st Half Notes

The first half–and especially the first quarter–was dominated by the Wolves two best healthy players: Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic. [Eds note: In hindsight, I should not have phrased that sentence that way. More on that in the 2nd Half.]  Pek showed off a move that he’s clearly been working on with Coach Billy Bayno, the standard jump hook.  He buried three of these with his right hand in the opening quarter and finished the half with an impressive 13 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists.  It’s hard to understate the importance of this new skill, because as defenders become forced to defend it honestly it will open up his go-to favorite, the drop step.  We’ve seen Pek taking a hard right-hand dribble into the paint when defenders cheat to his right (baseline side/left block) shoulder and try jump hooks.  He makes them sometimes.  What we saw in the first half tonight was on the right block–more of a standard post hook.  Pek improves at things.  That’s mostly a credit to him but also to Rick Adelman’s coaching staff.

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Wolves vs. Mavericks Preview

The Wolves take on former Timberwolf OJ Mayo tonight in Dallas

Tonight it’s Mayo versus Shved. Mano-a-mano. Like a bullfight in which two matadors duel for an audience’s admiration, it’s OJ against Alexey no matter how much better it might be if it were a young Jet against a healthy Roy.

There’s no Budinger, either, and that has implications for how the Wolves are likely to play.

Still Mayo is averaging 21.9 ppg and Shved has been making a difference for the Wolves, too.

In fact, most of the main attractions will either be wearing a suit, or watching from somewhere in Minnesota. 

No Dirk Nowitzki for the Mavs. No K-Love or Ricky Rubio (again) for the Timberwolves. J.J. Barea is out too. 

Still both teams have winning records, so there are signs of life for the depleted Mavs and reasons for hope for the aspiring Wolves. In and of itself, this is surprising given that neither team’s All-Star power forward has played a minute this season.

Deets below the fold…

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Bullish Defense (BULLS 87, Wolves 80)

Bo Ryan’s face while watching tonight’s beat-em-up halfcourt struggle in Chicago.

Without Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls are the NBA’s Wisconsin Badgers.  There are no elite athletes or SportsCenter top plays.  Just execution and defense.  They set big screens.  They use most of the shot clock.  They talk on defense.  They rotate on defense.  They push people around in the lane.  At United Center, they push people around without fear of hearing a whistle blown.  The pictures are not pretty, but the final score is in Chicago’s favor.

All of those qualities were on display in Chicago tonight as the Wolves fell to the Bulls 87-80 in a game that felt neck-and-neck until Marco Belinelli (of all people) caught fire in the early part of the 4th Quarter.  The Italian shooter made three treys in the first 2:05 of the fourth, extending a 4-point lead to 9.  A 9-point deficit to the Bulls in Chicago might as well be 30.  Everything felt like a struggle from that point forward–and that’s just me watching on the couch.  I can’t even imagine how Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams felt when Taj Gibson was swatting their shots into the third row.  Gibson is truly an incredible defensive player.  So is Joakim Noah, who also passes at an elite level and even showed off some fancy footwork on the block.  The game-clinching play was when Noah did an Al Jefferson-like array of pivots that eventually left Nikola Pekovic in his dust as he laid in an easy two.

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Preview Post: Wolves vs BULLS

Joakim Noah leads the Bulls tonight against the Wolves

The Wolves play the Bulls tonight. The Bulls aren’t the same without Derrick Rose.

They struggle to create their own shots.

But they’re still 3-2.

The Wolves are in a similar situation without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio – their core.

They’re 4-1, after some inspired play last night and in other games.

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Heavyweight Slugfest (WOLVES 96, Pacers 94)

Nothing seems easy when David West comes to town.

The largest first-quarter differential was 4, when the Wolves led 17-13.  Early in the second, the Wolves built an 8-point advantage that quickly dwindled, eventually to a 1-point Pacers halftime lead.  The third was a back-and-forth that mostly kept the differential under 5, although that is exactly where the Wolves lead sat at the end of the quarter.  Building on that momentum, Minnesota extended the lead to 8, two times early in the fourth.  But once again, the Pacers answered, with George Hill scoring 7 points in slightly over 2 minutes to cut the Wolves lead to 2.  From there, it was a heavyweight fight, each team trading hard-fought two-point baskets.  A key play to extend the lead to a whopping 4 points was when Andrei Kirilenko cleverly stole the inbounds pass following a Shved layup, and quickly found Alexey under the hoop for an easy two.  When Dante Cunningham’s 20-foot swish extended the lead to 6 with only 0:39 remaining, the game was over.

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