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How the Wolves beat Portland — and why things could be worse with Zach LaVine

Against the Trailblazers, the Wolves played their best basketball since their game against the Brooklyn Nets, way back on November 5.

Put simply, it is not LaVine’s fault that he has been so often overwhelmed during his baptismal season in the NBA.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Back in October when the Minnesota Timberwolves were stimulating their fan base with an “Eyes on the Rise” promotion promising dazzling athleticism from a crop of newcomers, nobody could have foreseen the lineup that spurred the Wolves into a stunning upset of the Portland Trailblazers on Wednesday night.

The Wolves had lost six straight games to run their record to 4-16. The Blazers had won 14 out of 15 to peg their record at 17-4. Nevertheless, the scrappy underdogs were holding their own early in the second quarter. Then they stepped on the throttle with a series of steals, dunks, dishes and defensive pressure that both swarmed and bruised. Eight minutes later, a one-point lead had ballooned to 13, at 42-29.

It was the best stretch of sustained basketball excellence for the Wolves since the final six minutes of the fourth quarter of their game against the Brooklyn Nets, way back on November 5. The lineup in Brooklyn that night was eminently predictable, however. Ricky Rubio was running the show at point guard beside long-range shooting specialist Kevin Martin in the backcourt. Up front, forwards Andrew Wiggins and Thad Young played off of the imposing low-post presence of center Nikola Pekovic. This quintet was to be the Wolves bread-and-butter outfit for the entire 2014-15 season, a blend of veterans and youth, newcomers and holdovers.

Thad Young remained the power forward in the lineup that prompted that second-quarter surge against Portland on Wednesday. Wiggins was there too, but bumped to shooting guard to make room for second-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad. The other two Timberwolves? Why, they were 6-9 stringbean Corey Brewer running the offense from the point guard position and 6-7 journeyman Jeff Adrien as the center, doling out punishment in the paint.  

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It was a ragtag assemblage of folks in roles that often put them outside their comfort zones. But what all five of those players have in common is an affinity for sweat equity, for the type of hard-nosed performance meant to shake, rattle and roll the status quo.

Mission accomplished. The Wolves had seven steals in the second quarter (including four by Brewer and two by Muhammad) while committing only three fouls. They had seven assists by five different players while committing only three turnovers. Wiggins, Brewer and Muhammad all soared for thrilling, majestic dunks. Adrien took on a pair of seven-footers in Chris Kaman and Robin Lopez and emerged with seven rebounds, a block, a sweet baby jump-hook shot five feet from the rim, and an unremitting diet of bone-jarring collisions.

After the game, an understandably ebullient Flip Saunders proclaimed that Wiggins “played like the number one overall pick in the draft tonight.” This unintentionally damned Wiggins with faint praise, since he was the number one overall pick in the draft, leaving the implication that he had elevated his performance to a place where it logically should have been all along.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for the teenaged prodigy was warranted, as Wiggins accepted the role of being the team’s “go-to scorer” when the game became close in the fourth quarter, and delivered the sort of all-around value that is difficult to effectively capture on a highlight reel. For all the talk about “Eyes on the Rise,” a signature virtue already possessed by Wiggins is his ability to remain emotionally and temperamentally grounded in the grinding reality of his environment. He will almost always look better on the stat sheet than he does to the naked eye. On Wednesday, the Wolves were plus 15 during the 43:54 he was on the court and minus 7 during the scant 4:06 he rested on the sidelines. 

The other teenager

By contrast, no player on the Wolves roster embodies the sizzle and shortcomings of the “Eyes on the Rise” slogan better than Wolves rookie Zach LaVine.

If Wiggins is 19 going on 40 in terms of his emotional makeup, LaVine remains very much a teenager. Suffused with self-confidence and glibly consonant with the dictates of celebrity, he understands the value of affecting a guileless persona with the media. That lack of artifice is more vulnerable, and — at least to an aging curmudgeon like me — more sympathetic, during his time on the court.

Put simply, it is not LaVine’s fault that he has been so often overwhelmed during his baptismal season in the NBA. He played less than 1000 minutes and started exactly one game in college at UCLA. His unrefined skills and maturity level are better suited for a stint in the “D-league,” where he could hone his game at more reasonable pace.

But the injury to team leader and starting point guard Ricky Rubio five games into the season scrambled any chance of the Wolves’ development proceeding in an optimal fashion. At a time when it was still an open (and very pertinent) question of whether the Wolves were going to rear their youth or attempt a doomed run at playoff contention, Saunders essentially settled the matter by choosing LaVine to replace Rubio in the starting lineup, leaving 11-year veteran Mo Williams in his role as the stabilizing floor general coming off the bench.

It was absolutely the right signal, but the outcome was a disaster. Ever since he drafted him last summer, Saunders has maintained that LaVine can be a “combo guard,” capable of either running the offense as a point guard or playing off the ball as a shooting guard. But after a promising start running the point, scouts for the Wolves opponents quickly caught on to the fact that he was able to run a very limited number of the set actions in Saunders’ fat playbook and began defending him accordingly. The offense withered, furthered weakened by an injury to Pekovic and the absence of Young, who left to team to attend to his dying mother.

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Although it is a high dribble, LaVine has a decent enough handle to run the point. At 6-5, LaVine also has the size to see through the muddle, and his speed and athleticism allow him to get where he wants on the floor. The problem is his court vision; that combination of panoramic vista and anticipation of player movement from both teammates and opposition. It is not a skill that can be taught, or markedly improved via effort and experience. LaVine’s is limited. He sees things ahead of him on the fast break fairly well, but has trouble knowing when to deliver the ball as players emerge from screens or otherwise break free, and his compass is faulty when it comes to peripheral movements.

If anything, LaVine is even less prepared to play defense at the NBA level. As I described in a column a couple of weeks ago, his turnover-prone offense feeds into opponents’ points in transition, exacerbating the problems he has simply coping with the speed, strength and wiles of NBA playmakers. In any case, earlier this month, the Wolves were ceding over 20 more points per 100 possessions when LaVine was on the court, compared to when he sat.

Eventually Saunders was forced to abandon LaVine as the starter and go to Mo Williams simply to forestall the seemingly inevitable blowouts opponents were dishing to the shorthanded Wolves. But for the past four games, Williams has joined the infirm, waylaid by back spasms, forcing LaVine back into competing against the cream of the opposition.

Saunders has attempted to mitigate the damage at both ends of the court. LaVine is best operating on the fly, where his athleticism helps compensate for his inexperience and weaknesses. But while LaVine nearly always brings the ball up in situations that call for half-court offensive sets, he then usually makes an innocuous pass and becomes just another offensive player in the screen-and-weave stratagems Saunders prefers to run. If Brewer and LaVine are on the floor together, Brewer is the one more likely to set up shop at the top of the arc and make the probing passes that compel a more dramatic response from the defense.

On defense, Saunders has decided to switch off coverage on nearly all pick-and-roll plays, even on the perimeter. As he explained after the Portland game, having players simply take the opponent closest to them on a pick-and-roll is very akin to a zone defense, requiring less intuitive decision-making and snap communication among teammates.

Because LaVine as well as youngsters like Wiggins, Muhammad and Anthony Bennett all have good size and quickness, this interchangeability of coverage isn’t as fraught with outright mismatches. Add in quick veterans like Brewer and Young, with the quick Gorgui Dieng at center, and you have the ability to not only switch easily, but occasionally come with a double-team, which is how Minnesota covered Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge so effectively on Wednesday.

It is pretty obvious that LaVine will always be a better shooting guard than he is a point guard. His shooting stroke has a nice rhythm and constant release point, and his self-identity is better geared to scoring than distributing. His breakout shooting performance against the Lakers drew raves, but wasn’t that surprising — nor was his wretched shooting in the immediate aftermath of that heralded display.

I am more excited by some of the things LaVine did in the first quarter of the game against Golden State on Monday. He cut along the baseline to receive a pass from Brewer (only to muff the layup). He flowed to his left and nailed a pretty jump shot in rhythm with the pace of the game and the dearth of options around him. On defense, he used his length and quickness to stay with Stephen Curry — probably the best pure shooter in the NBA and among the most crafty — forcing him into an inaccurate fadeway jumper. Later on, he switched on the pick-and-roll and stepped in front of a pass meant for a Warrior big man.

Of course, the rest of the game was marred by numerous mistakes from the teenager — LaVine set his career high in turnovers, exhibited lousy shot selection, was barked at by Saunders during the game and called out by the coach in the postgame press conference. That type of inconsistency is par for the course for most any rookie, let alone an immature kid with precious little college experience being thrust into the most demanding position on the court for a coach notorious for being hard on point guards.

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I am less confident about the eventual success of LaVine than I am about Wiggins. But it is ultimately unfair to compare the two, just as it is ridiculous to complain that LaVine can’t handle an offense as well as Ricky Rubio. On his own terms, LaVine has always been a project with a skill set that gives him a very intriguing upside. The kid’s got potential. Now that he’s been thrown on a fast track developmentally, spectacular wipeouts and ugly results are going to be more plentiful. But his blend of blissful ignorance and high self-regard will mostly immunize him from the doubts and other insecurities that such pratfalls can produce.

Besides, if you are a Timberwolves fan, it could always be worse. He could have been the second coming of Wes Johnson.