Moral victories feel a little bit better when the team actually has a winning record. The Timberwolves are now 5-3 and last night’s close loss at Staples Center can be filed away as a moral victory for a team with hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
On the tail end of a road back-to-back and facing one of the league’s most talented teams, the Wolves were inches away from forcing overtime. Down by two, out of a timeout, Kevin Martin’s bank shot missed. Then Nikola Pekovic’s bunny from about 5 feet missed. And then Kevin Love’s point-blank tip in missed. The buzzer sounded, the game was over and the Wolves wild comeback effort (they trailed by 11 with under 5 minutes to play) fell just short against long odds and a tough opponent.
But the point stands: This wasn’t a game for the Wolves to hang their heads over. Despite a rocky first-half defensive effort (36 points allowed in the 2nd Quarter, many off of breakdowns leading to open Clipper dunks) the team offense was solid throughout the entire game (with the exception of a stretch or two of JJ-led bench play) and really tightened up the D in the second half. While the Clippers did a nice job of limiting the Love-Brewer outlet bombs, they had no answer for a new wrinkle to Adelman’s offensive attack: the high-low pass from Love to Nikola Pekovic.
Pek had 25 points on 11-15 shooting and Love had 7 assists to go along with his 23 points and 19 rebounds. These two connected many times on a high-low passing sequence from the top of the key to the middle of the lane. It’s not a particularly common NBA set, probably because the lane is so wide, but the Wolves do a nice job of timing Pekovic seal moves under the rim while other action (the white-hot Kevin Martin cutting around screens, for instance) distracts defenders’ attention. If Adelman can find a way to heavily incorporate Pek’s offense with Martin’s shooting and Love’s all-around dominance, this team could have one of the league’s very best offenses. (The offense is ranked 15th now, largely due to early-season shooting woes of everyone not named Kevin.)
The frustrating part of last night’s game was the flopping and the officiating. It begins and ends with Chris Paul, the league’s most skilled manipulator of referees. With pesky Ricky Rubio trying to deny the ball from him at every chance, Paul took to his classic flop routine in the 3rd Quarter and was rewarded more than once with bogus calls. It’s hard to get too upset here — the Timberwolves are no strangers to baiting questionable calls with flops and dives. But Paul’s just so damn good at it (and at every other aspect of the game) that it’s frustrating to get a taste of our own medicine.
The Clips are, in my opinion and I think most people’s, one of the league’s most difficult teams to cheer for. They flop the most, complain the most, and probably taunt the most. But when they aren’t doing those things, they’re also really good and really entertaining. Paul’s as good a ballhandler as any current player not-named Kyrie Irving. He can get to any space he wants on the floor and is lethal as a dribble shooter. Blake Griffin, who the Timberwolves did a nice job defending last night, is a human highlight reel. DeAndre Jordan entertains both intentionally (with rim rattling dunks) and unintentionally (with airball free throws). And off the bench, Jamal Crawford has some of the sickest crossover moves in the game. LAC has far surpassed LAL as the Staples Center team to watch and they’ll be on the short list of *real* contenders when the playoffs begin next spring.
As a parting shot, the Wolves bench continues to really struggle. Last night, JJ Barea was the worst bench player, shooting 1 for 8 in a team-worst -12 performance. I don’t know if Flip Saunders will figure out a trade for a reliable backup guard, or if Adelman will give Shabazz Muhammad a chance, but it seems reasonable to expect a change of some sort. I suggested on Twitter the other night that Rick should throw Alexey Shved out there with no JJ and force him to be the point guard. That worked last year. Anyway, it’s a problem.
Next game tomorrow night at home against the Cavs. Hopefully the Wolves can avenge last week’s loss and keep up these mostly winning ways.
Season Record: 5-3