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Wolves’ rare road win offers a temporary balm

The Minnesota Timberwolves won a game in unusual fashion Monday night in Cleveland. Of course any win is unusual for the Wolves lately — his 100-92 triumph over the Cavs was just their third in 18 games, and first on the road in six weeks — but rarer still is one accomplished by accurate outside shooting.

Led by Mickael Gelabale’s 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, the Wolves shot better than 50 percent from three-point territory for just the third time this season. As with the previous two — in Philadelphia and at home versus Atlanta — it propelled the team over an Eastern Conference opponent.

But the outside shooting wasn’t just limited to three-pointers. The Wolves excelled at the midrange game, that space outside the paint but inside the three-point arc, which normally produces sub-40 percent accuracy and is correctly regarded as the least efficient scoring area on the court.

On Monday, Minnesota sank half of its 28 attempts in this territory, which offset another mediocre shooting performance in the paint, where 60 percent is below normal. Here, Minnesota was just 17-of-33.

There are a variety of factors that played into this shooting dynamic, starting with the way opponents are defending center Nikola Pekovic, who with Kevin Love injured is the Wolves’ only genuine low-post threat. At halftime of a horrid loss to Memphis on Sunday night, coach Bill Bayno (by far the most interesting and erudite talker of the Wolves’ suited crew of assistants) lamented that the Grizzlies were packing down in the paint against Pek, denying both touches and good positioning for the big man. Sure enough, Pek managed to put up only two shots in the middle two quarters (he didn’t play the fourth) and five overall en route to a miserable 8-point, 6-rebound performance in 30 minutes.

The Cavs sought to do the same thing the very next night, with initially strong results. Pek had four of his shots blocked in the first quarter alone (he was 2-for-7 in the period), an embarrassing stat for any low-post behemoth. At the 8-minute mark of the second quarter, the Wolves’ announcers revealed that Minnesota had converted only 4-of-16 shots in the paint, a ridiculous 25 percent.

Ah, but unlike Memphis, Cleveland lacks stalwart backcourt defenders who are quick and tenacious enough to bother Pek down low and then scramble out to disrupt Minnesota’s perimeter game. Cleveland also lacks the skillful savvy but still brutish bulk that Memphis boasts in center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph, who forced Pek to wear himself out on defense, especially in the high post — where he is far more vulnerable defensively — guarding Gasol.

When Pek returned for his second stint of the night with 4:37 left in the first half on Monday, those Cavs deficiencies contributed to a 14-0 Wolves run that erased a six-point deficit and increased Minnesota’s confidence about grabbing their first road win without Love since November 12.

With Pek on the bench, the Wolves shot just 4-of-12 with no trips to the free throw line in the first 7:23 of the quarter. With Pek in the game, those numbers flipped to 4-of-6 from the field and 7-of-7 from the line in 4:37. On offense, Pek set picks on the perimeter and drew defenders down low. On defense, he forced two turnovers — blocking a shot for one (because he crushed the ball into Kyrie Irving’s hand it was ruled a steal) and causing a baseline driver to step out of bounds by rotating well for another.

It also helped during this stretch that the Wolves had length in the backcourt with the 6-4 Ricky Rubio and the 6-6 Alexey Shved. With Pek as their insurance in the paint, this pair helped to hound Cavs’ rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters into four turnovers in that 4:37 span, and the resulting points out of transition was a catalyst in their run.

In the third quarter, the Wolves played their starters and relied on their bread and butter for offense. They scored a dozen points in the paint on 6-of-8 shooting, led by Pek (3-of-4) and Derrick Williams (2-of-3). D-Will also nailed a three-pointer, got to the free throw line four times (making three), grabbed four rebounds, blocked a shot and doled out an assist without a turnover in his 11:24. This was after being dominated by fellow second-year man Tristan Thompson while racking up three fouls to limit his time to just 4:45 in the first half. More on Williams — because there is always more to be said about this enigmatic talent — in a future column.

Fourth-quarter resilience

The Wolves headed into the final stanza up by seven, 72-65, a small comfort to fans who are emotionally if not cognitively aware that the team has blown nine fourth-quarter leads this season, tops in the NBA. And after the Cavs scored six straight points in 95 seconds to open the period, it looked like collapse No. 10 was in the offing.

But coach Rick Adelman made an adjustment, and his counterpart for the Cavs, Byron Scott, didn’t respond in time. Adelman pulled a dinged-up and ineffective J.J. Barea and swingman Gelabale (who had one of his best games in a Wolves uniform) and went with his three-guard lineup, inserting his starting backcourt of Rubio and Luke Ridnour alongside Shved. Scott kept his starters, Irving and Waiters, on the bench in favor of Wayne Ellington and Shaun Livingston, with another bench player, C.J. Miles, as the swingman. Scott likewise kept his backup front court of Marreese Speights and Luke Walton in the game. Even without Irving, this was a fairly potent offensive quintet. Defensively? Not so much.

Luke Ridnour
REUTERS/Mike CasseseLuke Ridnour

What followed was a succession of possessions emphasizing drive-and-kick plays out of dribble penetration mixed with rapid ball movement by Minnesota. It repeatedly resulted in power forward Dante Cunningham being left wide open for his patented midrange jumper. He nailed three straight and tossed in an assist over a stretch of 2:18 to keep the Wolves up, now by three, 84-81, with 6:36 to play. 

At this point Scott inserted Irving, a budding superstar and premier fourth-quarter closer. But the dirty secret about Kyrie Irving is that he is a horrible defender. You want some people who can compensate for that flaw alongside him on the court, especially when the opponent is playing three guards, and especially when Irving had wrenched his ankle at the end of the first half and seemed a little compromised in his movements. Scott chose to keep Ellington on the court as Irving’s backcourt mate. Wolves fans know all too well that Ellington is slow-footed. Scott chose to stick Ellington on Rubio and put Irving on Ridnour, with the 6-4 Miles guarding the 6-6 Shved.

Ridnour promptly abused Irving for three midrange jumpers in 2:13, bumping the lead up to nine, 92-83, with 3:55 to play. The easy second-guess is to have the taller, rangier Livingston, or even Ellington, on Ridnour, daring the less accurate shot of Rubio to beat Irving’s defense. Also, when Rubio sat briefly with his fifth foul, Scott could have countered the insertion of Gelabale with his starting small forward Alonzo Gee, a far better option than the overrated Miles.

The charitable counter-argument is that Scott has no good options for perimeter stoppers. The Cavs are last in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage — they are collectively shooting 47.7 percent on Cleveland. Ridnour and Cunningham happen to be Minnesota’s best midrange shooters and they spearheaded an amazing 9-for-11 performance by the Wolves from that distance in the fourth quarter and 12-for-16 overall in that final period.

When you shoot that well, you can overcome 20 turnovers and your opponent shooting 50.6 percent on the evening. You can forget about how the Knicks casually turned it on in the final three minutes of the game to seal your defeat in your last home game, or how the Grizzlies thumped you with superior talent and energy. You can feel good about yourself and your silver linings — currently limited to the heightened minutes and better rhythm of Rubio and the smooth groove of Ridnour’s current shooting stroke — at least until Wednesday’s home game against Utah gives you time off for the All Star Weekend break.

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Comments (9)

Shown above playing is a

Shown above playing is a player who didn't play. :*) You can't fool me!

Great piece as always. It's enough to help get me through winter....sitting here...looking at the beautiful snow... and dreaming about a day -- not far off -- in which a full squad hits the outside shots...and the inside game flourishes.

It seems so close. and yet...

Gelabale

I'm a sucker for small sample size bursts, but I'm beginning to think Gelabale fills a need -- and fills it pretty well -- as a floor spacing wing who doesn't need the ball, but can quickly catch and shoot 3's. He's playing about like we hoped Wes Johnson would've, once it quickly set in that Wes didn't have star potential. These numbers could plummet fast, due to the small sampling, but he's hitting 57% of field goals and 46% of threes. He seems to be the one Timberwolf, in Budinger's absence anyway, who recognizes that the corner is the place to be if you want a high 3PT%. Ricky is notoriously great at finding corner shooters, which makes this doubly effective.

Anyway, I'm not as excited as I probably sound. We're talking about a limited role player after all. But it's a role that the roster can't fill with the likes of tiny points cast as 2's, or Alexey Shved who plays offense more like a point than a wing. When Kirilenko gets back, I wouldn't mind seeing some Ricky-Gelle-AK rotations at the 1-2-3. That catch-and-shoot player is pretty essential next to Rubio (or Shved). Much like Dante at the elbow, Gelle in the corner is a great place for Wolves dribble penetrators to get themselves out of trouble.

Great game recap.

Big 2s!

Andy G--

I am a sucker for big shooting guards, especially after a season and a half of Barea and Ridnour at the 2. Shved is no catch and shooter, unfortunately, so I share your Gelabale enthusiasm despite his frequent confusion on the court (especially at the beginning of his stints) and his really unreliable defense.
I have two problems with Adelman that I will probably write about in the near future. One is his insistence on ball-handlers in the backcourt; the other is his snap judgements on some players, like Williams and Chris Johnson. It would seem Gelabale collides with both of his prejudices--he is a lousy ball-handler and a new guy who isn't a reliable commodity--but thus far he seems to have found favor. Who knows why.

Thanks again Minnpost

...for all the Wild coverage.

You're welcome

Thanks for using your time so wisely by stopping by.

Pluggin' Away

Hey folks--

Just thought I'd mention a couple of things of interest, beginning with a collection of Kevin Garnett highlights that Zach Harper has annotated over at A Wolf Among Wolves http://www.awolfamongwolves.com/2013/02/kevin-garnetts-top-10-plays-of-h...
part of ESPN's True Hoop network and a must stop for any Wolves fan.
There are a ton of great Wolves sites around and I apologize in advance for the ones I skip, but three I want to highlight are A Wolf Among Wolves, which is extremely well written by three guys with whom I kibbutz at Wolves home games (still miss the departed Myles Brown tho); the ever fabulous Canis Hoopus site (canishoopus.com) founded by Stop n Pop and Wyn and one of the best fan-based sites in all the NBA; and Punch Drunk Wolves (punchdrunkwolves.com) run by Andy G (a frequent and invaluable commenter here and at my other past writing endeavors) and Patrick, who come up with fresh takes before and after most every game. I've also noticed that Punch Drunk, be it Andy or Patrick, has some of the best in-game twitter comments, for those who enjoy commentary as they view.

Anyway, three sites, among many other solid Wolves-related stops, that are well worth your time and good for my and probably your basketball IQ.

I feel compelled to post despite not seeing much

Especially since it focused so much on the strategic components of the game :). They seem to be more competitive on the road when they can score against an unset defense, and the stretch in the second quarter I saw fit that description.

Obviously, most of my information about this game is statistical, but it shows a progression in Rubio that I noticed late last month. Watching him in warmups vs. New Jersey, I thought that something had changed for the better, and his play since then has indicated that as well. When he's in control of a game, he's like a maestro guiding a symphony, with the ball on a string and thinking a step ahead of the opponent. It hasn't translated much into wins, but the numbers and the eye test match up.

As for Gelabale/small lineups/Adelman: I've been beaten down by every coach this franchise has employed besides Flip (even Dwane Casey to a certain extent) that I'm willing to give Adelman a pass on the way he does things. More often than not and more than most coaches, it works. Tom Haberstroh's "Book On Rick Adelman" on espn.com was really interesting and seemed spot on with other scattered thoughts about him.

Above all else, I think he wants guys on the floor who will be where they're supposed to be, mostly for the benefit of the other guys on the floor. My guess is that, with limited practice time, it's more difficult to run their rotation schemes and all of their sets when either Johnson or Gelabale is on the floor. When the current strength of the team is the coach, it's probably better to not figuratively tie a hand behind his back. The extra ballhandler seems more of a necessity because their offense is mostly guard-generated instead of set-generated and Gelabale doesn't set up other people. Budinger worked well as a 2 guard because they ran much more disciplined sets early in the season, and he knew the ins and outs of Adelman's offense so well that dribbling wasn't a huge concern. Roy was also a very effective passer in his $1 million per game Wolves career.

With Johnson, Stiemsma is a better post defender and help defender who sets better screens and knows all the sets. I think they should explore trading Stiemsma to see if he has any value beyond a mid-2nd round pick and then give more time to Johnson, but if they're both on the roster, I get why the minutes are allocated the way they are. His success against Houston largely centered around outhustling a fatigued team with a skinny center that was fouling left and right (the team, not the center).

With Williams, Jim Petersen tweeted early in the season that he had more than 17 defensive breakdowns in one game. He's probably getting better, and I'd support them gauging Cunningham's value to redistribute their assets a little bit and open up PT for Williams once Love gets back. With that said, there's at least justification for the times he sits. Young talent should be allowed to freelance, but they can't be on a different page than the other 4 on the floor. Also, we see the number of plays Williams makes offensively, but I wonder how he stacks up to Cunningham if both offense and defense are counted. Cunningham is only 25, after all, and could still improve his post defense and his outside shooting (he shoots and makes a lot of corner 3s during warmups), so he should at least be lumped in with the other young talent they have.

Good stuff as always PSR

I get it about Adelman--I too am a fan, and wrote a pretty laudatory piece about how underrated he was when I first started with SI.com three years ago. Gregg Popovich recently called him the game's most underrated coach and that's pretty high praise, since Pop is by consensus the best coach in the NBA.
What I like about Johnson is contagious energy, which unfortunately is going to become more and more crucial as the playoffs go from pipedream to mathematical denial. I also love his second jump; he gets up really quickly after being deked out the first time. I also think there are times when the Wolves could go supersized and play him at the 4 and Cunningham at the 3 to give Kirilenko the rest he needs. Yeah, you'd need Rubio on the court to facilitate, but it could work in that case, especially with Shved at the 2. Now that's a big lineup. Besides, I've always liked Williams and Stiemsma together, so long as the Steamer stays at home a little more frequently and D-Will pays attention the way he was in Nov and Dec on defense.
What I'd say about Cunningham is that I absolutely love his game--he too has contagious energy--but that his ceiling isn't as high as Williams'. Of course his floor isn't as low either. But again, given the current circumstances, I think the purpose of this year is to develop and/or decide on the long-term viability of your highest upside, so that you can make a legitimate playoff run next season when all the big guns are back and healthy.

That's fair

FWIW, I like Johnson, and that Houston game was one of the most fun/unusual Wolves games I've ever been to (second to Love's 30/30 game that the Wolves came back from down 20 in the 3rd with Sundiata Gaines as the backup PG). He's further ahead than Gelabale since he was in camp with the team, so maybe I'm underestimating what he knows. Adelman frustrates me at times, but what I usually go back to when questioning his decisions is that he knows what's best for his players and seems to mainly require that they're accountable to each other. Any of us who's played basketball knows how frustrating it can be to be on the floor with guys who aren't doing what they're supposed to. Pop is obviously the best, but Adelman's right there with Carlisle and Thibodeau and above pretty much everyone else (Bill Simmons mentioned early in the season that maybe the popular opinion about George Karl being a great coach is better applicable to Adelman).

Developing young players is a tricky thing to me. Unless they're athletically superior, how undisciplined can they be allowed to play? Williams' leaping ability is shown when he's not contested at the rim, but the elite athletes put their defender into the net when challenged at the rim (heck, even Stoudemire did that vs. Stiemsma). Every report indicates he's working hard, and he deserves a chance to play. Ultimately, I think they need to move one of them, and I'd prefer it be DC because of the uncertainty over Love's future, but right now Williams plays a lot and he gets a fair share of opportunities on offense. I don't see any problem as long as he's in for 20+ minutes.