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Exposed Again (MAGIC 102, Wolves 89)

Like recent seasons past, the Wolves are beginning to develop negative trends that play out over the course of an extended losing streak, this one now at four games.

  • Everybody (certainly this must include the bench and front office) knows that the team lacks a competent shooting guard. Luke Ridnour missed tonight’s game at Orlando for personal reasons. All the best to Luke and whatever he has going on, but his play at the off guard has not been good recently. Martell Webster didn’t help much tonight, scoring 5 points and turning it over twice in 22 minutes.
  • Everybody knows that the Wolves struggle to take care of the basketball. They had 18 turnovers tonight, with the increasingly erratic J.J. Barea leading the way with 7 of his own in only 23 minutes.
  • A new area of concern is three-point shooting.  Against the Magic, Wolves players shot 6 for 21 (28.6 percent) from downtown–this following recent games of 6-19, 6-23, and 4-19.  For the losing streak, they are a combined 26.8 percent from downtown, a rate that would put them dead last in the league by more than a couple of percentage points. Ricky creates a ton of three-point opportunities, but the Wolves won’t win many games if his teammates can’t convert them.
  • Why is Wes Johnson still starting?  This is the question that nobody has a good answer to.  He isn’t even playing good defense, anymore.  Jason Richardson scored 17 tonight, 5 over his average and many while baiting Wes into bad fouls or slamming him off screens for open jumpers.  Wes’ 3 for 7 shooting night was good for him, but his minutes need to go elsewhere.  Michael Beasley had a pretty average night by his standards (13 points in 25 minutes, a (-2) in a 13-point loss) and could play the same mediocre defense with better offensive punch.

I’m already beating dead horses, so I’ll keep this brief.

The Magic spread the floor around Dwight Howard and shoot a lot of threes. They make a lot of threes. In fact, they lead the league by a wide margin in made 3’s per game (9.9, next in NBA is New Jersey with 8.8). They made 12 tonight, and shot at a 40 percent clip.

J.J. Redick could run a basketball camp solely dedicated to using screens. He’s really made it into an artform. It’s silly what he does to defenders by running them off picks in all directions.

Ryan Anderson spreads the floor by being a 6’10” sharpshooter. All of this works beautifully around Superman Howard. It’s a shame that he’s going to leave the Florida Sun and this nice team chemistry. In a season as wide open as this one, Orlando has a real chance to win an improbable title, just as Dallas did last year.

Bottom line: the Wolves lost because they a) didn’t take care of the ball; b) didn’t defend the three ; c) took and missed lots of jumpers; and d) don’t have an NBA shooting guard.

Until next time.

Season Record: 13-16

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The Return of Dirk (Mavericks 104, WOLVES 97)

As you probably know, the Wolves have twice defeated the defending-champion Mavericks in this short season, each game by a decided margin of victory.  Although I joined the excitement of other Wolves fans about last year’s worst dominating last year’s best, it was impossible not to notice two things about those games:

1) In the first game, Dirk wasn’t Dirk (as Bill Simmons explained yesterday, Dirk showed up for training camp way out of shape, not yet recovering from the championship hangover).

2) In the second game, Dirk wasn’t playing.  (His legs were broken down from playing his way into shape, for the above reason.)

Last night’s game would include neither of those beneficial factors.  After beginning the season 3-5, Dallas had won 12 of its last 18 games, returning to contender form.  After his worst start to a season in over a decade, Dirk had finally caught fire.  In the three games leading up to last night’s, Dirk was averaging over 26 points per game on 61.5 percent shooting.  It appeared as though he’d be the matchup nightmare that fans have grown accustomed to watching.

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The Big 3 (Wolves 120, ROCKETS 108)

The early season narrative for the TWolves has been that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love are amazing players who need some help.  Other starting players, most notably Wesley Johnson and Darko Milicic, have failed to provide meaningful production or consistent play that breeds any confidence in the two stars’ supporting cast.

Michael Beasley led last year’s team in scoring per minute (21.4 per 36; 19.2 per game) but didn’t make himself many fans after ankle sprains on each leg derailed what looked like a promising season.  In 73 games, he surpassed 30 points 8 times, and 40 points once.  But the way he scored those points, often isolation sets with some ball-stoppage, isn’t popular or always fun to watch.  Also, and much more significantly if we’re being fair, his defense was often times lazy and always incoherent.  A plausible retort to this would be that he was simply “joining the club” of Rambis-coached wings who had no idea how to rotate defensively.  Beasley had serious flaws to be addressed if he were going to be an impact player on an up-and-coming team led by Rubio and Love.

This season, some fans and analysts expected a breakout year from Supercool Mike, both because of Rubio’s playmaking but more so because Rick Adelman would devise schemes to get him the ball closer to the hoop.  A problem with the Rambis triangle was that it often resorted to clearing out for Mike 24 feet from the basket for everyone else to stand and watch.  This wasn’t good for Mike’s efficiency or the Timberwolves win/loss record.  In the early going this year, he showed flashes of improved play.  His defense was been better.  Night and day.  He’s played respectable defense on LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and even Kobe Bryant.  If you watched Wellington try to guard Kevin Martin (or if you remember the days of Shaddy McCants trying to defend Baron Davis or LBJ) you’ve seen an outmatched defender in a Wolves uniform. This is not Michael Beasley.  If he’s focused and coached, he’s an adequate-or-better defensive wing.  His shot was colder than we’ve ever seen it in the early going.  He put together stinkers of 11-27, 2-6, 5-16, and 4-12 before spraining his foot and missing the next 11 games.  It should be noted that the Wolves were probably playing their best basketball in that early going against a brutal schedule.  They trounced the Spurs and Mavs (with Dirk, unlike the second time they beat them without Mike) and held late-game leads on title-favorites OKC and Miami.  But Mike needed his shot to fall like it used to before things could really take off for he and the team.

Of course, the schedule weakened right around the time of the injury and the team ripped off an 11-game stretch of over-.500 basketball, going 6-5.  THEY’RE BETTER WITHOUT BEASLEY!  LOOK AT THE BALL MOVEMENT!  Only, if you watched the Toronto or Atlanta games, you saw what happened against a respectable foe when the game slowed down and shot creating became a necessity.  The Wolves have exactly one shot creator on the team, and he was sidelined for those games.  You might also look at those 6 wins and notice that they came against either garbage competition (Wizards, Hornets, Kings, Pistons) or good teams that were without future Hall of Famers (Clippers without Chris Paul, Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki).  The record was inflated by an easy schedule.  Despite what some desperately wanted to believe, the team was NOT better without its best scorer.

Fast forward to tonight’s game at Houston.  The Rockets (who recently spanked the Mike-less Wolves at Target Center) held a mighty 9-2 home record heading into this game.  Minnesota had no rest, traveling overnight into Houston after a hard-fought loss against LA.  Houston rested last night in their beds at home.  This was not a game the Wolves should have won.

Oh, but they did win, and they pummeled the Rockets behind Mike Beasley’s 34 points on 14 shots.  Mike had his jumper going, his dribble penetration game going, and he was getting to the line where he hit all 12 attempts.  His monster scoring performance led the way in this one, increasing the lead throughout the second half.  The Ricky & Love show became a Minnesota Big 3, as Rubio damn-near f’d around and got a triple double (18 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds) and Love added 29 & 7 of his own.

Is Mike going to score like this every night?  Of course not.  But he will some nights, and on those nights Minnesota will be almost unbeatable.  When he’s clanking shot after shot?  Sit him down, or watch Kevin Love collect rebounds.  Beasley draws extra defenders, a skill that doesn’t show up in a box score but is essential to consistently-successful offense in the NBA.  He also complements the team’s best players by adding a skill that neither possesses: a dominant one-on-one game that will foul out opponents, allow teammates to get some rest on offense, and challenge opposing coaches into lineup decisions they might not prefer.

I hope this isn’t a one-game fluke, and an amazing coach like Adelman can draw as much of Beasley’s natural talent as is possible.  He’s a restricted free agent this off-season and the forward duo lauded by John Hollinger last year could be really something, especially with the Spanish floor general leading the way.

Some additional thoughts:

* Martell Webster’s feisty defense in the second quarter turned the game.  He plays D on a slightly-different level than his teammates.  Watch a Memphis Grizzlies game for comparable effort and approach.  This is an asset, for sure, especially from a guy that the team can afford to get in foul trouble (because he will, if he plays this way).  Webster should be the starting shooting guard very soon.  Let’s all hope his back stays healthy.  No more of these.

* Derrick Williams is frozen out of the rotation.  TRADE DERRICK WILLIAMS will become a common meme.  That could be wise, depending on the deal, but let’s not lose sight of the talent here, and how similarly-awesome college players with talent took their licks en route to NBA improvement.  James Harden and Evan Turner took time to adjust, as Williams will.  Biggest reasons for NOT trading him:  (1) He’s on the rookie scale; and (2) He’s insurance against Love getting injured or Love bolting after 3 years.  If he continues to improve as a power forward, and he will, those are not insignificant factors.  A shooting guard can be signed in free agency this off-season, if need be.

* Kyle Lowry versus Ricky Rubio could be an All-Star debate in the next few years.  Lowry bested him at Target Center, and Ricky took this match.  Very different players.  Very good players.

Season Record: 10-11

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Spurred to Victory (WOLVES 87, Spurs 79)

The Wolves continued their strong play against Texas this season (*ahem*, Houston–I know) with an 87-79 victory over the San Antonio at Target Center. Love had a workman-like 18 & 16, while Rubio put up 18 & 10 on 7-12 from the floor.

The Wolves were the better team tonight. It showed. They owned it. It was the first game this season against against an upper-tier team where the players knew it was theirs to lose. And they won.

Andy G captured it best in a POST-GAME TWEET.

Yes, there was sloppy play, unforced errors, and plenty of potentially costly mistakes, but the Wolves finally looked and played like they were vets who had been there before, like they knew they had the situation handled. Their calm, cool, confidence, combined with execution when they needed it, that put Duncan & co. away and sealed the deal for the Pups.

***

A few quick thoughts:

  • CORRELATION OR CAUSATION: Darko was out, Pek played like the legit NBA big we were expecting when we drafted him, and the Love/Pek duo gave Duncan/Splitter/Blair fits on the glass. Seriously, Pek has been showing signs recently–signs of doing things we’d all written off. Small sample, for sure, but is this guy finally coming around? What should the rotations look like if he is?
  • It was great to see Mike Beasley back on the court. I’m an unapologetic Beasley fan who really believes Mike will help this team once he settles into Adelman’s system. That wasn’t happening from the bench. Beasley only shot 3-11 and definitely showed some rust, but he looked healthy and attacked the basket hard. We can’t get enough of that from him and Derrick Williams, both of whom will start getting more calls as the team wins more and begins to earn respect around the league.
  • It was great to see Martell Webster back on the court. I wish I could be as optimistic about Webster as I am about Beasley, but he just doesn’t look healthy. Back injuries tend to linger, and they really hinder lateral mobility. Case in point, Martell’s gimpy jog around the perimeter didn’t inspire confidence. He has, er, unique hair and he stuck a nice trey with a hand in his face during his brief run tonight, but I’ll be surprised if he’ll be healthy enough to take Wes Johnson’s minutes at any point this season. Here’s hoping I’m wrong on this one.

That’s all for now folks. It’s Friday night and I’m gonna go get my fun on.

Season Record: 9-10

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Buzz Kill (Wolves 87, Hornets 80)

An ugly win


The Wolves eked out an 87-80 win Friday night over the Hornets. There were no two ways about this one: it was either going to be a much-needed win or a bad loss against an already sub-par Hornets team whose best player, Eric Gordon, was out with an injury.

The Wolves were shorthanded. J.J. Barea and Michael Beasley stayed in Minneapolis. Martell Webster won’t be available for a few weeks. Or a few months. Or maybe never. Any could be true. Martell might not even know. Adelman leaned heavily on Ridnour at the two (not ideal), Johnson at the three (bad), and Rubio at the point (good). Rubio started (good) and played 44 minutes (good). Johnson played 34 minutes and Tolliver and Williams only 16 apiece (bad)

The victory was ugly. No one could get shots. Rubio served them on a silver platter. Teammates sometimes converted, often didn’t. His 9 assists should’ve been closer to 20. Johnson shot 1-8 from distance. Darko couldn’t catch. The Wolves won’t win many playing like this.

Love got to the line 18 times–the same number of attempts as the entire Nola squad. He made 17. His final line read 34 & 17. Yawn.

Love’s production is appreciated, don’t get me wrong. But against the Hornets, his numb#rs were lower-quality than in his other big games earlier in the season. He looked tired. He wasn’t closing out on D. He won’t get 18 throws every game.

Adelman needs to keep him fresh. Incorporating Williams and Tolliver and Randolph more would be a starting place. They play power forward too.

The takeaway is simple: no Rubio, no win. Love would’ve had about the same line with or without him. But no one else would’ve been able to get buckets. Like last season, after Beasley hurt his ankle. Adelman not only played Ricky a lot, he started him. That’s progress.

Let’s hope he tries to build on that progress tonight in Atlanta. Take baby steps.

Distributing Johnson’s minutes between Tolliver and Williams would be a start.

Or get really wild and crazy. Give 12 or 13 of Darko’s minutes to Randolph. He’s way better.

It’s staggering how much better we are when Randolph and Tolliver are on the floor and how much worse we are when Darko and Johnson are on the floor.

Hit us up in the comments.

Until next time.

Season Record: 4-7

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