A Frustrating Turn of Events (MAGIC 112, Wolves 103)

Let’s begin with an assertion that I have no way of backing up with real evidence:

Had Ricky Rubio not sprained his ankle in the second quarter of last night’s game, the Wolves would’ve beaten the Magic. Probably by a comfortable margin. They’d be 3-2 and riding a winning streak into a fun game tonight at Miami.

Unfortunately, as you probably already know, he did sprain his ankle — badly, it seems — and he missed not only the remainder of the game but will probably be out for at least a couple of weeks. The Wolves ended up losing the game, 112-103 in overtime. There is no positive spin on this injury news–not unless Zach LaVine surprises everybody with quality play in Ricky’s absence, anyway. The Wolves were 2-2 and generating positive vibes about both present and future. Now, without a viable starting point guard, they figure to struggle considerably. The probably-delusional playoff hopes that we’ve heard so much about will be dashed sooner than expected if Ricky sits out a month. That would mean 14 games, and — just eyeballing the schedule — more than half of them come against likely playoff teams.

But injuries like the one Ricky suffered cannot be prevented, so there is no blame or fault to discuss. No, not even for cutting J.J. Barea. I’d rather watch LaVine shoot 3 for 16 with 7 turnovers and learn something than watch Barea stunt his young teammates’ development with a supersize dose of hero ball. Plus, the losses would pile up all the same anyway.

Last night’s game frustrated me for other reasons too, though. The game went to overtime, so it lasted 53 minutes instead of 48. Of those 53 minutes, Andrew Wiggins played 25. Corey Brewer — who performed well, off the bench — played 28. I think I would feel differently about this, had the Rubio injury not happened, and had the subsequent Mo Williams-led play not looked so ugly. But once Rubio was down, and we saw what things looked like in his absence, my own impression shifted immediately toward a rebuilding scenario instead of anything resembling “win now.” So when the final play of regulation involved a Mo Williams-Kevin Martin two-man game, with Wiggins uninvolved, that annoyed me. Why not give him a chance to make a big play? Worse yet, Flip subbed Brewer in for Wiggins in the first minute of overtime. Why not get the rookie star some crunchtime minutes in a close game?

Plus, the Wolves ended up losing anyway, to a really bad Orlando Magic team that doesn’t even have its best backcourt player, Victor Oladipo. Their rookies are fun, and maybe they have a bright future, but a veteran team trying to win should not struggle against them like the Wolves did after Ricky went down.

The big positive from last night’s game was the play of Gorgui Dieng off the bench. The second-year center had 11 points and 10 rebounds, to go along with a pair of blocks and steals, in 25 minutes of +9 basketball. That plus-minus was by far the team’s best and it reflected his individual contributions to the team effort. He did not face any heavyweight centers who play deep in the post. Without an unfavorable individual matchup, he becomes free to do his thing, which is roam for steals and blocks. His offense remains more polished than anyone expected when he came into the league. Gorgui’s a high-quality role player with the potential to be more than that, if he can get strong enough in his lower body to hold his ground in the post. For a Timberwolves example of what I mean, watch Robbie Hummel when he gets backed down. He’s really strong, and doesn’t get budged easily. (Pek is the obvious counterexample, but his size advantage is unrealistic.)

Zach LaVine did get to play, due to the Rubio injury. After Mo Williams went Barea on us with some ill-advised chucking, LaVine was refreshingly “normal” as a point guard. He did an adequate-enough job of dribbling up the floor and passing to somebody else. On defense, he shows some promise. He deflected a ball or two and registered both a steal and a block in just 8 minutes. With more playing time, I expect LaVine to be exposed as unready for NBA-level competition, but I would love almost nothing more than to be proven wrong on this. His physical tools are of another world and the team is wise to invest in his development for the long term.

The Wolves play again in about 7 hours. The great challenge will be executing a functional offense in Rubio’s absence. I suspect Flip will have some good strategies for how to cope with a shooting point guard, instead of a pure passer. He’s coached plenty of them before, with success. We’ll see what happens.

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