Late in the second quarter of last night’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Andrew Wiggins was smiling. Shabazz Muhammad had just been fouled on a fast break shot attempt, and Wiggins helped him off the floor with a big grin on his face.* For the last few minutes of action, they — led by Ricky Rubio’s passes — had been running the Grizzlies off of the Target Center floor. Just a few minutes earlier when Rubio checked in, Memphis was leading by 5. After Shabazz went to the line and made both of his free throws, the Wolves led by 14. Wiggins was presumably smiling because he and Shabazz were having such an easy and fun time scoring on the fast break.
[*I think this is the right sequence of events. I couldn’t bring up the play on nba.com because it isn’t one of the stats linked with video on their game log site.]
The stretch of play that ended the first half of last night’s game included the best transition offense the Wolves have had all season. It built up a lead that ultimately allowed them to beat the Grizzlies; the team’s best victory since November 25, when they won at home against the Hawks.
When fast-breaking and playing uptempo is discussed — particularly in the NBA setting — it is easy to veer into hyperbole, or at least lose sight of certain practical considerations. An NBA team cannot build its team philosophy around fast breaking. I think that is probably a safe assertion. The basic reason is that opponents are not stupid, and they will do what it takes to get back on defense. A team might have success with some occasional leak-outs (recall Kevin Love’s 70-foot bomb passes to Corey Brewer) but it is not a sustainable formula for offensive success over 100 possessions or 48 minutes. High school and college ball can be different, with longer or no shot clock, greater size and speed disparities, and more flexibility in using zones and traps to help turn the ball over, force quicker shots, and dictate the tempo of a game. In the NBA, with many of these things dictated by the rules — only 24 seconds to shoot, no realistic zone defense or trapping opportunities, generally equal size and speed between opponents — fast breaking is less of a “foundational” strategy. Mike D’Antoni and Paul Westhead might disagree with me.
When David Kahn took control of the Timberwolves, he talked a lot about building a team that would play an up-tempo style, and at the time it sounded sort of cool. I think we imagined Ricky Rubio playing a Magic Johnson sort of role, maybe with Wesley Johnson as Michael Cooper and Derrick Williams as James Worthy, filling the lanes for a slew of 3-on-1 fast breaks ending in huge dunks.
(struggles to stop cringing, and fights off urge to light myself on fire)
Ultimately, the vision of building a team around an up-tempo style did not work. “At the end of the day,” an NBA basketball team needs to be able to function first and foremost in the halfcourt, both offensively and defensively. Too many of the Wolves players, including Johnson and Williams (and in some ways, Rubio) could not do that, and the team never launched.
But — BUT — that does not mean that transition basketball is irrelevant, or that teams cannot become better by posing a consistent threat to push the ball for transition shots at every opportunity. Watch any game that the Thunder play, and take notice of what happens every single time that Russ or KD corrals a long defensive rebound. They’re gone down the other end almost as soon as they have the ball. When Miami had LeBron, and a younger version of D-Wade, they would turn steals or long rebounds into the most spectacular 2-on-1 breaks the league had ever seen.
This isn’t just a way to seize efficient scoring opportunities, either. It affects opponents’ offensive strategies when they have to be thinking about transition defense while trying to score themselves. It affects how they space their offenses, and it definitely affects how hard they crash the offensive glass.
Last night, in the second quarter against the Grizzlies, we saw the clearest example to date of how a team led by Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Shabazz Muhammad, can do exactly that. On two of the prettier plays, there was no steal or particularly-clear opening for a transition play. All that happened was a Grizzlies player missed a contested shot at the rim, the Wolves collected the rebound and immediately got Rubio the ball (he actually collected the rebound on one of the plays, after teammates deflected it his way). As this was happening, Shabazz immediately took off, full speed, down the left side of the floor. Muhammad himself was fed for a dunk on one break. On the other, Wiggins was the open man. The key to the whole sequence was the split second when Rubio was receiving the ball, and Muhammad began a race against his opponents to the other end of the floor. Rubio is such a gifted and opportunistic fast-break passer that Shabazz’s effort and instincts will be rewarded in these circumstances.
I tried to get Mitchell to discuss Shabazz’s transition play, noting that he seems to have learned that it’s a great way to get easy baskets. He took the opportunity to repeat some themes he’s described a few times about Shabazz, how he needs to improve his passing, and how they’ve told him that as long as he takes what they teach him and put it into games, his minutes will increase. What I hoped he might discuss is why Shabazz is better at pouncing on fast-break opportunities than his teammates like Andrew Wiggins seem to be. Maybe another time.
In any case, this was a pretty clear example of how the Wolves might be able to build big leads, even against good teams, this season. It does not solve the puzzle, but it can be a piece of it. For every night that Rubio struggles to hit crunchtime jumpers, maybe there will be another when he assists 3 or 4 dunks in the middle of the game that help lead to an eventual win.
If nothing else, it’s extremely fun to watch and will help inject some positive energy into this young team that desperately needs it right about now.