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Wolves’ tenacity: Team fundamentals trump disappointing stars

Despite the struggles of Love and Rubio, the Wolves warrants respect for their aggressive, sound approach to the game.

The chronic problem remains Kevin Love’s inability to put the ball in the hoop.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The title of my previous column — “The Wolves stay afloat in limbo” — was underscored in neon Thursday night, as the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled out their most improbable victory of the season thus far after their star player posted another horrible shooting performance and then repaired to the sidelines for the rest of the game with another nagging injury with his team down by 10 in the third quarter.

The pertinent words resonating out of this fairly shocking 101-97 win over the Denver Nuggets — Minnesota was beaten soundly by Utah the previous night, while Denver had won 10 of 11 home games this season — came from Nuggets coach George Karl regarding the Wolves and their beleaguered superstar, power forward Kevin Love.

“I think at times Minnesota plays better without Love. They’re kind of a machine-like offense. They give guys different opportunities,” Karl said.

He was merely stating the obvious on Thursday. Yes, Love was a beast on the boards, grabbing 17 rebounds in just under 24 minutes of play, but to little positive effect. During the 23:36 he was on the court, the Wolves were outscored by 12, meaning that in the 24:24 he was on the sidelines, Minnesota was plus 16.

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The chronic problem remains Love’s inability to put the ball in the hoop. Last season, he was the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA. This year, his shooting has been ridiculously inept, with Thursday’s follies a microcosm of his struggles. Four times in the first half alone, Denver blocked his shot in the paint, contributing to his wretched 40 percent (4 for 10) accuracy within five feet of the hoop. For the season, he is shooting 45 percent in the restricted area closest to the basket, down from 56 percent and 58 percent the previous two years.

Perhaps even more importantly, Love has consistently misfired from three-point territory. As a big man who in previous seasons established a renowned penchant for converting long-range jumpers, he has been able to stretch out opposing defenses and create spacing for open shots by his teammates. But remarkably, he has yet to make even half of his three-point attempts in any of the 18 games he’s played thus far. He is shooting a paltry 21.7 percent from that distance, down from 37.2 and 41.7 the past two seasons.

Lingering problems from his broken hand and sprained thumb are obvious factors, but ominously, even before spraining his finger in the third quarter on Thursday, his accuracy was deteriorating from even the subpar level he had established in his first month back in the lineup. After making three straight treys in the opening quarter of the rousing win over Oklahoma City on Dec. 20, Love has converted just three of his past 25 three-pointers, including the two misses on Thursday.

Minnesota’s other marquee star, point guard Ricky Rubio, has also experienced a rocky return from his significant injury. Out for nine months after tearing his knee ligaments last March, Rubio, like Love, teased the faithful with a spectacular performance in his season debut, and then immediately regressed.

In the four games since wowing the crowd with nine assists and two turnovers in a win over Dallas on Dec. 15, Rubio has registered just 11 assists versus 10 turnovers, a disdainful ratio for someone with his court vision and passing acumen. He also has made just four of 17 shots in that span, missing all three of his three-pointers, making him 0-for-6 from distance overall far this season. Not surprisingly, the Wolves lost three of those four games.

It is fair to say that both Love and Rubio rushed their return, an admirable display of competitive alacrity, especially given the Wolves’ short-handed roster situation from a slew of other injuries. But the bottom line is that the ensuing physical setbacks and underperformance — Rubio has missed the past three games due to back spasms and Love’s various and lengthy ailments aside from the broken hand include a lack of conditioning — have contributed to the uncertainty and inconsistency that have plagued the team for most of the season.

In fact, anyone looking at the miserable statistics piled up by the Wolves two cornerstone players have to be pleasantly surprised that the team has eked out a winning record (15-14) two months into the season. As disappointing as it has been to watch Love and Rubio struggle, this particular edition of the Wolves warrants respect for their aggressive, fundamentally sound approach to the game.

Keys to success

Minnesota’s accomplishments are no illusion. Indeed, they are the opposite of smoke and mirrors, built on the fundamentals of positioning, industry and intelligent judgment. Karl called the Wolves “a machine-like offense,” but that description characterizes Minnesota’s uncharismatic yet reliable style at both ends of the court.

Begin with the offense. Sometimes statistics are misleading, but here they reveal pretty blatantly how Minnesota does and doesn’t put up points.

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It certainly isn’t through accurate shooting. In every single area on the court measured by — from “at the rim” out to “threes,” and including 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet—the Wolves’ shooting percentage is below the NBA average. This is especially true on three-pointers, where Minnesota ranks dead last among the 30 teams at 29.5 percent. How important is three-point shooting percentage? Consider that the five most-accurate teams from distance — OKC, Miami, San Antonio, Golden State and New York — are among the seven best teams in won-lost percentage, with a collective 116-43 mark thus far this season.

No, the Wolves gain an offensive advantage by grabbing rebounds to extend their possessions and drawing fouls to get to the free throw line. To choose a recent example, despite being outshot in the first half against Denver on Thursday, Minnesota built a four-point lead in the first half in large part because they corralled nearly half of their own misses — 12 offensive rebounds, versus 14 defensive rebounds for the Nuggets — which fueled 16 second-chance points (against 4 for Denver) and 20 free throws (12 more than the Nuggets).

For the season, Minnesota is third in the league in offensive rebounding percentage and third in free throw attempts per game. (They are also among the leaders in second-chance points, but I don’t have the latest numbers.) To be fair to Love, he is a significant factor in this success, averaging 3.6 offensive rebounds and 7.9 free throws per game.

But it’s worth mentioning that six Wolves average at least two offensive rebounds per 36 minutes played (Love is third per-minute behind Lou Amundson and Nikola Pekovic). And on the flip side, Love is the one primarily responsible for the Wolves’ horrible execution of their basic sets on offense.

More specifically, breaks down a team’s shot attempts into various areas of the court, factors it against the average shooting percentage from those spots, and comes up with an “expected effective field goal percentage,” or “XeFG%.” Teams with a high XeFG% are taking a greater share of their shots from the most productive places on the court, which are from three-point territory and right down near the hoop—midrange jumpers are notoriously inefficient.

Minnesota is a middling team in terms of wise shot selection, ranking 14th among the 30 teams in XeFG%. But their execution of those shots — their actual effective field goal percentage, compared with their expected effective field goal percentage — is 27th, ahead of only Cleveland, Charlotte and Washington, who, not coincidentally, have three of the four worst won-lost records in the NBA.

So why do the Wolves have a winning record? Part of it is the offensive rebounding and the free throws. But even then, the team’s offensive efficiency, meaning points-scored per possession, is a doleful 25th in the NBA. To uncover the real hidden jewel in this Timberwolves season thus far, you have to go to their fundamental rotations on the defensive end of the court.

No foul, no harm

How does a Wolves team with a mostly undersized and athletically mediocre complement of backcourt defenders manage to rank sixth overall in defensive efficiency (fewest points allowed per possession)?

Well, for starters, they have that brutish front line grabbing rebounds and thus reducing extended possessions for the opponent. Only Houston grabs a greater percentage of caroms off their defensive glass than Minnesota. And as noted in greater detail in a previous column, the Wolves have also become experts at defending without fouling — only the Rockets and Atlanta permit fewer free throws per game by their opponents.

But the place where the Wolves are especially sneaky-good on defense involves the rigor and discipline of their rotations on defense, which force opponents into taking low percentage shots.

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Just as calibrates what effective field goal percentage an offense should achieve according to where they shoot from on the court, they also measure how well a defense can reduce the potential for an opponents’ accuracy from the field depending on what areas of the court they deny through vigilant rotations and positional play. This is referred to as the “opponents expected effective field goal percentage,” or “OXeFG%.”

The rather stunning statistic is that the Wolves currently have the lowest OXeFG% in the NBA. Put simply, no team in the league maneuvers their opponents into collectively lower percentage shots than Minnesota.

Here’s the caveat: No doubt because of their relative lack of size and athleticism, the Wolves once again have trouble following through on the positive situation they have created. Their defensive ratio — the actual effective field goal percentage of their opponents versus the expected effective field goal percentage of their opponents — is 24th  best in the league. In other words, they are frequently positioned to provoke tough shots, but don’t have great individual defenders to further depress the chances those shots will go in.

Even so, a 6th-rated defense with the existing personnel is overachievement, and a tribute to coach Rick Adelman and his assistant Bill Bayno, as well as a tribute to the team’s collective unity at that end of the court.

The wild card

Last but not least (unless you are talking about height), we can’t depart without a shout-out to J.J. Barea, who once again spun flax into gold in the fourth quarter as a means of leading the Wolves to an unlikely triumph.

I’ve booked my reservations about Barea’s crunchtime hero ball just two weeks ago in this column, and most of the same sentiments still apply. And if you want a sober, strictly-by-the-numbers appraisal of what J.J. has in the clutch and the fourth quarter thus far this season, the links are provided.

But why rain on a parade? Barea as dragon-slayer is becoming an increasingly recurrent theme this season, and his “would-be heroism” is tilting toward the “should-be heroism” side of the decision-making process as a result. Especially against aggressive shot-blockers — the common theme uniting the Brooklyn, OKC and now Denver teams he has bested — the little dude with the fearless temperament and herky-jerky dribble seems like the right go-to guy at crunch time. At least until Love and Rubio put this crazy, entertaining season back on a more even keel.