Less than three minutes into the third quarter Monday night in Brooklyn, the notion of the Minnesota Timberwolves being competitive without injured stars Kevin Love and Rickey Rubio was being dismantled almost play by play. Minnesota was down 22 to the Nets at 71-49 just a night after being pasted by the Raptors in Toronto, 105-89. The non-quality win in Minnesota’s season opener — gift-wrapped to the Wolves via a horrific performance by the Sacramento Kings — suddenly seemed as if it would have to suffice as solace for the optimists.
If the preseason showed us anything, it is that, without Love and Rubio, Minnesota craves rhythm and flow at both ends of the floor if it is going to compete. Halting, tentative play had unleashed a rash of turnovers and produced shoddy perimeter defense in Toronto, and now poor spacing on offense and more shoddy perimeter defense was betraying them in Brooklyn.
Then the Nets got overconfident, the Wolves kept grinding, and coach Rick Adelman finally found players who could spread the floor and snap passes to each other on offense, and cluster and rotate in a rhythm born of universal trust and effort on defense.
Most of the time it was a generally small lineup — the constants were 6-8 forward Dante Cunningham, 6-7 swingman Chase Budinger and tiny dynamo J.J. Barea, who is generously listed as 6 feet tall, with the Russians Andrei Kirilenko (6-9) and Alexie Shved (6-6) also making key contributions. They locked into a frenetic pace that was just short of desperation, their spirits and sense of teamwork soon boosted by the realization that they were clearly outhustling the more talented Nets.
As often happens, their boomlet of energy became a team-wide contagion, and the Wolves went on a 58-25 tear in the final 21 minutes to win going away, 107-96.
For a team that turned over more than half its roster from a year ago and is currently trying to create a positive but temporary identity and pecking order while its stars are on the mend, Monday’s second-half eruption in Brooklyn was crucial for its attitude and momentum. It provided the franchise with a quality win on the road and sent them over .500 as they moved a week closer to Love’s and then Rubio’s return.
Concern about the starting lineup
For all those reasons, there will be no shortage of media extolling the Wolves’ virtues. I’ll close out with some brief huzzahs of my own, but first I want to focus on an area of concern that needs to be remedied or better accommodated if this goodwill is to continue.
It is no coincidence that the best stretches of Wolves basketball thus far this season have occurred when most of the starting lineup is on the bench. Right now, Brandon Roy, Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour are hurting this team more than they are helping it.
We begin with Roy, because among the three he is at once the most physically fragile and the most integral to the team’s playoff chances this season. Most of the negative buzz surrounding his play thus far has focused on his poor shooting (currently 29.2 percent, which includes an 0-for-8 performance from three-point range) and the five ugly turnovers he committed in the first half against Toronto. But Roy is easily capable of regaining his shooting rhythm, and his ball-handling is actually a strength — many of his 13 assists are of the gilded variety that lead to layups or otherwise hit the shooter right in stride, and he only has one other turnover in the entire season aside from that spate of miscues early versus the Raptors.
No, the real problem is that Roy no longer can move well enough to be even an adequate defender. The first play run by the Nets to start both halves Monday night was designed to have Roy’s man, Keith Bogans, shoot a corner three-pointer. Both times Bogans had all day to set up and successfully sink the shot.
On the evidence of the first three games, the flat fact is that Roy lacks the lateral quickness to both offer some resistance against dribble penetration up the middle and scamper over to the corner to defend the three-pointer — but both are fundamental responsibilities for any wing defender. Even with Andrei Kirilenko taking the more prolific scorer among the off guard and small forward — as he did Monday by guarding Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson — Roy is too often the weak link in the team defense.
On to Williams, whose role as the starter at power forward in Love’s absence was something of a surprise, given Adelman’s clear and warranted preference for Cunningham at that position. But like most everything Adelman does, the move is rooted in sound logic.
Starting Williams avoids the added controversy that would be generated if the second overall pick in last year’s draft couldn’t crack the lineup even with Love out. It gives Williams the support of playing beside an ace defender and unselfish ball-mover like Kirilenko, and a center like Nikola Pekovic, who often commands a double-team, freeing up room for D-Will. And it allows the coach to bring Cunningham’s superior energy and maturity off the bench and leave him in for crunch time.
Williams is trying mightily to fulfill his end of the equation. He has attempted only three shots from beyond the three-point arc, is constantly crashing the boards at both ends of the court, and seems to have dramatically improved his on-ball defense and slightly upgraded his awareness and facility on rotations and pick-and-roll defense. His play in the third-period against Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani Sunday evening was probably the best sustained stretch of defense thus far in his fledgling NBA career.
But even without the three-pointers, Williams’ shot-selection is dicey and his efficiency is terrible. He leads the team in the frequency of shots-per-minutes-played yet is making only 29 percent of them. One problem is that he is trying to satisfy the coaches’ demand to drive to the hoop and draw more fouls and is thus going up with more aggression and less finesse than is natural for him, resulting in a slew of point-blank misses. (Thus far, D-Will clanging shots hard off the backboard and rim and Roy futilely trying to close out on jump shooters are the two most recurrent signs of Wolves futility this season.)
I am going to assume Ridnour is still bothered by a bulging disc in his back. That’s the best explanation for why a player who last year battled larger and bulkier off-guards to a surprisingly successful degree is suddenly getting so easily frustrated and jostled off his game by point guards who are closer to his own size. Along with what seems to be his ginger physique, he hasn’t displayed enough quickness and maneuverability off the dribble to clear sight-lines for productive passes, furthering hindering his (and the team’s) ball movement.
Put bluntly, over half of the Wolves’ current starting lineup is either disadvantaged physically (Roy and Ridnour) or still learning to play the game (Williams). The situation would be even worse were it not for the sublime all-around performance of Kirilenko, the team’s obvious MVP thus far — he leads the Wolves in rebounds, assists, blocks (tied with Greg Stiemsma), minutes, field goal percentage and three-point percentage, as well as being the team’s best and most versatile defender.
Much of the credit for the team’s 2-1 start goes to Adelman, who has been juggling the rotation of his lineups like a caffeinated mad scientist. Television commentator Jim Petersen perceptively noted how Adelman reoriented his pick-and-roll plays to take advantage of matchups with the existing personnel on the floor during the second half of the Brooklyn game.
But it may be that he has to tinker with his standard rotations and not wait for the Wolves to fall behind (as happened in both of their wins) to respond. One option would be to slide Chase Budinger down to the off-guard and play Alexey Shved more at point guard. Both have excellent size at those positions, and the moves would lessen the burden on both Roy and Ridnour without having to start J.J. Barea, who, even more than Cunningham, is a welcome burst of energy off the bench thus far.
There are plenty of nice things to say about a lot of these Wolves — we haven’t given Pekovic, Budinger and, to a lesser extent, Shved the credit they deserve. That will have to come with Friday’s column, where we’ll review Wednesday’s Magic game and preview the upcoming weekend tilts. Meanwhile, please feel free to keep the conversation going in the comments section. It drives traffic for the MinnPost folks and makes me think more intelligently about the team.