Warriors 129, WOLVES 116: Champs’ Tactics No Longer in Question

The Warriors used to be the team of counterintuitive truths, the one that went against old conventions. They built an offense around a skinny 6’3″ jump shooter. Instead of trade for Kevin Love, a 26 & 12 superstar, they thought it made more sense to hold onto Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Instead of starting Andre Iguodala, a recent All-Star and First Team All-Defense performer, Coach Steve Kerr thought it made more sense to start Barnes, a significantly worse player at that time. David Lee was likewise a former All-Star, and was the team’s highest paid player. When Lee suffered an early season injury, Draymond Green took his spot and never gave it back. Green was a second round pick making less than a million dollars a year.

There are a lot of ways that Mark Jackson’s and then especially Steve Kerr’s Warriors have bucked conventional wisdom in becoming what appears to be an all-time great NBA basketball team. Now, we’ve reached a point where the wisdom of those decisions and tactics are long past doubt.

Curry is not just a great shooter, but a great player; quite possibly the best in the NBA today. Instead of last year’s MVP being some type of fluke, it seems more likely that it is the first of more to come. Kevin Garnett compared Curry to Michael Jordan yesterday, saying both were like this “whole other thing,” that is beautiful for basketball. He’s not wrong. Curry had 46 points last night, shooting 8 of 13 from downtown. When dribbling off of ball screens way out court — 26 or more feet from the hoop — Curry draws double teams. He’s plenty clever as a dribbler and passer, so this early action inevitably leads to the screener receiving the ball with a scrambled 3 defenders trying to stop 4 Warriors.

Green is often times that roll man, tasked with setting up the score. And last night, he could hardly have done a better job of doing it. A bulky 6’8″ former college center, Green has become the most versatile player in the NBA. He can defend all five positions, he can shoot from the perimeter, he can post up, and — maybe more than anything — he can facilitate offense for his teammates, off the dribble. When he catches that roll pass from Curry, and it’s 3 against 4 for the defense, Green is looking to the corners for three-point shooters, or up high to Festus Ezeli for a lob dunk. Last night, he made both passes look effortless. The lobs were dunked. The kick-outs were converted for threes. Green, the former second-round pick, had 23 points on 8-10 shooting, to go along with 8 rebounds and 12 — TWELVE — assists. He’s become undeniably one of the best forwards in the league.

Last night, the Wolves played their second straight game without Ricky Rubio, who is battling a sore hamstring. When this “gametime decision” was announced, a great deal of the excitement for this matchup was drained. The Warriors — 9-0 and coming off another big win at Memphis — are bound to lose a game eventually and these upstart Timberwolves playing on more rest seemed like a potentially sneaky and fun team to hand them their first L. Without Ricky, that simply was not possible. Rubio’s replacement, Zach LaVine, is one of the worst defensive point guards in the league, and the Wolves had no chance with LaVine defending Curry. Had Coach Sam Mitchell instead put Andrew Wiggins on Curry, and had LaVine guard Barnes, it’s possible some of the damage could’ve been mitigated.  But Mitchell has been pretty clear on the LaVine issues in terms of what he’s trying to accomplish with him this year; it is about development — even in the middle of real games — more than it is about short-term strategies for team success. In Mitchell’s plans, LaVine had the good learning experience of defending Steph Curry MVP last night, which is more important than the Timberwolves trying to win that game.

Curry had 21 points in the first quarter, most of which came on LaVine. The crowd mixed oohs and ahhs, with groans of frustration.

To the Wolves credit, they battled all night — starting with their second unit in the second quarter — and many of them turned in good performances. The Warriors appeared to be cruising right out of the gates to a blowout win, but the Wolves cut it down to 5 more than once in the 4th Quarter.

Kudos should begin with LaVine’s backup, Andre Miller. After some early struggles, particularly taking his own turn defending Curry — that didn’t start out well at all — Miller upped his physicality on defense and craftiness on offense. On defense, Miller could be seen grappling with whatever Warriors player he was guarding. On offense, he cut backdoor for a layup to answer one of Curry’s threes. He posted up. He even threw himself into the paint scrum and somehow tipped in a teammate’s miss above Ezeli and the seven-foot trees standing right next to him.

Miller had 11 points and 4 assists in 22 minutes of action, but most significantly had the Wolves’ best plus-minus (+12). LaVine was (-22). If the Wolves ever decide that winning now is more important than anything else, Andre Miller should be the backup point guard. He won’t always play well, and it will not always be pretty, but he is on the other end of the basketball-intelligence spectrum from LaVine, and that alone will both help the team try to win, and probably teach its young players more about how the game is supposed to be played.

Shabazz Muhammad likewise played well off the Wolves bench. Bazz, who has struggled to start this season like he finished the last one, provided the type of energetic scoring off the bench that the Wolves need from him. He ran the floor, posted up, drew fouls, and ended up with 16 points on 6-8 shooting. He was (+6) for the night. Muhammad’s fellow third-year Timberwolf also played well off the bench, scoring 11 points on 4-6 shooting. Gorgui was knocking down 20 footers from the top of the key.

Among starters, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns played solid games, all things considered. Neither had a particularly hot scoring night (Wiggins had 19 points on 17 shots, Towns had 17 on 15 shots) but they were facing one of the league’s best defenses, and doing so without a point guard to run their offense. Both remained aggressive in going to the basket and made plays. Wiggins had 5 assists to just 1 turnover, which is nice to see. Towns had 11 rebounds.

The big ticket items of last night’s game were: (1) The Wolves struggle without Ricky Rubio; and (2) The Warriors are the best team in basketball. Everybody knew that before the ball was tipped, and nobody’s mind was changed by what happened after that.

Tonight, the Wolves play a much more winnable game at Indiana. If Rubio plays, it’s a game they can win.

Until then.

Season Record: 4-4

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