Bouncing Back and Developing Winning Habits
The Wolves won a road game tonight over an Eastern Conference playoff team that has legitimate star talent on its roster. That includes former Timberwolf legend Kevin Garnett, whose star has greatly dimmed in the twilight of his career. This felt like a big win after the Wolves’ demoralizing loss against Chicago on Saturday night. That game was decided on a last-second foul by Andrew Wiggins with the Wolves up by one. Jimmy Butler went to the free throw line and won the game for the Bulls from the charity stripe.
Bouncing back from a hard loss like the one against the Bulls, against a talented veteran team like the Nets on their home court in New York City is big for the Wolves. Yes, it’s good for restoring short-term morale, and that is important. You don’t want the team to go into an early season funk in which it develops bad habits that become ingrained in the culture that’s currently being cultivated by the Wolves organization under Flip Saunders’ direction.
As both POBO and coach, to be successful Saunders needs to ensure good habits are developed. The rookies have upside, but what kind of professionals they’ll develop into over their career will largely determine whether they reach it. This is why it’s encouraging to see the Wolves playing very hard in each game so far this season. This year’s Wolves play more aggressively on both ends, and, frankly, they play hungrier than last season’s Wolves ever did under Adelman. If these trends continue, they’re going to be better than the Vegas bookmakers prediction of 26 wins. They’re 2-2 now, and are one whistle in the Chicago game from being 3-1.
No Sleep in Brooklyn
Tonight’s win over Brooklyn was far from a sure thing. The Nets came in at 2-1 and remain perhaps the most intriguing talent in the Eastern Conference. Even having lost Paul Pierce in free agency, the Nets’ core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez, who’s back from a serious injury, is a slew of experienced pros with many All-Star appearances among them. They relocated to the most interesting part of the United States, are owned by perhaps the most intriguing owner in the NBA, and have a new high-profile coach in Lionel Hollins, who replaced Jason Kidd after Kidd was ousted in a ill-fated power play apropos of a classic Russian tragedy.
But the Wolves outplayed the Nets on their home floor and managed to seal a victory in a close game that they deserved to win.
They got out to a 21-8 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter in which all five starters had scored. After that, however, the Nets went on an 11-0 run and the Wolves starters played really poorly. Mo Williams replaced Ricky Rubio and immediately stuck a statement three that snapped the Nets run.
In the second quarter, the Nets shot 5-7 from the arc and exposed what I’ve seen so far as one of the young Wolves’ big problems: perimeter defensive rotations. The Nets were able to exploit this several times by entering the ball into Brook Lopez in the post, waiting for the double team, and then swinging the ball around the perimeter to the open shooter on the opposite wing. There was little defensive awareness of position and slow reaction times to rotate aggressively back to the Nets shooters, and the Nets used their 1990s offense to outplay the Wolves and lead the game at the half, 48-47.
Andrew Wiggins came alive in the third quarter. Already having his best offensive game of the season with eight points in the first half, Wiggins scored nine in the third, making a layup, a jumper, a three, and a pair of free throws in a four minute span before being replaced by Corey Brewer to end the quarter. Mo Williams again struggled to defend Jarrett Jack when the two backup point guards were in the game, with Jack scoring a basket quickly after Williams subbed in and then scoring two at the line.
The Wolves second unit started the fourth quarter with Kevin Martin in as the lone starter. It didn’t go well. The group of Corey Brewer, Mo Williams, Anthony Bennett, Kevin Martin, and Gorgui Dieng were -10 in just under four minutes to start the quarter. The biggest problem was the Mo Williams-Jarrett Jack matchup. Jack was using his wily veteran savvy and in doing so exposed some of the clear weaknesses of the Wolves defense in its spacing and rotations. Jack exploited some gaping seams and scored six quick points in a variety of ways, drawing fouls, draining a trey (after a breakdown in a defensive rotation), and getting into a seam and hitting a tear-dropping a floater. (Eds. Note: This is especially frustrating because Jack’s perma-smirk that he wears with so much pride was on full display. His personality seems like a fitting replacement for Andray Blatche’s on the Nets roster.) As well as Mo Williams has played so far on offense, his defense tonight was really, really bad.
Jack made something of a night of it with 14/5/4 off the bench and Joe Johnson also exploited Kevin Martin’s matador defense in going for 22 points (Eds. Note: Martin had 26 on the other end, so there!), but in the end the Wolves won. Rubio made unexpected big shots in the final minutes, and Pekovic made the play of the night with a McHale-esque “up and under” plus the foul with just 48 seconds to play. That put the Wolves up by 3 points; a lead they would never forfeit.
They’re 2-2 heading into Friday’s game against the 1-4 Magic in Orlando before tougher games against the 3-2 Heat and the undefeated Houston Rockets, and then the 2-2 New Orleans Pelicans next Friday. They have a reasonable shot at being a .500 team in mid-November.
- Nikola Pekovic got the best of Nets star center, Brook Lopez, in the game’s early going. By “walling up” (hat tip Jim Petersen), Pek used his bulk advantage to prevent Lopez from getting prime position under the hoop. And when Lopez got the ball, Pek managed to extend his arms to contest the longer Lopez’s shots. With Lopez clanking, good/not great Wolves offense extended an early lead to 17-2. Pek shot just 1-7 from the field in the first half, but his work on defense and the boards led to him registering a +14 for the game’s first two quarters, despite his team trailing by a point at the half.
- Corey Brewer played a poor first half. He airballed an ill-advised dribble jumper on offense, and more than once reached way in to foul Joe Johnson in isolation sets.
- When the Nets had the ball, there was a high-level point guard matchup between the offense of Deron Williams and the pesky defensive instincts of Ricky Rubio. Rubio had 2 early steals and forced another pair of non-steal turnovers against Williams (once tipping Deron’s dribble, forcing it to go off his foot out of bounds; once drawing an offensive/open-court foul). But D-Will got his, too, scoring 12 on 5-6 shooting with 3 first half assists. He ended with 19 pts and 6 rebs but was -18 on the night.
- Williams can still give you that look of an unbelievable NBA point guard. He can run an offense, space players, and exploit movement and seams with slick passes, an ability to get to the cup, or to pull up and make a jumper from anywhere from 15 to 23 feet. But these plays happen only on some trips down the floor. On others, he looks only partially engaged, and never puts any pressure on the defense. It’s reminiscent of how Baron Davis played when he was still on the fringes of the A-list point guards. Talented, aging, point guards who take plays off are going to lead offenses that never quite play to their potential, like Davis’s in his stint with the Clippers (he was washed up by the time he became a Knick) and Williams’s 2013-14 season with the Nets–and possibly this one as well.
- The Nets got good first half contributions from Serbian rookie, Bogdon Bodonovic, and Bosnian sniper, Mirza Teletovic. Both players are big enough to provide defensive versatility and skilled enough shooters to spread the floor on offense.
- The Wolves offense is a work-in-progress. There were several instances where we would bust a play early in the shot clock, end up scrambling around and swarming the ball. (Eds. Note: This is bad practice, per Basketball 101. I believe Naismith-channeler Mike Miller can confirm this). On one trip, Corey Brewer emerged from the scrum with the ball and jacked up a heavily-defended three with only seconds left on the shot clock for a wasted possession in which the Wolves never managed to successfully initiate any offensive set. The Nets defense isn’t that good, and sloppy lapses and execution, which we saw plenty of in the preseason, still need to be fixed as the grind of the season begins.
- Anthony Bennett did not play a big role in this game. But he absolutely *destroyed* Mason Plumlee on a two-handed tomahawk jam from about 7 feet out while cutting through the lane and got the and-1 one the play. Good stuff. This kid shows different types of NBA talent and skill each night. It’s going to be something if and when it all comes together.
- Speaking of Bennett: In the second quarter, Big Daddy Canada made a really nice sidearm shovel-type pass from the top of the key, past his defender and just out of the reach of Pek’s defender, to set Pek up for his bread and butter jump hook at the rim. Bennett certainly isn’t known for his passing, but that pass wasn’t easy to see or execute, and the big guy may have the potential to be a more skilled passer than we think. Again, Bennett perhaps more than any of the youngsters needs lots more reps out there to get calibrate his skill set to the NBA’s speed.
- Wiggins was great and by far played the best offensive game of his young NBA career. But having finally seen him in a string of games, his ball-handling deficiencies are real and are going to determine what he’s able to effectively – at least this season. Wiggins is going to do well if he plays mostly around the rim, working the interior paint and scoring off of his physicality and athleticism–kind of like Shabazz has done but with a more Corey Maggette-like elegant power. The rest of the time, he should be catching and shooting long jumpers, preferably from behind the three-point line. He does have that nice dribble jumper, but as nice as it is, it’s a compact limited move that more often buys him a step-back than entry into the paint. Things get ugly when he tries to develop offense for himself with his back to the basket.
- Ricky Rubio continues to look good. He shot in rhythm tonight and the shots looked natural. And his passing was outstanding as usual–one of his skip passes from the far right side of the court over the defense to Kevin Martin at the three point line on the far left wing was a thing of beauty. Rick almost f*cked around and got a triple double tonight with 14 pts, 12 asts, and 8 rebs.
That’s all for now. After the Chicago heartbreaker, this win meant something. Let’s hope the team can build on it Friday in Orlando.
Since I worked the Beastie Boys into a header above, here’s some victory music to celebrate to.
’til next time.