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.
Minnesota took early command of the game behind the perimeter scoring of Alexey Shved and Luke Ridnour (6 points each in the 1st Quarter; Shved’s on 2-3 shooting from behind the arc) and the interior dominance of Nikola Pekovic. The Godfather had 9 points and 7 rebounds in the opening period, leading the Wolves to a 29-22 advantage. Something important happened in the first half: Each team’s top defender got in foul trouble. Andrei Kirilenko fouled Carmelo Anthony twice in a matter of a couple minutes and headed to the bench with 4:45 to go in the first. Tyson Chandler, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, also had two fouls in the opening quarter. Given how dominant Pekovic has been of late and how dominant Melo has been… well, his entire career, these foul columns were worth watching as the game went on. Kirilenko was needed to contain Melo and Chandler was needed to contain Pekovic and blow up those pick and rolls.
The second quarter opened more to the Knicks’ liking. After ice cold three-point shooting in the first (1-7) the Knicks connected on some threes while the Wolves–Alexey Shved in particular–were bullied into some backcourt turnovers. The officials were not so kind to the Wolves either, as a few notable blunders in a row all went in the Knicks favor (Shved was mugged by Jason Kidd in the backcourt, a Derrick Williams alley-oop attempt was stopped by a foul that was somehow ruled on the ground, and a clean Ricky Rubio swipe was whistled for a hack) and the Wolves lead was cut to 1 point at the 4:22 mark of the second. However, Ricky Rubio helped keep the Wolves afloat with a pair of nifty layups after looking off defenders with eyes on passes. After the worst call of the night sent Kirilenko to the bench with three fouls (Carmelo elbowed him in the jaw, then flopped, then the whistle was blown on Andrei) Tyson Chandler was quickly whistled for a questionable third as well, sparking a 7-0 run for the Wolves to close the half with a 9-point lead.
Fouls continued to play a key role in this game in the third when Andrei Kirilenko quickly picked up his fourth and went back to the bench. (Andrei played all of 20 minutes in the game.) Importantly, Chandler stopped fouling and terrorized the Wolves for the remainder. He had 10 points in the 3rd Quarter, cutting the 9-point deficit to just 2 points. But even more impactful was that Chandler was blowing up the Shved-Pekovic pick-and-roll game that, in Kevin Love’s absence and Ricky Rubio’s condition, was by far the Wolves’ best available option. Shved finished the game with 5 turnovers that blemished an otherwise good game. Pekovic, who owned the first half when Chandler was fouling (15 and 12 at the break) scored just 6 points in the 2nd Half. The effects of the Wolves being without their best defender down the stretch while the Knicks had theirs back in the game probably best explains why the Knicks ultimately won.
Winning Time… The 4th Quarter was All Melo All the Time and having Kirilenko on the bench or on the court with foul-troubled caution made things really difficult. Melo finished the game with 33 points, by far the most of any player in the game. A whopping 19 of those points came in the fourth quarter. Anthony is a throw back to the 1990’s NBA when the best offenses were centered around one player, usually on or near the block, who commanded double teams or else. Rule changes to zone restrictions and hand checks have left this type of action almost extinct, but not entirely. Carmelo’s elite combination of physicality, square-up shooting and first-step explosiveness allows him to survive as one of the greats in an era not perfectly suiting his skill set like the 1990’s would have been. If you ever wonder why Charles Barkley routinely goes out of his way to call Melo the best scorer in the world, just go back and watch tapes of Chuck. His style was much like Anthony’s, blending physical back-downs with jab-step jumpers. Both guys were all-time great Winning Time scoring options.
Down the stretch, the Knicks amped up the defensive pressure on the Wolves backcourt which made things difficult as well. The lead was finally lost in the closing minutes never to come back and while fans had plenty to gripe about with the officiating, the bottom line was that the Knicks had a go-to guy that was dominant and will always get the benefit of the doubt on his home floor. Had the Wolves executed better down the stretch on offense and navigated those pick-and-rolls away from Chandler more often, they may have been able to pull off this upset. But alas.
Some other notes:
* Ricky Rubio struggled mightily with turnovers in this game, racking up 5 of them in his trainer-limited 18 minutes of action. Some of this is rust and conditioning into game shape. But here’s a thought: Don’t pair Rubio so much with Greg Stiemsma. Stiemer is falling out of favor here fast with piles of mistakes rarely compensated for with the occasional block or 15 footer. Way too often is he the screen setter on those precious Rubio pick-and-rolls. Stiemer has bad hands and when he’s the receiver of a roll feed he’s usually got his clunky, seven-foot frame tumbling to the hole in such a way that his only potentially-producitive option is a running floater with a low chance at success. I’ve been pretty disappointed in Stiemsma (if the foregoing didn’t make that clear) and I don’t like Ricky Rubio’s return being frustrated more than it has to by pairing him with a project big man. While we’re on Ricky, and before moving on, his defense is still awesome. On Carmelo, on J.R. Smith (who clearly didn’t get the memo, if you watched him think he was going to own that matchup), or anyone else, Ricky has killer defensive instincts. We just need him to regain the magical passing powers. In due time, I suppose.
* Alexey Shved, our other favorite guard, has a habit (And David Kahn will just call it “a habit”) of being a little bit too upright and loose with the ball as he turns the corner around a ball screen and begins his attack. There is probably some trade-off at work here. If Shved used his body more to protect the ball, it’s possible that he would be less effective at surveying the floor and finding cutters and shooters like he so often does. But the more aggressive perimeter defenders do seem to give him problems and over time he’ll need to look at some Chris Paul tapes to see how this is done. He’s never going to be a flopper, but he could learn how to shield the ball better and invite more whistles by not exposing his handle to swiping defenders like Jason Kidd in today’s game.
* If there is a reason to feel bad about this loss aside from some questionable calls (that should be expected at Madison Square Garden when a player like Carmelo Anthony is dressed for the home team) it is this: The Knicks’ bread and butter has been three-point shooting and in today’s game they were just 6 for 26 from downtown. Melo attracts so much attention on the block, and Mike Woodson has done such a nice job at orchestrating ball-movement sets around that defender magnet, that the Knicks shoot a lot of open threes in a given game. On nights when they aren’t falling, a win should be had. Unfortunately in this game, the Wolves were short on firepower without Love, and they had no answer for Carmelo Anthony’s scoring or Tyson Chandler’s defense during Winning Time.
Season Record: 13-12