Good news, sports fans: Another NBA season begins tomorrow night. TNT is showing a Western Conference double-header that leads off with Mavs at Spurs and closes with Rockets at Lakers. If you’ve got League Pass, you can catch Magic at Pelicans in the early slot. (Eds note: That’s what we’ll be watching. November is for Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Anthony Davis. We’ll see enough Dirk and Duncan, come spring.)
In Part I of the Punch-Drunk Preview, we’ll discuss topics ranging in seriousness and importance across the league as a whole. On Wednesday, we’ll get down to the specifics of this year’s Timberwolves team.
The Timberwolves play tonight (6:30 CDT tip, views on FSN, sounds on WCCO 830).
So, the Wolves aren’t in playoff contention. The Twins season is underway. The weather is nice should be getting better soon. Only the diehard are following the team as closely as they were a few months ago.
However, there’s a special interest in tonight’s game. Scratch that – three special interests: ‘Bazz, Beas, and, of course, ‘Bron. Three Bees, three angles.
With a playoff run out of the picture, will Nikola Pekovic play out the rest of the season?
The Timberwolves aren’t making the playoffs. Let’s put that idea behind us.
The Wolves underachieved this year.
It doesn’t matter how many more games they win or lose. Making the playoffs this season was a benchmark – the benchmark –for that nebulous but real concept known as “success.” And this season, the Wolves were unsuccessful.
I’m not going to get into why the Wolves failed. We’ve talked all about the draft picks, free agent signings, the failings of the second unit, Adelman’s rotations, Barea over Rubio, close losses, and everything else, ad nauseum.
Lots of Wolves fans will check out. It’s no secret that interest in the team waxes and wanes with the team’s highs and lows. When the team is winning, fans take interest. When it isn’t, they don’t. This isn’t an indictment of fair-weather fandom. It’s just human.
The real question is whether the Wolves will also check out as a team.
Chauncey Billups, Suited Up. (Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The Wolves lost to New York on Wednesday night 118-106. The Knicks seized the initiative right away, and the game was only really close after an 8-0 run in the third-quarter brought the Wolves to within three, with the ball.
On the ensuing possession, Kevin Love got the ball on the block against Tyson Chandler and shot an ill-advised jump hook airball. It was a look Love has made plenty this season, including against solid defenders who are longer than he is.
But on Wednesday it was emblematic of his struggles to establish himself as the purveyor of the game. Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler instead did that.
Neutralizing Kevin Love
You see, Love typically sets his self apart from the competition each and every night, doing things in quantity and quality that have almost never been seen before. Usually when Love steps on the court, “u alreddy kno” who it is, to paraphrase famed Canis Hoopus commenter MAYNHOLUP!, because of Love’s dizzying barrage of three-point shooting, outlet passing, offensive rebounding, high-low feeds, foul draws, and, yes, jump hooks. There might not be a more unique player in the NBA – including LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
If in most games, Love stands out like the unique superstar he is, in the New York game, he blended in – in the wrong way – like the role player his critics expected him to be when he came into the League.
Nikola Pekovic has likely traded in his Phoenix poolside garb for a Denver ski jacket.
The Wolves are in Denver to close out their West Coast road trip tonight at 8 P.M. CST. The game can be seen on FSN or League Pass, or heard on WCCO 830 AM.
The Wolves have won three of four games on their current road trip, and aim to make it four out of five tonight against the Nuggets. The Wolves should win tonight – they beat Denver by 27 points on February 12 – but it isn’t a gimme, as Denver has demonstrated in two wins over the Wolves this season.
So that’s the challenge tonight. Figuring out ways to score. According to espn.com, the Pacers are 3-point favorites. It should be a competitive game. The playoffs are almost definitely out of the picture for this team, but it’s always fun to take on a challenge like this one against a title contender in front of the home crowd.
In other news, the trade deadline is tomorrow. There are multiple reports suggesting that J.J. Barea and Chase Budinger might be headed to Memphis in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen. There are thousands of tweets suggesting that either Kevin Love will be a Laker or that Laker fans are stupid and don’t know what they’re talking about.
The NBA should allow James Harden to play with that pick in his beard during All-Star Weekend.
The Houston Rockets (34-17) are in town to play the staggering (Punch-Drunk?) Wolves (24-27) tonight. Tip is at 7 P.M. Central. Views via FSN and NBATV. Sounds via WCCO 830. James Harden’s beard is traveling with the team and will be in the Rockets’ starting lineup.
We discussed some of the issues heading into this game during our first Punch-Drunk Podcast. (Eds. Note: We’re planning on adding podcasts to our repertoire on a semi-regular basis. More details on that to come.)
Coming off a big win last night at home in Minneapolis, the Wolves are in Oklahoma City to take on Kevin Durant and the Thunder tonight. Tip is at 7 P.M. CST. It can be seen on FSOK or League Pass or heard on WCCO 830.
The Wolves, now 24-24 on the season, are 4-8 on the second night of back-to-backs. And tonight’s will be among the most difficult of them all. The Thunder (39-11), as we know, are one of the best teams in basketball – with or without superstar guard Russell Westbrook, who will again be out tonight for the Thunder. The Thunder lead the season series against the Wolves 2-1.
Nick “Swaggy P” Young and Kendall Marshall will be in Minneapolis tonight to take on the Wolves.
Look again, that IS NOT Steve Blake on the right. That’s the red hot Kendall Marshall, who’ll be manning the point for Los Angeles tonight in Minneapolis.
That’s right – the Lakers are in Minneapolis to play the Timberwolves tonight. Tip is at 7 P.M. CST. Most of you can see the game on FSN. If you’re not local, you can see it on League Pass. If you prefer to listen, tune in to WCCO 830.
A quick rundown of things to look for is below the fold.
It is Nikola Pekovic’s job – it’s his vocation – to wipe smiles like Joakim Noah’s from opposing centers’ faces.
Following a disappointing loss in Portland on Saturday evening, the Wolves (21-22) continue their four-game road trip tonight in Chicago (22-21). Tip is at 7:00 P.M. CST. The game can be seen on NBATV and heard on WCCO 830.
Derrick Rose won’t be walking through that door. (Eds. Note: He might limp to that bench, I’m not sure. Key thing is, he isn’t playing tonight or for a long time.) Neither will Luol Deng, or even Kirk Hinrich.
But beating the Bulls tonight will require the Wolves to play top-level basketball. The Wolves haven’t beaten the Bulls in a very long time. Last season, Chicago swept the season series against the Wolves for the fourth straight year. They’ve now won seven straight against Minnesota.
And despite being decimated by injuries, the Bulls are perhaps the NBA’s hottest team that no one really cares about.
The Bulls are tied for the League lead in January wins so far, going 10-3 in 2014. They’re 8-3 since trading Luol Deng earlier this month in what appeared a clear towel-throwing move.
But the Bulls keep winning. Because Tom Thibodeau.
Remember when I said Derrick Rose, Lu Deng, and Kirk Hinrich won’t be walking through that door? That doesn’t matter. Thibs keeps the engine running on overdrive no matter what lineup he can put on the floor.
The Wolves have not won a game in Salt Lake City since 2009.
After rolling over the Utah Jazz (14-28) 98-72 at home on Saturday, the Timberwolves (19-21) are in Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz in the second game of a rare home-and-home involving the Wolves.
On Friday, everything that could’ve gone right did. They got off to a 9-0 start, and led by as many as 36 at one point. Nikola Pekovic carved up Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and any other challengers on Utah’s front line en route to 27 points and a season-high 14 rebounds in just 29 minutes; Good Kevin Martin came to play, tallying 20 points; and Kevin Love had 18 and 13, totals that would’ve been higher had the Wolves needed him to play more minutes. (He played 29.)
On the Jazz side, what was already arguably the worst team in the NBA was without its best player, Gordon Hayward, and the team had a historically-bad shooting night, going a franchise-worst 28.8 percent (21 of 73). With 18 points, Alec Burks was the lone Jazz player in double-figures. For one night at least, the Wolves quieted some of the naysayers who’ve loudly criticized their decision not to select Trey Burke with the ninth pick in last summer’s draft. Ricky Rubio clearly outclassed Burke on Saturday night, holding the rookie to 9 points–almost five below his season average–on 2-10 from the field and two assists. Burke also had three turnovers.
Tonight’s game in Utah figures to be a more difficult win for the Wolves than was Saturday’s laugher for two reasons: Gordon Hayward and the Delta Center EnergySolutions Arena.
The Wolves have lost six straight games to Toronto and its star forward, DeMar DeRozan.
The Timberwolves (18-20) are in Toronto to play the Raptors (19-18) tonight at 6 P.M. CST. The game can be seen on FSN or NBA League Pass or heard on WCCO 830 AM. The Air Canada Centre (ANGLO SPELLING ALERT!) has been a house of doom for the Wolves: Minnesota has lost its last nine games in Toronto.
Being unable to beat Toronto on its home floor is a trend that needs to end. Coming off of a bad loss against Sacramento on Wednesday at home, the Wolves need a win in a bad way. Defeating the Raptors on their home floor would help Minnesota claw back toward .500 and could help the Wolves exorcise their Air Canada Centre demons.
But getting that win will not be easy. Toronto has a better record than the Wolves do. (Eds. Note:Caveat emptor: They play in the Eastern Conference.) They’re tough at home, having won a season-high five straight home games (Dec. 28 – Jan. 13), something they haven’t done since 2010. All around the League, the question is, “Are the Raptors for real?”
The Raptors have hit their stride since trading Rudy Gay, who tortured the Timberwolves en route to 33 points in Wednesday’s loss to Sacramento. Toronto was 7-12 before the trade. Since the trade, the Raps have gone 12-5.
Rudy Gay and his offensive inefficiency have been the punchline of so many (advanced!) analytics jokes over the last several years, that the facts only crowd could only smugly sneer and say “I told you so” when the Raptors improved after trading Gay on December 9th. And unsurprisingly, Toronto’s efficiency stats have improved since Gay’s departure. Sean Highkin notes:
With Gay, Toronto had a net efficiency of -0.3, scoring 101.4 points per 100 possessions while giving up 101.7. Since the Gay deal, that mark has jumped into the black, sitting at 6.3. The team is scoring 103.9 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to just 97.6.
With Gay on the roster, the Raptors had the bulk of their possessions used by two players, Gay and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan has still put up a team-high 28.7% usage rate since the Gay trade, but the rest of the team’s possessions are being distributed more evenly. Center Jonas Valanciunas has taken on a bigger role in Toronto’s offense, and his play contributions to the team during their recent hot streak have been vital.
Highkin notes that Valanciunas has not been the most significant beneficiary of the Gay trade. High-flying guard Terrence Ross has:
The main beneficiary of Gay’s absence on the Raptors has been second-year guard Terrence Ross, who has seen his playing time skyrocket. He was playing 18.9 minutes in the first 19 games of the season, and that number has jumped to 30.2 minutes a game since the Gay trade. His production has spiked as well since being given the opportunity to play, especially from beyond the arc. Before the trade, he was shooting 34.5% on 2.9 three-point attempts a game; since the trade, he’s shot three more times from long range a game (5.9 attempts) and his efficiency has ballooned to 46.1%.
This is a very important trend for the Raptors. Ross has a high ceiling, but he showed few signs that he would reach it last season. Now, with minutes freed up, Ross is again a player to watch–and not only for his *ridiculous* dunks, which are worth marveling at:
There’s much more on the Raptors’ trajectory since the Rudy Gay trade here.
A few other Raptor-related notes in the run-up to game time:
I’m traveling on business, and have to make this short.
The Timberwolves (18-19) host the Sacramento Kings (13-23) tonight at 7:00 pm CT. You can see and hear the game at the usual places, FSN and WCCO 830-AM, respectively.
A few notes of interest:
Pekovic-Cousins Grudge Match: Two of the best (and biggest) centers in the NBA go head-to-head tonight in what looks to be the game’s marquee matchup. Cousins is having a monster year, ranking among the NBA’s top 10 in both points (23.5) and rebounds (11.6) per game, which puts him in a strong position to make this season’s All-Star game. Pek has arguably been the Wolves’ best player in recent games, beasting his way to 23 and 10 on 55% shooting and over 5 offensive rebounds over his last dozen games. All I can say about their head-to-head matchup is by way of a public service announcement: Any time Nikola Pekovic and DeMarcus Cousins are set to go to war, hide your women and children.
Kemba Walker has the (second) meanest crossover in the East.
Your Minnesota Timberwolves will be playing basketball tonight against the Charlotte Bobcats at Target Center. Tip is at 7 P.M. CST. The game can be seen and heard through the usual channels.
The Wolves are coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night at home. Former Wolf Gerald Green–a longtime Punch-Drunk Wolves favorite–hit the game-winner on a tough baseline jumper with seconds remaining.
One question to ponder after the Phoenix loss is whether the Wolves have chemistry problems. (Eds. Note: No, not the Breaking Bad kind of chemistry problems, at least that we know of.)
Tempers flared on Wednesday after Rick Adelman pulled J.J. Barea with 8:07 to go in the 4th quarter. Barea, a player whose passion and intensity run so thick that they’re palpably evident even in pre-game warmups–the sideline-to-sideline defensive shuffle-suicides J.J. does each night as part of his pre-game ritual is all you really need to see–was visibly upset and stormed off the court, cursing in at least two languages. (Eds. Note: Barea was in fact cursing in three languages, if you count Spainglish.) The next thing you know, neither Barea nor Dante Cunningham joined the team huddle during a timeout.
Kevin Love, the team’s best player by orders of magnitude and an League-wide MVP candidate, didn’t appreciate Barea and Cunningham’s lack of team spirit. But Love himself was moody, and it doesn’t take a trained psychologist to deduce that Love appeared to be projecting frustration with his own sub-par performance onto Barea and Cunningham.
Love is serious about his image and is protective of his NUMB#RS. This video is by now a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything.
Kevin Love’s image took a hit on Wednesday night’s loss. In one of the Wolves’ few nationally-televised games of the season–Love played downright bad basketball and looked nothing like an MVP candidate. In fact, Love’s performance was sub-par on both ends: he shot 4-20 from the field, and got lit up by Suns three-point specialist Channing Frye after repeatedly failing to close out on Frye three-point attempts. Love’s failure to close on active shooters like Frye and Ryan Anderson is not a new phenomenon, and is one of the few aspects of his game for which he can be legitimately criticized and for which he is not called out enough by writers, many of whom give him the benefit of the doubt because they love Love for his fat stats.
UPDATE (4:19 P.M. CST): It’s still unclear whether Suns guard Eric Bledsoe will play tonight, according to ESPN.
The Wolves play Phoenix tonight at 8:30 P.M. CST. You can see it on ESPN or listen on 830 WCCO. The 8:30 P.M. tip is an odd time for a Wolves home game. (Eds. Note: Earlier this season, the NBA amended its schedule so tonight’s game would start later than initially planned and be shown on national television, presumably because the NBA and ESPN were concerned that no one would want to watch the Kobe-less Lakers against the Houston Rockets–the game that was initially scheduled to be on ESPN at 8:30 P.M. tonight.)
But tonight’s tilt promises to be an extremely interesting game for fans–perhaps more so than Stern and Silver, LLP, expected when the game was pushed onto the national TV slate–as the Wolves will be taking on one of the League’s most enigmatic teams with which the Wolves are competing for a Western Conference playoff spot. (Eds. Note: The Suns are the rare NBA squad that’s enigmatic in a good way, basically the opposite of the way in which the Brooklyn Nets are enigmatic.)
The Suns are a breath of fresh air. They’re good. Really good, actually. They’re 20-13 thus far, good for a winning percentage of .606. The Suns have the 7th-best record right now in a stacked Western Conference. They trail the much-hyped Houston Rockets by just one game for the 6th spot in the West. The Suns’ record shines when compared to the Wolves’ 17-17 record. If the playoffs started today, the Phoenix Suns would be in the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves–currently 10th in the West–would not.
The Timberwolves take on the Washington Wizards tonight at 7 P.M. CST at Target Center. The game can be seen on NBATV or heard on WCCO 830.
The marquee matchup tonight is at the point guard position, where Ricky Rubio and John Wall will square off.
Rubio has been predictably enigmatic (OXYMORON!) this season. He does so many things well, but the unanswerable question is whether Ricky’s kryptonite–the jump shot–will forever banish him to second-tier status among NBA point guards and compromise his team’s chances to keep opposing defenses honest in half-court sets. Similar questions have been raised about Wall.