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.
LeBron James opened the game up by back cutting Andrei Kirilenko, receiving a perfect bounce pass from Udonis Haslem, and throwing down a huge dunk. The Wolves opened up the game with a pair of turnovers. In recent years early struggles against a great team–even in just a few early minutes–would often mean a double-digit and insurmountable deficit. Tonight, we had Kirilenko to quickly right the ship. That mishap getting back doored by LeBron was the only one; for the rest of the first half AK47 was his usual combination of quick feet and proper spacing on D. To get James off track, he burned him on a curl cut for an easy layup. The next time down, he cruised down the same path, from the right sideline through the heart of the paint to the opposite side of the rim, but this time dribbling off of a ball screen. Kirilenko does some of his best work on lateral cuts, whether he’s dribbling, back cutting, or crossing his defender’s face closer to the free-throw line. His immediate adjustments against LeBron spurred a solid 1st Quarter that the Wolves won 27-21.
But as they are known to do, Miami came storming back in the second. Dwyane Wade took one look at skinny Alexey Shved and licked his chops. Wade was using brute force–sometimes in ways legal only on his home floor, I’ll add–to own Shved on the block. At the half, Shved had 3 fouls, Wade had 18 points, and Miami had a 3-point lead. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic kept the game close by working the hell out of the boards. Love had 14 at the half; more than Miami’s whole team. Pek had 7 of his own. Shved’s first-half struggles were not limited to defending Wade, as he shot a miserable 1 for 5 and had an assist-to-turnover ratio on the wrong side of 2 to 3.
Things looked a little bit better coming out of the halftime break. Shved continued to not score, but racked up a quick 4 assists, including a nifty behind-the-back to AK47 in transition, in the early moments of the 3rd Quarter and the Wolves held a 61-59 lead. Then the Heat hit the accelerator. With LeBron’s foot. First he assisted 3 field goals in a 90-second stretch that saw Miami turn a 2-point deficit into a 7-point lead. Then he made 3 shots of his own–2 of them from downtown–and Miami lead 80-72 after three quarters.
In the early 4th Quarter Miami unleashed another lethal weapon: the corner trey via LeBron bullet passes. All three aspects of LBJ’s near-triple double were mighty impressive. His scoring came on judicious shot selection and impressive accuracy from the perimeter (oh, and a couple of thunder jams, for good measure). His 7 rebounds–the only figure not above 9–were much needed on a night when small power forward Chris Bosh only pulled down 3 boards in 30 minutes, 2 on the offensive end, and Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony–the only other true bigs that played–combined for just 1 rebound in 38 minutes. But LeBron’s passing was how he left his imprint in this gem of a performance. He was straight DEALING in the 4th Quarter. In the first 4:51 of the final period the Heat went on a 17-6 run. Those 17 points came from 6 field goals; 3 assisted by LeBron and 2 scored by LeBron (one of them plus the foul.) The Heat cruised home with a 19-point lead that they allowed fall to 8, but never to the point of genuine doubt. LeBron put on a show as he seems to do against the Timberwolves. And most teams.
Some other notes…
Owning the Glass, Yet Losing?
Charles Barkley has expressed two concerns about this Miami Heat team. More newsworthy is his observation that Dwyane Wade has lost a step and can’t get himself easy baskets. The Heat took offense and it makes for good TV to have Chuck and Wade chirping in the press. But more relevant to tonight’s purposes is Chuck’s concern that Miami is too small with Chris Bosh playing center and that he thinks they’ll get killed on the boards. In tonight’s game, the Wolves THROTTLED the Heat on the glass, outrebounding them 53-24, a whopping 29-board advantage. Let’s ask the new John Hollinger, Tom Haberstroh, how many times such a rebounding edge has resulted in a loss:
Ouchhh… so what went wrong that the Wolves could lose this game? (Well, besides LeBron.) For that, let’s go to Alan Horton:
The perimeter shooting on Miami’s end can largely be credited to LeBron’s historically-great ability to set up corner attempts. I suspect most readers of this blog know that corner threes are the easiest threes, but I’ll repeat it anyway: Corner threes are the easiest threes. If you don’t trust the numbers that say so, just go shoot baskets somewhere with an NBA line and try for yourself. It’s true. The good news for Wolves fans? Ricky Rubio, inactive tonight while resting his knee, is also phenomenal at finding the corners with creative passing. The perimeter shooting woes on Minny’s end probably resulted some from Miami bringing the Heat (I’ll be here all week) with its pressure defense. But some were just open misses. Luke and Shved, the starting backcourt, were particularly cold, each going 0 for 4. Teams that brick threes will not beat the Heat. I think that can be stated almost as fact.
The turnovers? Allow me to chew on some sour grapes for a moment…
Miami hacked a lot, wasn’t called more than a few times.
I really am not a “blame the refs” type of fan. Not in basketball at least. (For a brief tangent, there are three exceptions: First is Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Michael Jordan was carried to the Finals by the stripes when he and his team were outmatched by Larry Bird’s Pacers. Second is Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. This is the one everybody recognizes. Adelman’s Kings were hosed against Kobe and Shaq. Third is Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals. It was the first half, so it’s less memorable to some, but the refs sent most key Lakers to the bench, including Kobe, on a bunch of bogus calls in Boston Garden. Even Bill Simmons joked about it in his game wrap the next day. It decided a crucial game that put the Celtics up 2-0 in the series. Moving on…) I think the league has improved at getting away from “star treatment” to a considerable degree. But when Alexey Shved cut off a Wade drive and drew an uncalled charge, only to get called for multiple phantom calls on the other end while defending Wade, I got irritated. The bad reffing coincided with a Udonis Haslem technical foul that sent him to the bench. D-Wade, even if he loses a step or two, will play a long, productive career if he’s protected like he was tonight. Other Heat defenders like Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers had active hands that COULD NOT POSSIBLY have always gotten clean rips. Chalmers, Wade, Cole and Ray Allen all had multiple steals tonight. Reffing did not decide the game, but I felt it was a factor in the middle quarters and not in the Wolves favor.
Shved Gone Cold
Alexey Shved followed up a 1 for 8 performance in Orlando with a 1 for 7 in South Beach. He dropped 7 dimes, but seemed to struggle with Miami’s physical defense on the perimeter, not unlike when Charlotte extended its pressure on ball screen blow-ups in that disappointing loss earlier this season. It’s probably not a huge concern as Ricky will be taking on more of this responsibility–especially against first units–but Shved does sometimes get a little bit phased against tenacious D.
Thursday Night: TNT and Game of the Year (So Far.)
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the reigning Western Conference Champions who currently hold the best record in basketball. They’re in the Timberwolves’ division. Their second-best player was Kevin Love’s roommate at UCLA. They battled in an epic, double-overtime game last year where Kevin Love scored 73 points and grabbed 58 rebounds. Durant and Westbrook combined for 106 points. (All numbers approximate.) So, why isn’t this a rivalry? Because the Wolves haven’t beaten the Thunder. Not since the Thunder have been any good, at least. (I think Randy Foye dropped 40 or so in a blowout over Rookie Westbrook’s Thunder once in a Wolves win. Okay, I guess it was 32, but most of them came in the 1st Half.) In any case, Thursday is a chance, with Ricky in the lineup, to make a statement to the league, in front of a packed house, that the [pretty much] full-strength Timberwolves are for real. I’m looking forward to it.
Season Record: 12-11