Sometimes the simple game flow image tells 90 percent of the game story. Last night the Thunder built an early lead — 10 points after the first quarter — and never looked back. The Wolves almost had the lead cut to 5 at half, but Luke Ridnour blasted Russell Westbrook as he attempted a desperation trey at the horn, sending him to the foul line for a gratuitous three points. The 8-point halftime deficit was as close as the game would get from that point forward, with much of the second half showing the Thunder ready to blow the game completely open. They led by as many as 17 points at different moments and ultimately won by 16. It was not a close game, nor was it a particularly interesting game to dissect. But there were some sub plots.
The Thunder are good.
If ya don’t know, now ya know — Oklahoma City has a great pro basketball team. Here’s something interesting about that: OKC’s winning percentage is .727 — obviously great — which if the season ended today would mean improvement for the FIFTH consecutive season. Coach Scott Brooks takes an undue amount of heat (Bill Simmons took his umpteenth jab at him during ESPN’s pregame show, not-so-subtly suggesting that Russell Westbrook’s temper tantrums are somehow on Brooks) for a coach who inherited an incredibly young, 1-12 team and has molded them into a steadily-improving Western Conference superpower. Obviously the talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — on full display last night — is the overriding factor in the Thunder’s success. But there’s so little to criticize about such a successful team that it seems discussion for discussion’s sake leads to Brooks getting ripped way more than he should.
In any case, the Thunder are awesome and reminded everyone of this last night. Durant was his usual studly self. He poured in 27 smooth points along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. When standing near the Wolves sideline during free throws, he took a moment to extend well wishes to Rick Adelman and family, dealing with a scary medical situation. Dude is true class. Russell Westbrook, whose volatility perhaps makes him less endearing to fans, was the better of the two superstars on Friday night. Russ had 37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds. When he’s hitting that mid-range pull up he’s just a half-click below LeBron James on the Unstoppable Scale. His historically-ridiculous explosiveness was on display when he was isolated one-on-one with Alexey Shved. Shved is very good at staying in front of dribble penetration, erring on the side of backing off too far. But Westbrook made him look knee-deep in quicksand, cruising past back-pedaling Shved for an easy two.
So yeah, the Thunder are good. This isn’t news, but it is the primary piece of information gleaned from last night’s loss at Oklahoma City.
Rubio damn near went Ice Cube tonight, messin’ around and almost getting a triple double. He had 18 points (12-13 free throws) 9 rebounds and 10 assists. He had 4 steals and even 1 block. Just 2 turnovers. The Wolves have formed a bad habit of falling behind in games. This version without Love and Kirilenko does, anyway. A little silver lining is how Ricky continues to scratch and claw, never surrurending defeat no matter the point spread. His TENACIOUS D has been a catalyst for many almost-miraculous comebacks in recent weeks, including tonight’s game. He was pretty damn good in this game.
Defense at End of 3rd/Beginning of 4th
Will this man stand between Nik Pek and a 20+-point game?
Andy G: Wolves at Memphis tonight (5:00 CST, My29 for TV; 830 WCCO for radio) where they’ll face a Grizzlies team 13 games over .500. The Wolves? They’re 11 games below. Some big changes going on in Graceland that put the Grizzlies’ lofty standing in question. ESPN’s NUMB#RS guru, John Hollinger, joined the front office. Guess who’s no longer walkin’ through that door? That’d be you, Rudy Gay. Memphis now has Tayshawn Prince, whose extended, post-Aughts-dynasty stint in Detroit was the NBA’s version of an indefinite Gitmo detentionI. Seriously, what took so long for Dumars to find Prince a suitable home for a quality vet? In any case, he’s on a fringe Kahntender in Memphis now. He’s not exactly lighting the world on fire (9.3/3.3/3.5 in last 4 games) but we know he can play and he’s a gap-filler between a quick and feisty backcourt and big and bruising frountcourt.
Enough beating around the bush: Do the Wolves stand a chance of winning this game?
Patrick J: The Wolves stand a chance, but it’ll be a tough-fought win if it’s gonna come out in the Wolves’ favor. The big thing, to me, is the Gasol-Pekovic matchup. The Wolves have been able to rely – and need to rely – on Pek as their one consistent scoring threat throughout this tough stretch. But tonight, Pek gets the Gasol treatment. That means an extra-strength dose of pain for most opposing centers. And their backcourt is great at defense too. Mike Conley and Tony “000G” Allen make the lives of their oppenents miserable on a nightly basis. So Rubio, Luke, Shved & co, will have their work cut out for them. (Eds. Note: Allen has an excellent Twitter account, found here.)
So this leads to the next issue (assuming you agree) – can the Wolves get enough punch from Gelabale and/or D. Williams tonight to give them a shot in case our usual first options struggle?
Eds. Note: After a couple tough home losses this week, we decided to change things up a bit. The game is, each of us singled out a few players who’ll be rockin’ it in tonight’s tilt. We then assigned the guys we selected to the other guy, who then offered some Kahnjecture about how those players will fare tonight. Whoever’s closest to the mark (however defined) wins. It’s sort of like no-stakes gambling, unless, of course, you consider things like trash talk in future posts or pride as currency. We consider trash talk in future posts and pride as currency. Let the games begin.
Patrick J: Your first assignment is
MASTER P ANTHONY DAVIS. What kind of NUMB#RS should we expect from Davis’s eyebrow tonight? Can the Wolves’ stop it, and if so, how? Does Adelman have Pek go mano e brow-oh with Davis, or are Wolves fans in for the kick-in-the-crotch consolation prize: a reminder of how much worse Derrick Williams is than another one of his contemporaries (i.e., a recent high lotto pick)?
[Last night's game is the rare Wolves tilt that shows up in my League Pass Broadband archives. I wanted to look back at Derrick Williams' three turnovers, because I remember each one was of the head-scratching and maddening variety, and they represent recurring issues with the inconsistent young forward. Below are my notes on how he screwed up 3 times in last night's 1st Half, causing his minutes to be limited to just 29 on a night that every other viable option was out with an injury or illness.]
This win could be described quickly and simply, or in great detail on each key Timberwolf’s impressive performance. I’ll try my best at each.
Quick and Simple
The Wolves hosted a good Hawks team tonight; one with an impressive and relevant road record of 9-6. From almost the opening tip the Wolves dominated. They defended well, provoking those inefficient shots (contested 2’s) that Britt Robson wrote about the other day. On offense, they made shots–something that has not happened often in this injuries-to-shooters plagued season. The Wolves led by 10 after 1, 16 after 2, and 14 after 3. With 8:11 remaining in the game, Ricky Rubio checked out; his night’s work complete. The Wolves were leading by 11. It was at that moment that two things happened: 1) The Wolves defense relaxed; and 2) The Hawks shooting heated up. A game that was largely dominated by the home team went down to the final possessions as the Hawks steadily chipped away at that lead. Dante Cunningham sealed the deal; first with a baseline jumper to extend the lead to 3, with 15 seconds to play; and second by tipping away the entry pass of the Hawks out-of-timeout play. An impressive win was had for the Loveless Timberwolves.
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.