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.
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 play at Philly tonight. I’m sure everyone involved is happy to be outside of Minnesota where the temps are so cold that the Governor canceled school (and apparently Minneapolis has already done the same for tomorrow). The game is at 6:00 CST and can be seen on FSN and heard on 830 WCCO.
That second half was boring, but for a good reason. The Timberwolves lead grew to 30 when Kevin Love buried a trey for an 87-57 advantage with 4:51 to play in the third quarter. After that, the game was equal parts sloppy and chippy. At one point Anthony Davis barked at Dante Cunningham and got himself T’d up. At another, Corey Brewer was whistled for a tech while he sat on the bench. The Wolves allowed many quick — immediate, even — Pelicans baskets after their own scores in the fourth quarter.
But the work was done in the middle quarters of the game, which Minnesota won by a combined 19 points. Alexey Shved checked in late in the first quarter and played some of his best ball of the year (not a high hurdle to clear, I realize). Shved was active on defense, deflecting passes and even blocking a shot. On offense, he made the clever passes we grew accustomed to last year, and also made a pair of corner treys. (See his 2012-13 shot chart for convincing evidence that Alexey should ONLY shoot threes from the corners.) Shved’s final plus-minus of (-8) looks bad because he was on the floor during the aforementioned garbage-time slop. His first stint of the game was key, when the Wolves late-first-quarter deficit of 1 was erased and turned into a 5-point lead by the time Shved checked out.
But it wasn’t like Shved was THE reason the Wolves won. No, I just had to lead with him because of subjective/bias reasons and also because he played the most above his average level. But no, Shved was not the player of the game or anything. Ricky Rubio found open driving lines and converted layups. He also made a three. He also nearly got his self a triple double. (14 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 steals). Kevin Love had a measly-by-his standards 21 and 6, but played a nice floor game against a terrifying defender in Anthony Davis. Nikola Pekovic had 22 and 7. Kevin Martin scored 20 points. J.J. Barea scored 17. A lot of guys played well and — for much of the game — just about everything was working. Love completed outlet bombs for assists. Brewer’s gambles usually paid off.
From a team stats perspective, the Wolves shot 35 free throws and made 28 of them. Drawing fouls against the physical Pelicans backcourt was an early key to the game. Jrue Holiday played less than 23 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pelicans are really bad when he sits out. Later, during second-unit stretches, drawing fouls against former Wolf and hack-happy center, Greg Stiemsma, also helped generate free throw opportunities. But it wasn’t just free throws this time. The Wolves also shot 55.7 percent from the field, which is WAY above their season average of 43.3. Part of that was getting out in transition, but it was also due to the improved shooting from Barea and Shved. The Pelicans were careless with the basketball and committed offensive fouls.
It just wasn’t a close game. The Wolves played well against a good team that played poorly. They’re back to .500 with a 16-16 record. Next up is the division-leading, but Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder. That game is at Target Center on Saturday night. A win over Kevin Durant that also serves to push the team back over .500 would be a nice little Saturday, indeed.
Nikola Pekovic’s emergence was key to last night’s victory and is critical to the Timberwolves’ long-term prospects (Artwork brought to you by Holly G)
Andy G: I closed yesterday’s post with: “If last night’s loss was an eye opener for the defense, perhaps a renewed focus can keep the Celtics under 90 points tonight and give the fans an enjoyable win to watch.”
Well, the Wolves held Boston to just 88 points, won by 18, and gave the fans a win that was mostly enjoyable to watch. Despite some first-half struggles from the Kevins, the Wolves used a combination of transition offense, J.J. Barea Hero Ball, and Nikola Pekovic glass eating to take a five-point lead after two quarters. In the second half, Kevin Martin calibrated his three-point range (he was short on just about everything in the first) and Kevin Love showed off hook shots while also grinding out foul-draws to the tune of a workmanlike 23 points and 12 rebounds. The 7 turnovers on his line are evidence of some of his struggles in this game. Robbie Hummel advanced the “positive correlation guy” narrative drum that I’m beating, with 8 points in 20 minutes of (+14) basketball. On defense, Adelman said that they wanted to make Boston a jumpshooting team. They pretty much succeeded at this. Early on, those jumpers went in. Later on, they didn’t. The lead grew and the Wolves cruised to a comfortable win. This team seems like a good front runner.
Let me get back to Pekovic for a moment because I think his performance gets to a bigger-picture issue with this team. With Ricky Rubio being such a non scorer (3 points combined in the two games this weekend) and nobody on the team possessing elite shot creating in the traditional mold of a LeBron/Melo/Wade/Kobe nature, I think one of the keys on nights like last night is to pound the offensive glass. There will be games like this one (the Cleveland loss was a good example) where the offense sputters and they’ll need an alternate route to points. Pek had 8 offensive boards last night and scored 20 points on 8-9 shooting. Most of these were putbacks.
As the Wolves continue to refine their offense — currently the league’s 9th best — the challenge will be to maximize all of the immense talents of Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love and Pek. In the early part of this season, Pek seemed almost like an odd man out, often losing shot opportunities to aggressive bucket hunters Love and Martin. One way he can unquestionably add value is to do what he did last night and crash the boards. After his huge game last night, his offensive rebounding percentage is up to 11.1 percent. Last season’s was 13.1 percent. It’d be nice to see him focus on getting back to this one skill that will be hugely important, particularly if Rick staggers his bench rotations like he did over the weekend, pairing Pekovic with Barea. J.J. is certain to create “Kobe Assist” opportunities with his kamikaze drives that usually draw an extra defender and often times clank off the rim.
All in all, a solid win over a bad team. Adelman emphasized after the game that good teams MUST win at home. He said that you then try to split on the road. Taken literally, he’s describing a path to winning three fourths of regular season games. While that’s a bit optimistic for this team (it’d be 61 or 62 wins, which even the most optimistic would be impressed by) it’s clear that Rick expects to win this season.
Note to Rick Adelman: Don’t let Alexey Shved near this man tonight. (Wait, Alexey couldn’t get near him if he tried. Nevermind.)
The Wolves are at home for tonight’s tilt against the Cavaliers. The tip is at 7 P.M. CST. You can watch it on FSN (most of you) or League Pass (me).
The Wolves will try to undo some of the damage witnessed in their horrific first-three quarters performance on November 4, which presaged a Wolves run in the fourth quarter that fell a Kevin Love buzzerbeater away from a huge comeback win. (Eds. Note: Andy G and Patrick J attended the November 4 game in Cleveland. A photo diary of the festivities can be seen here.)
Rubio-Irving is the marquee matchup. Ricky is a flashy point guard who’s leading the league in steals and is one of the best defensive point guards in the business. As Wolves watchers know too well, Ricky has his problems shooting the ball, and with scoring more generally. Irving is Rubio’s mirror opposite in many ways, excepting the flashiness part: Kyrie is arguably the best pure-shooting point guard in the League not named Stephen Curry, but he struggles mightily on defense.
Ironically, Mike Brown executed perhaps the best in-game strategy of any opposing coach this year to exploit Ricky’s shooting ineptitude, daring Rubio to take open shots and doubling down hard on Wolves post players, who struggled to get any interior offense going against the Cavs’ collapsed, outsized defensive trio of Anderson Verejao, Tristan Thompson (!), and Andrew Bynum, the last of whom has been moved into the starting lineup in place of Verejao.
The Wolves might consider executing a similar strategy by trying to bait Dion Waiters into taking long jumpers whilst shading Kevin Martin to help against Cleveland’s bigs.
Klay Thompson has one of the sweetest shooting strokes in the NBA
The 3-1 Golden State Warriors are in ‘Sota to take on the 3-1 Timberwolves tonight at Target Center. Tip is at 7 P.M. CST. You can see it on FSN or NBA League Pass.
The Dubs are the darlings of the NBA so far this season, and it’s easy to see why: They’re third in the League in points per game, and are first in assists per game. They have fun players in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who can fill it up from pretty much anywhere inside the 612 area code. Andre Iguodala makes big dunks, and–this is a first for the Warriors–defends well. David Lee flows to the tune of about 20 & 10 nightly. Andrew Bogut isn’t Andris Biedrins. (Eds. Note: Bogut also belongs on that “Dark Alley” team that was occasionally referenced in Grantland’s NBA Preview marathon, with fellow toughs Lance Stephenson and David West, inter alia.)
“Here we go again,” and “Things will work themselves out.”
We’ll take them one at a time.
“Here we go again…”
I hardly need to explain this one. Budinger missed 59 games last year due to a torn meniscus. His teammate Kevin Love, All-NBA the season prior, missed 64. Ricky Rubio missed 25 and had to play his way back into shape after ACL reconstruction. Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic missed 18 and 20 games respectively. I suppose I should also include Brandon Roy, here. For a minute, we talked ourselves into his comeback tour. It lasted five games before the former Blazer great called it a career.
In short, what many expected to be the team’s first playoff appearance in years turned into a 31-51 season of medical updates and frustration.
With just a few days remaining before media day (Eds note: I’m excited to make my inaugural media appearance on Monday.) and the start of training camp, this Budinger news carries an inescapable sense of doom-and-gloom, in light of everything that went down a season ago. Let’s hope it’s the only setback the team faces in the season’s early stages.
Alexey loves the land of 10,000 (frozen) lakes. It’s like Moscow.
Alexey Shved: Minneapolis is Moscow and Moscow is Minneapolis and I like Moscow so therefore I like Minneapolis
Andy G: Amid all of the pre-draft Playoffs craze, we haven’t devoted nearly enough (any?) attention to our favorite Timberwolf, Alexey Shved.
For some background, in case anyone forgot, here is the best visual representation of how Shved met “The Rookie Wall”:
It was tough to watch, both as a fan of Shved the player, and the Timberwolves team. His off-season will be as important to the team as anything it does in the draft or free agency. The team needs help at shooting guard in a bad way, and Alexey has had/might continue to have the opportunity to make the job his. He just needs to get [a lot] stronger and more consistent with his jump shot.
“I was not able to sustain that level of play for the season – mainly because it was very tiring. Other players also warned me that could happen to me. Avoiding these slumps was not possible though. Playing 82 games in five and a half months – that’s quite a prize (ironic). It is, for example, possible to have 5 games in just 7 days! And if the coaching staff gives you 25 to 30 minutes of playing time it is very hard to give them good basketball until the end of such a stretch. At the end of the day I had very pleasing games and very unpleasing ones. It gave me experience. And for next season, I will know what to expect right from the start. Of course I will work to ensure that I will play much more consistently.”
Importantly, he goes on to say that he’s returning to Minnesota on June 25 to work individually with the team on his off-season program.
[This is Part 1 of a season review series. This post looks back in time at the season that was. A subsequent post (or two!) will use what we learned this season to take a prospective look ahead at what the Timberwolves should look like in 2013-14 and beyond.]
1. Season Highlight?
Andy G: Win over the Thunder, December 20, 2012
I’ll kick this thing off. The highlight moment of the season is an easy choice for me: the win over OKC on Thursday Night TNT. It was December 20th, Christmas time. Spirits were high with the Wolves moving to 2 games over .500 (the last point in the season in which this was the case) with a 13-11 record. All of Alexey Shved (the lead guard for the Rubio-less portion of the season), Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic were dominant. Pek was pick-and-rolling bigger and stronger than the top team in the West could handle. Love spread the floor with three-point bombs, scoring 28 points along with 11 boards and 7 assists (career high?). He was awesome and looked the part of an MVP candidate. And young Alexey Shved was the orchestrator of everything. Pre-ROOKIE WALL Shved was something to behold and legit reason for Timberwolves optimism. His skillset was on display in that win over Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Shved had a whopping 12 assists that night. Oh yeah, and JJ was GREAT JJ. He killed it during #WinningTime. All in all, that was a major highlight at a point in the season when the team had statewide interest and expectations of a playoff run.
Patrick J: Concur. OKC, December 20th, or “The Proof of Kahncept Game”
The Wolves’ victory over OKC was one the few games this season at Target Center I got to attend–I was back in Minnesota visiting family and had good tickets with Andy G & co to see what I expected to be an overmatched but spiteful Wolves squad take on the best team in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Good JJ came out in full force that night — the goodest JJ that JJ can be. The rest of the team synced that night, the Wolves snapped a long OKC winning streak. Shved was Olympics Shved, Love owned, and it was basically the team we expected to see in 2012-13, minus Rubio. Imagine the potential of that team plus Rubio. I often do, and it’s a pretty amazing highlight given the way things actually turned out.
Why hasn’t Alexey Shved played more point guard this season?
Andy G: First things first: The Wolves won by 31 points last night. On the road. On the tail end of a back-to-back. That never happens. I guess I should mention that it came against the Phoenix Suns and — unlike the last time the Wolves played (and lost) in Phoenix — it wasn’t a WESLEY JOHNSON REVENGE GAME. (Wes shot 2 for 12 from the floor.) I’d ask for your thoughts on the game, but I doubt yours are any different than mine, which could be summed up as: Nice to get a win, nice to see Chase Budinger contributing right away, but Phoenix is horrible and we’re in the thick of Tanking Season. If any of that is incorrect, let me know.
Patrick J: Ditto. We like those wins, and as much as that, we like how the team performs so far with Chase on the floor. Granted, they aren’t playing worldbeaters – SAC and PHO are peer teams at best – but still, you see the potential there. It’s almost enough to make me wish I knew how it looked at full strength, with Kevin Love on the floor. But not quite. We’re in the dog days of the season, writing posts that feature Youtube vids of our favorite college prospects whom we’re watching in the NCAA tourney, and are far, far, far from playoff contention. Do you agree that you’d rather K-Love stay away the rest of the season so as not to risk reinjuring his hand, or (let’s just assume this for a fun hypothetical), do you want to see him return so we can see whether a healthy Wolves squad with a few rusty pieces can compete with the Murderer’s Row schedule they have coming up?
The Wolves take on the Spurs tonight at Target Center. On paper, it looks to be a lopsided affair. The Wolves are 21-39. They have lost consecutive games by over 20 points. The Spurs are 49-15. They just beat OKC by 12. Two games before that, they beat Chicago by 18.
That said, things look grim. The Blazers are fighting for the 8th seed in the West. The Wolves are, well – depending on how you judge incentives – fighting for a respectable finish or a higher lottery pick. One thing they’re decidedly not fighting for is a playoff spot.
Which isn’t to say that they aren’t playing hard.
Anyone who’s been watching knows Ricky Rubio is setting an example that good players on bad teams ought to be required to follow. The energy and leadership Rubio displays nightly is a model for other NBAers to follow (even if his jump shot isn’t).
Coming off a 116-94 beating in LaLa on Thursday night, the Wolves close out their West Coast tour tonight at the Rose Garden as guests of the Portland Trailblazers and VULCAN INC. [Has there ever been a more evil-sounding company backing a pro sports franchise? Seriously, just hearing VULCAN(!) gives me shivers, especially when I then think about Paul Allen terminating GMs like they’re Al Qaeda’s#3. VULCAN!]
The Blazers haven’t been winning. Since beating the Wolves on February 4th, they went on a seven game losing streak before getting a win last Sunday against Boston. In all, they’ve lost eight of their last nine. But like the Lakers, the Blazers are fighting for a playoff slot in the West. Another thing they share in common with the Laker is that they ALWAYS beat the Wolves – Portland has won 20 of the last 22 contests versus the Wolves. So despite the dry spell, the Blazers should be ready to go tonight.
This was the takeaway from last night’s game. Everything else was about as expected. Lopsided loss (21st consecutive to LaLa), another injury to a key player (Pek) and an all around look of hopelessness. I’ll have more tomorrow.
Sometimes the simple game flow image tells 90 percent of the game story. Last night the Thunder built an early lead — 10 points after the first quarter — and never looked back. The Wolves almost had the lead cut to 5 at half, but Luke Ridnour blasted Russell Westbrook as he attempted a desperation trey at the horn, sending him to the foul line for a gratuitous three points. The 8-point halftime deficit was as close as the game would get from that point forward, with much of the second half showing the Thunder ready to blow the game completely open. They led by as many as 17 points at different moments and ultimately won by 16. It was not a close game, nor was it a particularly interesting game to dissect. But there were some sub plots.
The Thunder are good.
If ya don’t know, now ya know — Oklahoma City has a great pro basketball team. Here’s something interesting about that: OKC’s winning percentage is .727 — obviously great — which if the season ended today would mean improvement for the FIFTH consecutive season. Coach Scott Brooks takes an undue amount of heat (Bill Simmons took his umpteenth jab at him during ESPN’s pregame show, not-so-subtly suggesting that Russell Westbrook’s temper tantrums are somehow on Brooks) for a coach who inherited an incredibly young, 1-12 team and has molded them into a steadily-improving Western Conference superpower. Obviously the talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — on full display last night — is the overriding factor in the Thunder’s success. But there’s so little to criticize about such a successful team that it seems discussion for discussion’s sake leads to Brooks getting ripped way more than he should.
In any case, the Thunder are awesome and reminded everyone of this last night. Durant was his usual studly self. He poured in 27 smooth points along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. When standing near the Wolves sideline during free throws, he took a moment to extend well wishes to Rick Adelman and family, dealing with a scary medical situation. Dude is true class. Russell Westbrook, whose volatility perhaps makes him less endearing to fans, was the better of the two superstars on Friday night. Russ had 37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds. When he’s hitting that mid-range pull up he’s just a half-click below LeBron James on the Unstoppable Scale. His historically-ridiculous explosiveness was on display when he was isolated one-on-one with Alexey Shved. Shved is very good at staying in front of dribble penetration, erring on the side of backing off too far. But Westbrook made him look knee-deep in quicksand, cruising past back-pedaling Shved for an easy two.
So yeah, the Thunder are good. This isn’t news, but it is the primary piece of information gleaned from last night’s loss at Oklahoma City.
Nobody quite knew what to expect from the 10 Day Wonders now that Rick Adelman was back with the team. He hadn’t coached them, as each guy joined the team after Adelman’s departure. Tonight, with Nikola Pekovic also returning to the lineup, there was no time for Chris Johnson. Pek was revealing his new bear tattoo (I haven’t seen it yet, I’m just trusting @steventurous on this one) and earned all of his 37 minutes of action. He put up a 17 & 12 line. Greg Stiemsma played the other 11 center minutes. Eventful ones. He took a flagrant-two cheapshot from Matt Barnes, prompting an ejection. A moment later, he knocked over one Clipper (flagrant-one) and was shoved in the back by Caron Butler. Technical foul. Stiemer was mixing it up and played okay. In any case, no Chris Johnson tonight. In some ways, he was missed. The Clips have a ridiculously athletic front court pairing in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and crucial rebounds were lost; often times the “high in the air” variety.
Mickael Gelabale played a solid 16 minutes of action — solid defensively. He shot a forgettable 0 for 2 from the floor, but was noticeably disruptive on defense. He had 3 steals. I suspect his minutes will stay as long as Budinger is out. The Wolves wing defense is suspect and Gelabale is quite obviously a solid defensive player who frustrates the basic things like a post entry pass. He was a +4 in tonight’s game.
Andy G: Wolves host Clips tonight. CP3 isn’t playing. He has a bruised kneecap. The Clippers have lost 3 of their last 4 games played without their MVP. On our side of things, disaster relief is on the way. Nik Pekovic is back. Alexey Shved is back. And most importantly, Coach Rick Adelman is back. The Wolves should be able to trot out some semblance of a starting NBA lineup tonight, perhaps the only eye sore being Luke Ridnour at the starting off-guard, should Adelman choose to move Shved to 6th Man. Personally, I’d just as soon start GELABALE next to a creator like Ricky, but there’s no chance of that happening so I’ll stop right there. In any case, the way I see it the equation goes something like:
Adelman + Pek + Shved – CP3 = Automatic Wolves Win
We can live with Tony Parker’s 20 points and 6 assists. Manu Ginobili’s 12 points and 5 dimes. Timmy’s 12, 9 and 5. Hell, even his 3 steals and 7 blocks. But the problem with tonight’s game was that Manu only played 12 minutes because of a pulled hamstring shortly before halftime, and with the Spurs shorthanded, Parker and Duncan were both able to be limited to 29 minutes of action.
That’s because, after Parker and Duncan went to the bench for a rest at the end of the 3rd Quarter (Spurs leading by 7), the Wolves got thumped by San Antonio’s short-handed second unit. The three-headed monster of Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson and Tiago Splitter led a dominant 4th Quarter that the Spurs won 28-17. Parker and Duncan iced their knees on the sidelines (just as we feared might happen), this time without Gregg Popovich’s company. Pop drew a quick double-tech and was sent to the showers with his team leading by 13 early in the fourth. Maybe he had dinner plans and wanted to beat traffic. Who knows. In any case, the Spurs won by 18 and dominated long stretches of this game. A few things that should give fans cause for alarm:
The Wolves had plenty of them. Coach Rick Adelman remained away from the team, for the second consecutive game, for undisclosed personal reasons. Without more (or any, really) information, I won’t comment other than to say I hope everything is okay with the Adelman Family and he comes back soon. Along with Adelman’s absence was the continued loss of Chase Budinger and Kevin Love. Love indeed does need to have surgery and the expected recovery time is 8 to 10 weeks. That means roughly 30 games. That means the Wolves need to figure out an alternative path to the playoffs that they have explicitly labeled as the team’s 2013 destination. J.J. Barea also sat out tonight with back spasms. You might recall that he dominated the 4th Quarter of the Wolves recent win over OKC. Along with absent players and coaches was the simple fact that the Wolves traveled last night and were playing on 0 nights rest. Their opponent, who also happened to be the best team in the conference, had not played since Monday; a night they lost to the lowly Wizards. Oklahoma City was certain to come out looking for blood in tonight’s game.
All of this is to say the Wolves were not favored to win. The excuses were built in.