At Minnesota Timberwolves home games, the media are seated at a corner angle right near the Wolves’ bench, giving writers and radio folks an ongoing look at the often mundane, occasionally revealing behavioral interactions of the team’s scrubs and injured players during the course of the contest. It has enriched my appreciation for the good-natured ferocity of backup center Ronny Turiaf.
On Nov. 1 against Oklahoma City, early in the second quarter of the second game of the Wolves’ season, Turiaf was undercut by Nick Collison beneath the basket. He landed laterally with a dreadful thud, flush on his right elbow before his arm had a chance to reach out from his body to cushion the blow. The diagnosis was a “radial head fracture” of the elbow, putting Turiaf in a fancy suit a row behind his uniformed teammates for the ensuing two months.
During that time, the 6-10, 249-pound native of Martinique was an open book emotionally, bouncing up from his seat to his feet with a significant development on the court. He twisted away in frustration when events conspired against the Wolves, and surged forward with his arms raised when his team was on a rally. Occasionally he would notice something on the court, or simply feel the team needed encouragement, and would duck in front of the seated players to speak his piece before coach Rick Adelman joined the huddle.
A couple of weeks ago, hearing a fan mercilessly heckle the play of his teammates, he glowered upward into the stands, clenching and unclenching his fists at his side. More recently he was engaged in a laughing, animated conversation with a young fan during a timeout. Over the course of a dozen home games, I don’t recall him ever just sitting still in passive reverie.
On the court, Turiaf is borne along by a similar gusting revelry. He does indulge in antic inefficiency like former Timberwolf Mark Madsen, for example, but on both offense and defense, his aggressiveness can thrust him out of an optimal position to complete the play. He remains a capable, unselfish passer, and practices such fundamentals as boxing out his man in the joust for rebounds. He also has a tendency to come out too forcefully to disrupt the pick and roll, and to commit early and whole-heartedly toward blocking shots down in the paint.
In many ways, his return to active playing status is exactly what the Wolves need right now, as was demonstrated in Philadelphia on Monday night.
Turiaf entered the game at the onset of the second quarter, logging his first playing time in 31 games. Within the first minute, he formed a human wall with forward Dante Cunningham to deter a shot at the rim, grabbed the defensive rebound, then went down the floor, jumped between two opponents and chased down the ball squirting away in the scrum for an offensive rebound to extend the possession.
It wasn’t totally smooth sailing. Turiaf’s first pass was stolen. He dogged the Sixers’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams beyond the three-point arc on a pick-and-roll, resulting in a weakside layup when the defense couldn’t rotate quickly enough on the resultant pass. He didn’t seal a baseline drive in time to prevent another layup, and got called for a goaltend on yet another layup.
But in seven minutes, Turiaf provided a tone of infectious energy and diligence at the defensive end. I won’t pretend he inspired the three steals and accurate shooting that came through Alexey Shved like a snort of cocaine, but Cunningham, a renowned mother hen on defense, certainly looked more comfortable and narrowly focused knowing an energetic rim protector was beside him. Moreover, Turiaf’s length, aggression and veteran’s presence in the middle enabled both Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic to rest on the bench as the scrubs doubled the three-point lead the Wolves had eked out in the first quarter.
Because Adelman trusts Turiaf with a magnanimity he can’t yet extend to rookie Gorgui Dieng, the Wolves’ rotation will change for the better, providing more rest and greater matchup flexibility. Monday’s game was a blowout, and so Turiaf played the final 15-and-a-half minutes, and seemed a little gassed at the final buzzer. But it wasn’t a coincidence that the Wolves weren’t yielding large bundles of points in garbage time — the Sixers shot 7-for-17 (one of three from long range) in the fourth period, their most inaccurate quarter of the game.
Better chemistry through living
Talking about “chemistry” in sports is fraught with pretension. There is no set formula, no quantifiable ingredients, and no way to ascertain exactly when and how the “intangibles” morph into tangibly good or bad outcomes.
So strap on your hip waders for the following theory.
Ronny Turiaf is man profoundly affected by the heart surgery he endured at age 21 to fix his aortic valve. In a piece last October by Wolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda in the Star Tribune, Turiaf talked about choosing to have the “traumatic” procedure instead of shelving basketball and taking medications for the condition for the rest of his life. He had already sacrificed time with his family by leaving Martinique at age 15 to refine his game in Paris and he elected to see how far his commitment would take him.
Because the surgery was a success and Turiaf is currently playing his ninth year in the NBA, he has developed a distinct attitude toward both the game and his life.
On the one hand, he is emotionally dramatic in his search for resonance and meaning in how his life unfolds. “I’m a big believer in following the current, going with my heart and the signs I’ve been given,” he says in Zgoda’s story. He adds that he was attracted to the Timberwolves because he was coached for two years in Washington by current Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, and because Fred Hoiberg — an ex-NBA player who had similar surgery and was an invaluable friend to young Turiaf during his ordeal — once played for Minnesota.
On the other hand, Turiaf is frequently pointing out the relative unimportance of a basketball game, compared with the fundamentals of health and family, and generally stresses the positive and carefree moods that are the privilege of those with those blessings intact.
This unique blend — a buoyant passion and commitment to what you are doing, coupled with a greater perspective of what it all “really” means — feels like a potentially effective antidote to some of the Wolves intangible shortcomings thus far this season. A team that is 0-9 in games decided by four points or less is both unlucky and dysfunctional. Part of it seems to be a dearth of fearless passion and heartfelt commitment, generated at least in part by inexperience under pressure and a fear of failure.
Let’s be clear: Turiaf isn’t going to be able to transfer the lessons of his heart ordeal to his teammates, and even if he could, the talents of Love, Rubio and the rest still matter much more to the final outcome.
But teammates listen to a player in uniform toiling alongside them more than they do an injured player in a suit. And they listen to passion when it is genuine and perspective when it is well-grounded, especially coming from a nine-year veteran who has won a ring (in Miami in 2012) and is both amiable and outspoken. The only other player on the roster with most of these attributes is J.J. Barea, but Barea’s game is more egocentric and he hasn’t been able to back up his talk on the court thus far this season.
By contrast, the activation of Turiaf provides a lift on the court and in the locker room. On a team that is dead-last in protecting the rim (yielding the highest opponents’ field goal percentage on shots from 5 feet or less), Turiaf is an aggressive shot blocker who five years ago led the NBA in block percentage and finished fourth in blocks per game. If he gets in rhythm and stays healthy, he not only can extend the rotation and provide depth but also alter the character of the team’s second-unit defense.
In addition, on a roster with precious little playoff experience, Turiaf has been to the postseason six times with four different teams. On a team that has tended to be overwhelmed by big moments, he has a chance to intensify the passion and lighten the perspective.
Not a savior, not by a longshot. But the Wolves are at least a little more resilient with his big heart and good-natured ferocity back in action.
As a placeholder for another of my sojourns down to Florida for my father, I’ll be printing a Q&A with Flip Saunders, conducted last Friday, for the next two columns. The interview is not full of earth-shattering scoops but does provide some lengthy insights into how one of the co-architects of this team regards the past, present and future status of the Wolves this season. Look for part one on Thursday, and part two early next week.