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The Wolves triumph at the free throw line while waiting for Rubio

The Minnesota Timberwolves have played just one game in the past six nights, a rare December oasis in the schedule. The break has enabled the team’s two injured stars, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, to get reconditioned and reacquainted with both each other and the upgraded roster personnel in a relatively leisurely and luxurious manner at this point in the season.

Love notoriously broke his shooting hand doing knuckle push-ups on Oct. 17 and was originally estimated to miss six to eight weeks because of the injury. This Wednesday will be exactly eight weeks since it happened, but Love bum-rushed his way back into action in five weeks, beginning Nov. 21 versus Denver. Since then, he has performed with the sporadic splendor of a uniquely gifted performer trying to regain his equilibrium.

The Wolves, who were 5-4 in his absence, are 4-5 since his return. The careening caliber of his play thus far is encapsulated in his last two games. Against the Celtics in Boston last Wednesday, he was throttled by Kevin Garnett and company into a 6-for-15 shooting performance that included just three baskets in six attempts right at the rim and a 1-for-5 display of clanking from three-point territory.

That’s not so different than Love’s overall numbers thus far this season — he’s shooting just 38.2 percent from the field and 21.6 percent from long range — and he acknowledged that the broken hand has affected his stroke.

Meanwhile, he was looking even more inept at the other end of the court, particularly during Boston’s decisive third-quarter surge when Brandon Bass befuddled him with fundamental midrange jumpers and baseline drives to the hoop.

“He was frustrated with his offense and he let that affect his defense,” says assistant coach Bill Bayno, whose emphasis is the Wolves’ defense. “But that’s just part of his road to maturity. He came back and played really well in the last game and has been really good in practice since then.”

Indeed, Friday night against Cleveland, with star points guards Kyrie Irving of the Cavs and Rubio of the Wolves both sidelined with injuries, the marquee matchup of the evening involved Love against Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, the NBA’s leading rebounder this season, who, like Love, is known for his blue-collar work ethic.

Love annihilated Varejao, who came into the game averaging 15 points on better than 50 percent shooting, and finished with just 4 points while going 2-for-10 from the field. He did outrebound Love by a narrow 14-13 margin, a statistic dwarfed by the 34 points put up by Love, who overwhelmed a succession of Cleveland big men.

Initially, the assignment belonged to Tristan Thompson, as Cavs coach Byron Scott tried to keep Varejao out of foul trouble by cross-matching him against Nikola Pekovic at Cleveland’s defensive end. But eventually Varejao, Tyler Zeller and Samardo Samuels all had their fruitless stints trying to contain Love. At the end of the night, Thompson, Varejao and Zeller were all saddled with five fouls (Samardo added another two in just 6:49 of action) and Love had taken a whopping 18 trips to the free throw line, double the amount amassed by the entire Cavaliers team.

Perfecting the art of not fouling

The Love-generated dominance by Minnesota at the free throw line was the blatant reason for the Wolves’ victory. Cleveland matched Minnesota in field goals made (30) and points in the paint (38), was only minus-1 in fast break points (14-13) and minus-2 in second-chance points (12-10) and actually bested the Wolves in three-pointers made, 7-to-4. But Minnesota shot 27-for-35 from the line, compared with Cleveland’s 6-for-9, a 21-point difference in a game decided by 18 points.

After the game, Byron Scott ripped the officials for the disparity in fouls and free throws between the two teams, to the point where he was fined $25,000 by the NBA for his criticism. While his rant was understandable under the circumstances, the free throw disparity wasn’t an aberration for Minnesota. In fact, as I mentioned last Thursday, it’s been a secret key to the Wolves’ success thus far this season.

Only two teams, the Lakers and Thunder, generate more free throws than the 27.1 per game amassed by the Wolves (and the Lakers’ total is highly inflated by their opponents’ desire to send terrible free-throw shooter Dwight Howard to the line). And no team in the NBA limits teams to less than 20 free throws per game other than Minnesota at 19.78. The Wolves’ ability to avoid fouling is a significant reason why the team now ranks second only to Memphis in defensive efficiency (fewest points allowed per opponents’ possession).

“That’s been one of our goals since training camp,” says Bayno of the team’s “no foul, no harm” style of defense. We talk about contain and contest: You want to keep the man in front of you and just give up contested jump shots.

“But I think the biggest thing is preventing what we preach the players should do on offense: If you get contact, what we call ‘shoulder hits,’ you keep driving and use your inside shoulder. If you’re going right, [you would lead with] your left shoulder and if you’re going left it would be your right shoulder.

“And so conversely, when teams try to shoulder-hit us, we talk about getting off the body and just standing tall.” Here Bayno thrusts his shoulders back and puts his arms directly over his head. “We don’t bail them out by staying aggressive. Once they hit you, then you’ve got to back off a little and try to force a floater instead of fouling them every time by staying aggressive. I think we have smart players who have picked up on that.”

This is an especially shrewd strategy at a time when the NBA is making a conscious effort to reduce both flopping by defensive players trying to draw the charge and glaring aggression by offensive players simply trying to draw the shooting foul. Bayno agreed with my observation that forward Dante Cunningham and center Nikola Pekovic are among the best on the team at this contest-and-contain, then straighten-up tall procedure, and added guards Luke Ridnour and Alexey Shved to the list.

Kevin Love
REUTERS/Eric MillerThe Kevin Love-generated dominance by Minnesota at the free throw line was the blatant reason for the Wolves' victory over Cleveland.

What about Andrei Kirilenko? The Russian marvel, clearly the Wolves’ wing stopper and best overall performer on defense, has committed a mere 16 fouls in the 14 games he’s played thus far this season, an astoundingly low number for someone with his activity and responsibility at that end of the court.

“That’s all AK,” Bayno responds. “That’s just him being in the league forever. He’s as smart a player as there is, just a crafty vet who knows how to play without fouling.”

Kirilenko essentially confirms this when asked about his lack of fouling. “We’re trying not to give them easy points from the free throw line. So for the most part, I’m only going to foul when it is really necessary,” he says, as if it were just that simple.

But there is another reason for AK’s special expertise here. For 10 seasons, he played under coach Jerry Sloan in Utah, and Sloan’s philosophy was to switch off as infrequently as possible on pick-and-rolls and other set plays by opposing offenses. Consequently, Sloan’s teams were chronically among the league leaders in fouls committed, and while Kirilenko remained remarkably foul-free compared with his teammates, it was less obvious relative to the rest of the NBA.

Now that impediment is gone and Kirilenko is rivaling the fouling infrequency of Tayshaun Prince in his prime, who was arguably the best in NBA history in this particular category among wing stoppers. As he puts it, “I think switching really helps because in Jerry’s system we always stayed with our man, and that causes a couple of fouls when you maybe have to grab your man or cheat a little bit because of the screen.”

Sloan’s system may also be responsible for Kirilenko’s distinctively choppy gait. Long strides are counterproductive to your center of gravity and abrupt change in direction when you are trying to fight through or around picks to stay with your man. Along with the mincing steps that have become his trademark, being a wiry 6-9 and an 11-year veteran certainly doesn’t hurt.

“He uses his length so well, and it is contagious,” Bayno says. He also epitomizes what head coach Rick Adelman describes as the reason for his team’s lack of fouls: “For the most part, we are getting our position early. We don’t have a lot of shot blockers but we take up room.”

The upcoming game against Denver on Wednesday will provide a stiff test of the team’s ability to limit free throws. Coach George Karl’s team is almost always among the NBA leaders in free throw attempts. In their first meeting in late November, the Nuggets got to the line 26 times and sank six more free throws to account for almost all of their victorious seven-point margin.

“They are a great shoulder-hit team,” Bayno says. “They really do a great job of creating and drawing contact.” When it was mentioned that Denver beat the Wolves last time by launching skip passes (floor-width feeds from side to side) over a packed-in defense and hitting three-point jumpers to loosen up the Wolves, he replies, “You have to live with that with Denver. You want to force them to beat you with the three and if they make a few, your adjustment isn’t just to spread out and open up the paint. It is to close out harder on the shooter. The last time they got a little bit of both out of us, penetrating, then hitting threes, then penetrating again when we spread out.

“People guard things a lot of different ways,” Bayno continued. “No matter what your schemes, the bottom line is taking the paint away and contesting shots. I think [the Wolves] have bought into that, which is why we are where we are.

“Right now we are trying to challenge them. We put the defensive stats up in the locker room every Friday. The free throw attempts are up there, and we do defensive rebounding, field goal percentage defense and then the cumulative of where we rank. So we are trying to motivate them to take pride in the fact that they are buying in and it is paying off.”

And on the horizon is a guy named Rubio, who will improve the Wolves in myriad ways that I’ll touch on in Friday’s column, on the cusp of his expected return sometime this weekend — either Friday in New Orleans, or, more likely, at home Saturday against Dallas. But for now, let Bayno explain how the floppy-haired Spaniard will elevate what is already an effective defense.

“On defense, Ricky is all over the place. He guards the ball, he guards the weak side, he digs in the post, he gets deflections. He does a good job of pressuring the ball without fouling and he contests every shot. Last season earlier in the year, he was cutting off the drive, but then wasn’t recovering and was what we call ‘late jumping.’ You want to stay down with the shot fake and once they jump, you jump so you don’t give up a blow-by. After about the first week of the season, he had adjusted and almost every shot he defended was contested.

“He learns something from the film, he does it immediately. He’s a special kid that way.”

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Comments (14)

Great piece, Britt. I

Great piece, Britt. I especially enjoyed the nuggets you were able to get from Bill Bayno in this piece.

Do you have any opinion either way on the TrueHoop proposals regarding "Hack-a-Dwight" and how fouls are sometimes rewarded as a tactic? In this piece (http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/52212/david-stern-vs-ludicrou...) Henry Abbott suggests the following rule change: "Allow the fouled team to decide if they'd like free throws, or possession of the ball."

Abbott and others at TrueHoop seem to view free throws as distinct from "basketball play." While the clock and player movement are stopped, I tend to view free throws as a part of the game. Has it ever existed without them?

Anyway, the Wolves have found a way--described brilliantly here--to use free throw rules on offense and defense as a comparative advantage over the rest of the league. No matter what one thinks about the entertainment value of free throws, or their relationship to clock-running basketball, I think having more ways to succeed or fail is ultimately good for the "competitive balance" sought by owners in the lockout.

foul shots

Andy--
Thanks as always for the kind words and intelligent, engaging feedback. Folks who don't already know should scroll through his criminally underrated blog, Punch Drunk Wolves http://punchdrunkwolves.com/ Some of his best stuff is his most personal, as when he wrote about the effrontery of second-guessing coach Rick Adelman, or his most recent piece, a widely sourced yet still personal essay entitled "Why Do I Care?" (about basketball, natch).

Anyway, I think the kind of fundamental rule change that Henry and True Hoop are talking about would have unintended consequences. Free throws would be diminished but so would elements of game strategy that are very much in the tradition of the sport. At its most fundamental level, basketball is about one's ability to put the ball through the hoop. Free throws are one of the purest extensions of that, and the best way to honor fouls. There is already a provision that changes the nature of fouls in the last two minutes of the game. That should be enough. In addition, terrible free throw shooters more typically tend to be big men, who conversely enjoy higher percentages of field goals. I like that symmetry.

Agree about the Wolves--it is a new feeling to have teams that can play smart. One of the problems with Flip Saunders' system was his reliance on midrange jumpers, which doesn't get you to the line enough.

Bayno is a great interview. He's forthright and open; if anything a little too laudatory and protective of his players, but I don't mind that--it is as it should be, probably.

I pretty much agree with

I pretty much agree with everything you say about overhauling free-throw rules. If the league wanted to crack down on bear hugging players who don't have the ball (perhaps allow the team to choose its foul shooter in that scenario) I wouldn't mind, but taking free throws out of it entirely seems extreme.

Thanks about the blog. We'll all have plenty to chew on in the coming days after the new column up on Yahoo from Adrian Woj about Kevin Love and David Kahn.

Woj and Love

Just got back in from an afternoon of errands and saw this thing with Woj about Love. Once again I'm really glad I have a "dumb phone" and didn't waste an otherwise very pleasant day on this.

The first thing that comes to mind is the timing is lousy, and reflects very badly on Love. What, you wanted to wait until right before the return of Ricky Rubio to vent? That makes a lot of sense, and certainly adds credibility to the notion that you are doing everything possible to help this ballclub point toward a playoff berth and potential championship run down the line. Or not.

The cynic in me thinks Love got played, found himself enmeshed in one of Woj's longstanding vendettas. I don't imagine Love expected the amount of vitriol Woj would ladle into the story toward Kahn and Taylor. I'm no apologist for anyone on this team, from Taylor to the ball boys, but I'm also no fan of toxic journalism exacerbating a tenuous situation that isn't going to be resolved for two years minimum anyway.

Did Kahn make a mistake not signing Love for the five years Love wanted? Yes, he did, and I told him so the first time I interviewed him after it happened. (By the way, that egregious act occurred months ago now.) It was during that interview that Kahn told me that Rubio would be getting the same offer, four years with a three-year option, that Love received, so either Kahn is lying to me--a possibility--or Woj (and Love?) are blowing an inaccurate angle out of proportion to further Love's martyrdom.

Any way you look at it, if you enjoy basketball from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the story stinks. One could look at Woj and say, "don't blame the messenger," and I'll take that position and give it up to Woj if Love is as forthrightly pissed in subsequent interviews on the topic as Woj makes him out to be in this piece. Otherwise, I'll look at the byline and make my own determination who is merely the messenger and who went out of his way to concoct the message.

Is that 3-year w/option thing a Kahn or Taylor invention?

I'm all for not overpaying role players, and the team's ability to avoid that with Randy Foye and turn him and "I hate playing here because I can't cheat on my wife as easily" Mike Miller into Rubio was a win-win. With that said, this isn't KG-level $ or contract length. Giving that $ to Love wouldn't have been something they'd regretted.

The understated aspect of all of this is how much Love does promotionally for this franchise. All of his videos are classics (I can't stop laughing at his coat drive sax video), and they're so silly in nature that I can't imagine most All-Stars doing them unless endorsement dollars are involved. He's so willing to be visible and has promoted a team that was, until recently, difficult to promote.

The only aspect from Kahn and Taylor (and the guy no one will or is supposed to talk about, Rob Moor) that makes a shred of sense in all of this is something the diehards don't acknowledge enough: Kevin Love by himself doesn't sell tickets. I know his return was a draw, but that arena only sells out when one player is in the lineup. To me, that's sad, considering how well the team stuck with it for the first 3 weeks of Rubio's injury; this team sans Rubio is still better than any team since '04 (though probably not better than any of the Saunders/KG playoff teams). It is what it is, though, and with so many fair-weather star-seekers buying NBA tickets, only Rubio will do. It's the main reason why they could justify keeping Rubio and letting Love go at some point.

Yes on ticket sales

Totally agree that Love is not a "draw" in the traditional sense. With KG, Taylor was shelling out astronomical dollars to get a perennial playoff contender, elite two-way player, respected leader, and (most importantly) entertaining ballplayer. The diehards who get together at blogs and message boards know that Love is worth the max, but you can't put 20K diehards in the arena every night.

I'm really hoping Britt is right and Love got played by an axe-grinding Woj (between him and Simmons, Kahn really has drawn the short-end of the national media stick). Bringing in veterans is what KG wanted for years, and when Taylor finally signed them, we went to the WCF. Does Love feel like he needs to be the most important presence/leader on this team? I'd be ecstatic to have proven professionals like Roy and AK in the locker room rather than taking a chance on a new rookie every year. But to flip that on its head and say it means this team doesn't have a vision is laughable.

But I've heard other rumors in that past about friction between Love and Kahn, even predating the contract extension. I get the impression that Love doesn't like a front-office guy who is more of a numbers guy than a hoops guy - demonstrated by a few squandered picks and by the dark Kurdt Rambis era. I've defended Kahn before, given he was tasked with the most unenviable of jobs - stopping the financial bleeding while trying to rebuild.

Pure speculation on my part - I wouldn't be surprised if that 3-year player-option has more to do with Taylor's attempts to sell the team than anything else. Getting stars is one thing, but having guaranteed deals on the books for 4+ years probably drives down the franchise value.

This post puts a lot of my thoughts into words

Their ability to win the free throw battle last year was the secret to their competitiveness from the time Pek became a starter to the time he and Love no longer shared the floor, and adding Kirilenko's strong FT/FGA numbers (and Roy's to a lesser extent) made it seem like even more of a strength this season. Just watching them put the Kings in the penalty by the 9 minute or 6 minute mark of each quarter in the opener laid bare their goals. It's what makes Pek such an underrated player and Love a top scorer.

What do you make of their struggles from the foul line? They were better last year, and it's probably cost them some games this year. It's the main thing holding them back from being an average offensive team. Rubio obviously improves their offense, but he's not the key to unlocking all of their issues.

Scott's comments obviously had a purpose to them, but if he really thought the main reason for the imbalance was anything other than the Cavs committing more fouls, he's wrong. Common ideas on fouls seem so misinformed: "you're not gonna get those calls in the playoffs," "any imbalance is due to favoritism," "don't let the refs decide the game." Here's the only wisdom needed: if someone's foul affects a person's ability to make a shot, it needs to be called. "Letting them play" only favors the guys who were gifted enough physically to put on more muscle or whose main goals are to irritate opponents.

erick sorenson

Like your stuff but the site doesn't allow profanity in the comments--your latest got rejected.

Just a note to all concerned: This is a pretty tightly restricted comments section. PSR, that means you're on thin ice with stuff about Miller's rumored off-court proclivities. In this case, while I don't make the rules, it doesn't kill me to abide by them--and to let you know when you run afoul.

Roger that

To summarize (without any S- or D-bombs):

Kahn/Taylor didn't need to tell the world they thought Kevin Love had limited upside. What possible benefit could come from it?

Likewise, what good does it do Love to complain publicly about the Wolves brass? Leverage is leverage ... In this case, I see no need for him to flaunt it. The only difference is that he's pretty young (and quite likely coddled/catered to) and probably doesn't know any better, whereas the GM/owner should definitely be more politically savvy.

The lesson? Just because you think something doesn't mean you need to say it. Kind of like writing curse words in the comments section ... :-)

Thanks Erick

Thanks for being a good sport--and a persistent commenter---about the rules around here.

Just got back from the Wolves game, and, sure enough, there was Love in the locker room afterwards emphasizing that he wasn't taking back anything he said, but also stressing that he said a lot of positive things about the Wolves and his current situation and expressing surprise that that side of the story wasn't included.

According to some of the media folks, he said essentially the same thing after practice this afternoon, so it wasn't a case of a bad game making him suddenly humble and thus changing his tune. As I suspected, the context of his interview with Woj got distorted to match Woj's agenda.

So it goes. Rubio will be back this weekend, they just beat a good Denver team with Love out of sorts with his shot and on defense, and happier times lie ahead. At least until the next flareup.

That Kid from Morehead State

Hey Britt. Just got back from tonight's Wolves game and wanted to know your take on the Faried/KLove match up. Number 42 seemed to have an especially hard time with him, especially in the first and beginning of the fourth. Surprised? Just a bad night? Or does Faried present a particular kind of challenge that we might see from other players?

Faried v Love

Hey Dave, welcome to the board. (He is a personal friend and former executive editor of the Utne Reader before they sold out and became just another pablum rag out of Kansas.)

Love has more difficulty with quickness than he does with brawn or persistence. It was just last week that he thoroughly outplayed Anderson Varejao of Cleveland, who happens to be the NBA's leading rebounder.
Faried is a highly effective player within his fairly narrow limits, which are that he is incredibly quick for someone his size and both a high and quick leaper. Put simply, he's a stud athlete. Kevin Love is not. He gets by on box-outs and luring his opponent outside, where he either overpowers them or shoots over them.
What happened last night was that Faried, who got torched in the first quarter of Love's return game on Nov. 21, was bound and determined not to have it happen again, and was primed from the outset. Meanwhile, Love missed a number of bunnies right beneath the hoop early in the game, and since his return has had a habit of allowing his offensive failures to affect the rest of his play. Although he denies it, Love may also have been pressing a little bit to avoid looking bad right after his comments against the front office and the team the previous day.
Put it all together and you do indeed get a game where Faried was clearly superior to Love. I wouldn't count on it being a regular occurrence, but I'm not shocked either.

While we're at it...

How fun to watch is Kenneth Faried?

The Manimal is a poor shooter and can get abused sometimes trying to defend the low block, but from a pure entertainment perspective the things he does well are top notch. The "go route" pass from either Miller or Lawson up to a streaking Faried never gets old.

Faried Fired Up

Thanks Britt. Makes sense, especially given the two players' mindset. I knew Love's deal yesterday, of course, but didn't see their previous match up, which does explain Faried's intensity. Given the way it was going, in fact, I was actually surprised Karl didn't play him even more, especially in the third. He was fun to watch. Alright....off to catch the Knicks v. Lakers....