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Timberwolves off to a scrappy, successful start

REUTERS/Mike Stone
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.

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.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by TJ Jones on 11/06/2012 - 11:07 am.

    Wolves

    Appreciate your insight, Britt. I’m not too concerned with Roy yet. Need to give him 15 games to get his game legs back. Best thing so far is not seeing Wes, Darko, and Beasley wasting minutes. We actually have professionals on the roster who know how to play the game.

  2. Submitted by E Steen on 11/06/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    Lots of questions

    Roy certainly is concerning. Some of that is bound to be rust, but defensively, you’re right. He knows where he needs to be and wants to be but can’t seem to get there. Going into this, I think anyone that’s paid attention knows there’s no way he’ll end up being the same explosive player he was before his injuries. That being said, he’s still really effective as a passer and I think his shooting will come around. His defense will likely improve as well (but he’ll never be a great one-on-one defender) when Rubio comes back, simply because Ricki is so active. And, he’ll get a lot more open looks and have to rely less on his diminished ability to create his own shot, as well.

    In terms of Shved, we’re going to see up and down performances as he gets used to the league. So, for every game like this, they’ll be a couple where he just won’t be effective offensively. That being said, if he can hustle on D like he did last night, he’ll be an incredibly important component even if he’s airballing them in from the 3 point like (like game 1).

    I also agree that Ridnour has to be hurt a bit. He just looks off.

    Budinger is every bit the player he was in Houston and will be incredibly valuable in replacing Wes Johnson’s minutes. Even when he’s not hot at the arc, he’s still able to drive to the basket and play decent one-on-one D (something Wes never figured out).

    I thought I was being realistic (if not a bit optimistic) when I was thinking the Wolves could stay around .400-.500 in this stretch without Love. I think the West is going to beat up on each other and, unlike a lot of folks who say the 8th seed with need 48+ wins to get in, that 7th or 8th seed may be gettable with 43-45 or so. So, even if we end up with a few weeks of .400-.500 ball, we’re still going to be in it. Once Rubio gets back (and if he doesn’t take a long time getting the rust off), I think the team is very capable of knocking out a 12 of 15 win streak or so in February/March.

  3. Submitted by Erick Sorenson on 11/06/2012 - 01:00 pm.

    The Russians (and Montenegrin)

    Kirilenko is extremely fun to watch. He is so engaged and always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

    Shved looked completely lost throughout games 1 and 2. I was beginning to wonder why he was getting so much burn. After last night’s performance it makes more sense. Here’s hoping he continues to acclimate to the NBA pace and has more stretches where he’s moving the ball and taking good shots, and fewer where he’s dribbling into traffic and throwing errantly across his body.

    Beyond simply point total (21) it seemed to me that Pek’s contribution last night, at least on offense, was pretty big. He may not have been on the court for most of the big run, but he seemed to score at will even when the rest of the squad couldn’t get anything done. If not for his performance, the Nets’ lead might have been insurmountable. I’m surprised how effective Pek is with what appears to be no hops whatsoever. His dunks are few and far between for a 6-11 guy.

  4. Submitted by Andy Grimsrud on 11/06/2012 - 01:04 pm.

    Roy, Kidd

    An interesting slow, shooting guard example in this year’s NBA is Jason Kidd–who is starting next to Ray Felton in New York. Kidd, for whatever reason, can defend shooting guards at almost 40 years old. He’s not quick anymore. Is that instincts, positioning, the Tyson Chandler safety net behind him, or maybe a combination of the three?

    I agree about Roy struggling on that end. I’m just wondering if it’s something that can be adjusted without magical German procedures, or if he’s reached a point on the athletic timeline that is even beyond an “old man” like Jason Kidd. I should point out that Kidd played some effective defense in the Mavs’ title run in 2011, so this isn’t a three-game sample size issue, I don’t think.

    Very, very fun game last night. Nice to see Shved break out in a big moment.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 11/06/2012 - 01:32 pm.

    Readiness

    Glad to see game-specific Wolves coverage again from you, Britt, even though I had to shed my old username (PSR) to comment.

    Though I watched little of last night’s game and most of the first two, I get what you’re seeing with which guys seem to be hitting the ground running. AK47, Barea, Budinger, Cunningham, Pekovic, and Stiemsma all seem there at this point, while the others might round into form by the time Love returns. Budinger impresses me so much as an offensive player; he’s much more offensively than a shooter. Folks were concerned that he lost his starting spot to Chandler Parsons last year, but it’s clear that McHale’s offense is algebra compared to Adelman’s calculus. He’s not a “just stand there and wait for the ballhandler to pass it” guy.

    Focus and discipline are obviously important for any team, but especially this crew because they have less margin for error and a lot of vets who know what they need to bring on every night. Many of their deficiencies are such that they can be minimized if the team is prepared to keep them minimized. More than anything, they need to keep the water out of the boat while Love is out. Their main strength this season will be dominating the FT differential, and they have enough guys to emphasize that without Love.

  6. Submitted by Steve Gohl on 11/06/2012 - 03:29 pm.

    great to have you back

    Along with the lack of victories, another of the more disappointing aspects of the past 2 seasons has been the loss of your peerless analysis of this team, welcome back…we missed you.

    I was lucky enough to be at last nights game and what a game it was. Offensive Flow has been sorely missed all season minus maybe the 1st Qtr of the Kings game, and to see last nights 4th Quarter in the beautiful and ominous Barclay Center was sweet sweet Shveddy joy. A befuddled fan base with literally zero history with the team seemed to be muttering to themselves in the same tones of dealing with a Bridge and Tunnel Crowd…the Bridge and Tunnel NJ Nets are going to go through some growing pains before the community makes them card carrying Brooklynites.

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/08/2012 - 12:03 pm.

    Late to the party

    But it actually means I have one more game’s worth of experience than the above comments! Unfortunately I don’t have cable and wasn’t able to attend the game last night (I do find it archaic that the only Wolves games I can watch through League Pass Broadband are those not on TV), so I’ll have to glean info from y’all and some recaps/highlights.

    I think we should remember that Brandon Roy was never really an above-average defender when he was healthy, and there’s probably some kind of negative cognitive bias going on watching him share the floor with AK. The one thing I like the most about Roy so far is that he’s erased my fears of him becoming a ball-stopper. I was especially worried because he never really relied on explosive athleticism, but more of a herky-jerky Manu-style keep-the-defender-off-balance attack. But it does look like that lateral quickness that helped him in that department is also gone, but I’m still of fan of his work ethic and I think he brings quite a bit to the table, despite his mediocre play up to this point. Moving a non-G (like Chase) to the 2 slot seems like a solution in search of a problem – we are going to have a weak link somewhere, and Roy and JJ have other qualities that make up for their defensive limitations.

    And speaking of AK, are he and Dante (and JJ) pretty much the exact opposite of Wes, Beasley, and Darko? The contagious energy, the active hands/feet, the overall activity level – anyone else really glad we didn’t end up with Nic Batum? While I think Nic is a great player, his style of play does not bring the type of energy to the entire team the way that AK’s does.

    Anyway, thanks to everyone for commenting, it’s great to read opinions that are more than a sentence. (Also, there’s an interesting, FreeDarko-esque piece on Pek on The Classical right now)

  8. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 11/08/2012 - 12:03 pm.

    Late to the party

    But it actually means I have one more game’s worth of experience than the above comments! Unfortunately I don’t have cable and wasn’t able to attend the game last night (I do find it archaic that the only Wolves games I can watch through League Pass Broadband are those not on TV), so I’ll have to glean info from y’all and some recaps/highlights.

    I think we should remember that Brandon Roy was never really an above-average defender when he was healthy, and there’s probably some kind of negative cognitive bias going on watching him share the floor with AK. The one thing I like the most about Roy so far is that he’s erased my fears of him becoming a ball-stopper. I was especially worried because he never really relied on explosive athleticism, but more of a herky-jerky Manu-style keep-the-defender-off-balance attack. But it does look like that lateral quickness that helped him in that department is also gone, but I’m still of fan of his work ethic and I think he brings quite a bit to the table, despite his mediocre play up to this point. Moving a non-G (like Chase) to the 2 slot seems like a solution in search of a problem – we are going to have a weak link somewhere, and Roy and JJ have other qualities that make up for their defensive limitations.

    And speaking of AK, are he and Dante (and JJ) pretty much the exact opposite of Wes, Beasley, and Darko? The contagious energy, the active hands/feet, the overall activity level – anyone else really glad we didn’t end up with Nic Batum? While I think Nic is a great player, his style of play does not bring the type of energy to the entire team the way that AK’s does.

    Anyway, thanks to everyone for commenting, it’s great to read opinions that are more than a sentence. (Also, there’s an interesting, FreeDarko-esque piece on Pek on The Classical right now)

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