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Can the Wolves continue to exploit their good luck?

J.J. Barea
J.J. Barea

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ home victory over the Orlando Magic Wednesday night bore a striking resemblance to the team’s opening-night home win over the Sacramento Kings. Almost immediately the opponent exhibited profound dysfunction as the Wolves coasted to an early lead — and then stopped executing with teamwork and purpose before belatedly lowering the throttle to pull away in the second half.

As poorly as Sacramento played in Minnesota’s opener, especially on defense, at least the Kings had some raw talent that compelled respect and occasional reckoning. Not so Orlando.

The Magic are in a full-scale but rather clumsy rebuilding mode after dumping their two best players (superstar center Dwight Howard and forward Ryan Anderson) for a surprisingly low fraction of their value. Among the skeletal crew that remains, three of the team’s would-be starters are out with injuries, and one of them, Jameer Nelson, is the team’s only serviceable point guard.

Thus, for the second home game in a row, the Wolves really didn’t have to contend with any cohesive set plays. For the Kings, it was a stylistic choice — their best players are chaotic freelancers. But for the Magic, with Nelson out, they simply don’t have anyone who can effectively choreograph even the rudiments of a half-court offense. As a result, Orlando shot only 32.4 percent and committed a dozen turnovers in the first half on Wednesday — yet they still only trailed by four points.

In fact, the Wolves were only up by five with two minutes to play in the third period. A 19-4 run over the next four and a half minutes sealed the win, with combo guard J.J. Barea again providing the crucial gusto before limping to the sidelines with a sprained foot. After four games, Barea’s efficiency is up — he’s shooting less but scoring more on a per-minute basis, and using his trademark energy to get teammates involved. In the final 100 seconds of the third period on Wednesday, he had a steal and fed backup center Greg Stiemsma for two layups and a midrange jumper to ignite the decisive rally. My skepticism about his value to the team is becoming less righteous. Now if he can only stop getting dinged up.

Schedule gets a tad tougher

With both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the sidelines and a batch of new players still learning how to play together, the Wolves have every reason to be ecstatic about a .750 win percentage after four games. Under the circumstances, a fast start fosters confidence in coach Rick Adelman’s teamwork-oriented system, especially since every member of the current t10-player rotation has meaningfully contributed to at least one of the three victories.

That said, the Wolves are a very flimsy 3-1 team, having benefited from an extremely favorable early schedule and circumstance.  If anything, the home wins against patsies like Orlando and Sacramento should have been more decisive. On the road, the Wolves were pummeled by a Toronto team that as of Friday morning hadn’t won another game, and staged a stirring second-half comeback against Brooklyn (their best opponent to date) in large part because the Nets play lousy defense and grew overconfident on offense after dominating the first half with little effort.

The good news is that Minnesota couldn’t ask for a better set of circumstances for their upcoming schedule. It is time for this team to test itself against stiffer competition, but not so rugged that they get blown out of the gym, as would probably happen against the Heat, Spurs and a handful of other opponents. It so happens that three games in the next four days — home Friday against Indiana, then on the road versus Chicago on Saturday and Dallas on Monday — provide just the right dose of diluted rigor.

All three opponents have reached the playoffs the past two seasons and continue to set high expectations for themselves. But each of them has been waylaid by a significant knee injury to its “face of the franchise” star, and is still figuring out how to cope with his absence. (The Wolves will match their woe with Rubio’s knee and raise them Love’s broken hand.) Even so, all three teams retain a solid core of accomplished veterans, solid-to-great coaches, and a purposeful, winning attitude.

It would not be shocking if the Wolves won or lost all three games, although obviously the greater likelihood is a less extreme result. What is certain is that we will know a lot more about the mettle of this Wolves team sans Love and Rubio on Tuesday morning than we know now. Here is a thumbnail preview of the three game matchups.

Friday: Indiana Pacers here

Many pundits believed the Pacers would be the second-best team, behind only Miami, in the Eastern Conference. But they have started slowly, with a record of 2-3, and have learned that the knee injury sidelining their veteran star and leading scorer Danny Granger will take nearly three months to overcome.

Last year, they were one of only four teams (the Bulls, Heat and Thunder were the others) to rank among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (measured as points scored or allowed per possession). Thus far this season, while the Indiana defense remains solid (sixth in fewest points allowed per possession), the offensive has plummeted to 27th. Missing Granger is certainly a factor here, but as a team, the Pacers have committed the second-most turnovers and aren’t getting to the free throw line as frequently. One obvious scapegoat is third-year swingman Paul George, regarded as an emerging star, but currently committing over four turnovers per game and shooting much less accurately than he did a year ago.

Potentially key matchups: Even before Granger’s absence, power forward David West has been the most reliable offensive force for Indiana since his arrival last season. Derrick Williams will have his hands full coping with West, an extremely crafty scorer. At center, both teams deploy freakish physical specimens — Nikola Pekovic for his granite-like mass, the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert for his 7-2 height — but both are much more agile and nuanced than their appearance suggests. If one or the other gets in foul trouble it will be significant.

Saturday: Minnesota at Chicago

The Bulls are expected to be without 2011 MVP Derrick Rose for most or all of this season, likely putting the two-time reigning top playoff seed in the East down in the middle, if not the bottom, of the playoff pack. But under coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls are still hellacious defenders — it is the Rose-less, 19th-rated offense that is the problem. Nevertheless, they have started 3-2 and are a proud, disciplined bunch who will be playing at home, where they gave the elite Thunder all they could handle before falling Thursday night.

Potentially key matchups: Unlike the preseason, I expect Thibodeau to put his best interior defender, Yoakim Noah, on Pekovic but also rotate frequently because Noah gives up more than 50 pounds to Pek. If Noah is hitting his quirky midrange jumper, it will be a big edge for the Bulls. At off-guard, Chicago’s Rip Hamilton is a perpetual motion machine, making him a tough matchup for Brandon Roy, although Roy has the size to make him pay at the other end of the court. And once again Derrick Williams figures in a significant matchup, as power forward Carlos Boozer is by far the weak link in Chicago’s defense, and D-Will has the athleticism to make him pay — so long as he knows that ball movement is also crucial against the Bulls’ swarming defense.

Monday: Minnesota at Dallas

I infamously said the Mavericks were on the verge of collapse in my preseason NBA preview — even without their clear-cut superstar Dirk Nowitzki, they are 4-1 and rank among the league’s top five offenses. Freed from the limitations of sixth-man status in Memphis, off-guard O.J. Mayo is shooting 50 percent overall and making more than 60 percent of his three-pointers while averaging nearly 22 points per game. Coach Rick Carlisle is one of the best chalkboard guys in the NBA, and has used Vince Carter effectively off the bench. Dallas figures to be one of the three or four teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the West, so strategically this is the most important game of the trio.

Potentially key matchups: Roy on Mayo at the off guard will be interesting. Pekovic could have a big night, as he is too strong for the Mavs’ Chris Kaman. For basketball geeks, watching Adelman and Carlisle match wits will be a treat, especially with patchwork starting lineups and surprisingly (thus far) successful benches at their discretion. Of course by Monday night, the Wolves will have played half as many additional games as the ones they have currently logged, and the equations and matchups will well have taken on a different tinge. Even so, this should be an entertaining — and especially revealing — tussle.

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Comments (4)

I kinda feel for the Pacers -

I kinda feel for the Pacers - Paul George really can stand out but needs a quality vet like Granger to draw the tougher defensive perimeter player. But they took a step sideways by letting Collison go and replacing him with DJ Augustin - and if your big offseason splash is giving $10 million to Gerald Green, I can't say you're moving in the right direction.

And I came to this conclusion awhile ago, but I'm apparently the last person on Earth who thinks Carlos Boozer is a decent basketball player. Sure, he gets caught out of position sometimes (and is probably a bit overpaid), but his communication on defense enables that team to thrive. He's like KG but without the activity level - always talking, and it gives his teammates confidence. If I'm playing pickup hoops at the gym, I want the player who calls out screens on my team because it makes me a better defender too. Plus he's a good defensive rebounder, which is the oft-overlooked final stage in a defensive sequence. I'll concede that he's not great on-the-ball (wasn't that the name of one of your blogs at some point, Britt?), and I hope Williams or AK takes full advantage of that.

And it's almost cliche to say it at this point, but I think AK has to continue to be our best all-around player for us to take 2 of the next 3 games. If his defensive disruption can get us a few easy transition hoops, we should be in good shape. And while I don't think Pek is overmatched in any particular game, Hibbert, Noah, and Kaman are all capable on-ball defenders with size, and I expect him to be swarmed, but none of those centers are great defensive rebounders (though all are better than Pek), so he should be able to get some second-chance buckets.

I see the upcoming games as an opportunity for an Adelman specialty - the old mix-and-match guard combos. None of our upcoming opponents have a guy who you absolutely have to stick (or who is a lockdown defender), so I think we'll see quite a bit of tinkering if things aren't clicking early.

Mayo

We're well within small-sample-size caveat territory, but I'm interested by Mayo's fast start. Memphis had such a clear identity of pitbull defenders--Tony Allen, Mayo's starting-lineup replacement, leading the way--and Mayo never quite fit into what Hollins was [successfully] orchestrating.

Carlisle is one of the best. Mayo will never perform at Kevin Love's level, but he might live up to lottery-pick status.

What do you think?

Great stuff to agree and argue with

Thanks for rejoining on one of my least provocative columns--an unfortunate byproduct of occasionally just calling it like you see it.

Anton--We have to agree to disagree about Boozer. I'm hoping AK has a long talk with both Williams and Cunningham because to my eyes, Boozer plays exactly the same way, except slower, as he did in Utah (maybe even Cleveland) before coming to Chicago. To my eyes, the problem is either distraction or an exceeding slow motor, but his first response step on defense always seems a split-second delayed--just enough to get you beat. The two games I've seen this season, Gibson instead of Boozer was in at crunch time. If Noah doesn't slide over and deny Williams, he might actually finish a drive or two and build some confidence being guarded by Boozer. On the other hand, Boozer remains one of the game's most deadly midrange shooters and a force on the boards (you were right about that) at both ends of the court.
I don't think AK is going to go off very much vs the Bulls--not with Luol Deng on him. AK is a poor man's Deng, but he's playing so well right now that I imagined the matchup as pretty much of a push and thus didn't cite it in the column.
The reason I downgraded the Pacers in my preseason preview is because they were extraordinarily healthy last season and also got a career year from Hibbert, a player I personally had never before associated with consistency. I assumed Hibbert would take a small step backward this season and that health would sabotage the roster. That said, there is a lot of talent there. I think George can be a shutdown wing defender--in fact often is a shutdown wing defender. It is offense where I see him struggle and where I believe he misses Granger more, although I'll admit Granger was very good defensively last season.

Andy--
I did a piece on Mavs' improved defense two years ago at SI.com and at that time came to really appreciate Carlisle, who in many ways is similar to Adelman--he's creative and outspoken without calling a lot of attention to himself, preferring to have the story be about the players. But what he did with Dirk and Jason Terry was tremendous on defense. He also resurrected the careers of Shawn Marion and especially Tyson Chandler, who literally forgot how to play defense when he went to Charlotte. Just a great coach and from my limited contact a pretty good dude too.
You're right about Hollins and Mayo not meshing. Hollins is like Flip Saunders--he instinctively doesn't trust the three-pointer and downgrades it in his personnel evaluations. I think Mayo's fate was semi-sealed when he had that fight with Tony Allen at the same time he was heavily involved in trade rumors and (not coincidentally) taking a step back in his performance. The new environment has helped him considerably. The one positive I would offer to Wolves fans is that Mayo doesn't usually play big despite his bulk. Unless Carlisle is posting him up more (which is possible, haven't seen enough of the Mavs), I think Shved and even Ridnour can be used on him, getting to that crazy quilt guard rotation thing Anton referred to.

I'll be checking in throughout the weekend if folks want to kick stuff around, although that is assuming someone from Minnpost is around to green-light the comments. My next column will be Tuesday, as I'm leaving Mondays to the Vikes and Klobuchar until the end of the concussion season.

2 points of contention

Yes, they're lucky they've avoided top-tier teams, but I think in being critical of one's own team, that can lead to underestimating that team and overestimating the opponent. SnP said this a while ago over at CH, but effort is a skill. I'd add that focus is also one. With both of those, another team losing focus and effort could be more a flaw with their team that the Wolves exploited than a momentary lapse. Sometimes, a team wins by catching a team on a bad night, especially in a long season; I don't see that as the case here.

On a smaller level, I don't see how AK47 takes a back seat to Deng. Deng is more durable and an equivalent defender, but AK is a better shotblocker; offensively, Deng is mostly a moderate-efficiency finisher, while AK is a high-efficiency creator. His start to the season is above expectations in that he hasn't missed any games, but many stats guys foresaw him, when on the court, being a high-caliber player and possibly the 2nd-best guy on the team, even at this age.