How are Wolves fans supposed to feel after a 104-100 loss to the Western Conference favorites in a game where Ricky Rubio dazzled fans with no-look passes and the team improbably led the Thunder 96-95 with 2:30 to go? We’ve won many moral victories in recent seasons past, so I’m trying my hardest to temper the enthusiasm that this game and the Target Center atmosphere generated, tonight. Some thoughts on what we saw in Game 1:
Why did we lose?
The easy answer to this is that the Thunder are really, really good. More specifically, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden are all elite NBA ballers. Durant is a perennial MVP candidate starting last year, Westbrook will battle Rose/Paul/Williams/(Rubio? jk–I think) for future All-NBA honors, and James Harden seems like the logical prediction for Sixth Man of the Year. This is a formidable opponent for any team, let alone one that won 17 games, a season ago. But getting beyond the obvious mismatches on the floor, there were a few blunders that stuck out.
In the second quarter, the Thunder called timeout with the Wolves leading 39-32. Unfortunately, OKC ripped off a 20-7 stretch to end the half and took a 6-point lead into intermission. That stretch was highlighted by Adelman in his presser as a key point. In the 4th Quarter, the Wolves led 96-95 with under three minutes to go. A J.J. Barea bunny rimmed out, and Westbrook leaked out and had the ball in transition. First off, I should add that Westbrook in Transition is a crazy thing to watch. Aside from LeBron, Wade, and Monta Ellis, I’m not sure there’s a more terrifying open-court player in the league. With that in mind, perhaps Rubio should have guessed a side and gambled for a steal or foul. Instead, he played straight up defense which was a losing proposition. Russ drew contact and converted the bucket. The one-point lead was a two-point deficit. The Wolves would not lead again. Along with these pivotal moments, Michael Beasley missed some shots tonight, and probably took a couple too many. In particular, he took two or three too many of those “long two’s” that plague his EFFICIENCY. It’s one thing if those jumpers go up with 2 on the shot clock, but that wasn’t the case, tonight. He forced it, a few times.
Rubio is blowing up Twitter after three official NBA appearances. His passing is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. Ricky dribbles off a ball screen and waits just long enough for everyone in the crowd, and on the opposing team, to see where he’s about to pass it. And then it goes somewhere else. Unlike when all of this held true for Jonny Flynn’s passes in recent years, Ricky’s passes find the open man, ready to score. Tonight, he had 6 assists and 0 turnovers. Those assists were mostly the set-it-on-a-platter variety with the recipient cashing in an easy dunk or layup. He is truly an amazing playmaker. In the interest of telling the full story, I should repeat how poor his decision to foul Westbrook on that 97-96 layup was, and also point out that Westbrook beat him backdoor for a huge dunk earlier in the game. His defensive awareness showed up as a minor weakness in this game.
Williams played pretty well. He finished one of the Rubio gems with a reverse dunk that had Target Center rocking. His one-on-one scoring appears to be a strength, but he’s got a little bit of rookie jitters, which is to be expected. I was disappointed in his hesitation to pull the trigger on some open shots. He didn’t wait to let ‘er fly in that preseason game vs. the Bucks. Overall, a solid debut for the Wolves “other rookie.”
J.J. Barea was, in my opinion, the key to this game remaining close. It seemed that as Westbrook and Harden were having their way on offense, JJB would come in and draw an offensive foul. On offense, when things broke down, he was happy to carve up the D in the paint and either finish or find a shooter. He plays tough. Wes Johnson may or may not continue to be the starting off-guard, but Barea will take most of those minutes. The difference between those players, on both ends, is night-and-day.
* Darko played well, tonight. He shoved Kendrick Perkins in the opening minutes and they exchanged some pleasantries that seemed to light a fire under him that remained throughout. He baited Perk into some poor decisions and fouls. After one game (SAMPLE SIZE!) Adelman appears to be a positive influence on this troubled player.
* Love continues to draw non-shooting fouls when the Wolves are in the bonus. I don’t know if he is trying to do this, or if it just happens, but he racks up more points off of non-scoring attempts than just about any player in the league. Tonight, he stuffed the stat sheet with a ho-hum 22, 12, and 5.
* Adelman stuck Beasley on Durant in winning time. Beas did okay–with some help defense. That Rick would trust Beasley in this assignment is interesting to me.
* James Harden is a bad man. What does the Thunder do in the next playoffs when Harden is their best half-court creator? I mean–they need Westbrook and they need Durant but there may be an awkwardness to all of it when James Harden and his beard is the one with the rock in crunchtime. It took him a while, but he’s justified his high 2009 draft slot.
At Milwaukee Bucks, tomorrow at 7:30 CST. A familiar opponent after the home-and-home preseason games. Skiles’ boys lost by a point to a MISERABLE Bobcats squad, tonight. A quick look at the box shows a rough night for Stephen Jackson. Wolves fans should hope that leads to a quick IMPLOSION, rather than redemption for the enigmatic star player.
I know this: tonight’s moral victory will be a lot-more palatable if it’s quickly followed by a road win.
Season Record: 0-1