Amid the gloom, the T-Wolves offer a hint of possibilities

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Nikola Pekovic showcased his vintage rendition of a twirling block of granite en route to 29 points in 32:30 minutes of play against Detroit on Sunday.

On Sunday night, February 8, the Minnesota Timberwolves already assured that this will be their best full month of the 2014-15 season thus far with a resounding, wire-to-wire triumph, a 112-101 win over the Detroit Pistons.

The win bumps the Wolves record up to 3-1 in February, matching their victory totals for November (when they were 3-10) and January (3-14). Because there are only seven more contests left in February due to the break for the All Star game, the worst-case scenario for the Wolves is a 3-8 February—their best monthly winning percentage since a 1-1 October to start the season. (They were 1-14 in December.)

The road map to February success has been pretty basic — bring the veteran starters back from injury so that the core caliber of knowledge and talent is sufficient to re-motivate the holdover veterans and de-emphasize the roles of the more inexperienced and/or less skilled performers who have been soiling the season with their on-court ineptitude.

The most crippling aspect of losing shooting guard Kevin Martin, point guard Ricky Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic all at the same time for more than two months this season has been the larceny of the complementary breadth and lack of redundancy in their respective sets of skills. This has been laid out in sharp relief over the course of the team’s current three-game winning streak.

The veteran roll call

Last Wednesday the Wolves eked out a 102-101 home win over the Miami Heat in large part due to the outside shooting prowess of Martin. Among the shooting guard’s game-high 30 points were four three-pointers in eight attempts from long range.

It is an aspect of the modern NBA in which the Wolves have been blatantly unproductive. The team is dead-last in the number of three-pointers attempted, next-to-last in the number made, and 22nd among the 30 teams in three-point accuracy.

Aside from Mo Williams — for most of the season a point guard who rightfully should have been concentrating on setting up shots for his teammates — Martin is the only experienced three-point threat who has the confidence of coach Flip Saunders to cut loose from long range whenever he feels like it. As a team, the Wolves launch three-pointers on 17.7 percent of their total field goal attempts, the lowest in the NBA. By contrast, 38.2 percent of Martin’s shots are treys. And 39.4 percent of them go in, compared to the team’s overall 33.9 three point percentage.

How much have the Wolves been missing Martin’s long-range shooting as a part of their offense? Thanks to the fractured wrist that sidelined him from mid-November to late January, he ranks 12th on the team in total minutes played. Yet he is still second, behind only Williams, in three-pointers made for the Wolves.

The Miami win was fun but at least partially expected — the odds-makers had even installed the Wolves as two-point favorites playing at home against a sub-.500 team from the inferior Eastern Conference. But precious few reasonably counted on a victory two nights later, in a Friday home contest against the Memphis Grizzlies, who had won eight in a row and at 37-12 sported the second-best record in the rugged Western Conference.

This is the game where Ricky Rubio was ascendant.

Of the three injured veterans, the absence of Rubio was the most damaging to Minnesota. Along with precocious rookie Andrew Wiggins, he is the bedrock upon which the future fortunes of the franchise are based. A little more than three months ago, he signed a four-year, $55-million contract that kicks in next season and will keep him in the fold until 2019.

The wisdom of that pact became evident when the Wolves fell to pieces in the wake of Rubio’s severe ankle sprain in the fifth game of the season. I have dealt with his impact on the Wolves here and here. The fact of the matter is that he makes an enormous difference to the team’s performance at both ends of the court.

Many of the reasons for that can be explained in numbers. For example, Rubio led the NBA in total steals last season and was second in total assists. Only other three players in NBA history have averaged at least seven assists and two steals per game in their first three seasons — Tim Hardaway, Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson.

But, like Thomas and Magic, Rubio adds enormous value to his numbers through the intangible of leadership. In that sense, the thrilling 90-89 win over Memphis on Friday may be his signature performance thus far with the franchise.

It was accomplished without Kevin Love, for three seasons Rubio’s running mate and rival for pecking-order leadership of the ball club. It was done while Rubio is still being held to a minutes-limit on his playing time, due to unfinished recovery phase for an ankle that sustained ligament damage along with the sprain back in early November. And it was accomplished in a way that rebutted the biggest knock against Rubio — that his notoriously inaccurate shooting enabled opponents to back off individual coverage, clog his passing lanes and doom the Wolves to defeat in crucial crunchtime possessions.

Despite his ankle woes, Rubio doggedly resumed his practice regimen with shooting coach Mike Penberthy at the earliest possible opportunity. Fans and media coming very early to games were treated to the sight of Rubio tossing up jumper after jumper from various points around the court. It was hard not to notice that the arc on those shots was a little more pronounced, without the severe line-drive that characterized his former jumpers. There also seemed to a little more of a feathery backspin that better enabled the “shooter’s roll” when the shot was bouncing around the rim and backboard. Except that most of Rubio’s pregame jumpers were hitting nothing but the bottom of the twine.

Against Memphis, Rubio began by setting up his teammates with the dazzling brio that has made him a fan-favorite for most of his tenure in Minnesota. During his first abbreviated stint on the court, he assisted on the team’s initial five baskets of the game, feeding Wiggins three straight times after helping Thad Young and then Martin get buckets. It was reminiscent of the Miami game — Rubio’s first action in nearly three months — when he likewise dished out a handful of dimes and nailed a jumper besides in his initial rotation on the court.

But Rubio didn’t register another assist versus the Grizzlies on Friday. And, as almost everyone knows and the folklore will repeat, he twisted that troublesome ankle scoring a layup that brought the Wolves to within two points with six minutes left to play in the game. After that basket, he hop-hobbled to the sidelines and kept going straight out of the tunnel, cursing in pain and disappointment.

Yet with less than two minutes of playing time elapsed, he suddenly returned, the crowd roaring. With the Wolves down by seven with less than two minutes to play, he buried a three-pointer off an assist by Martin. Down four with 35 seconds to play, he came down, dribbled to his right and nailed another trey — then stole the ball at the other end, drew the foul, and converted both free throws with ten seconds remaining to cinch the victory.

After the game, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger acknowledged the obvious about Rubio’s heroics — “the threes he knocked in were big for them” but then revealed why Rubio’s jumpers were so important for Rubio and the team from a strategic standpoint. “You can’t short close him [crowd him], you’ve got to play him and he made big shots.” Translation: If you crowd Rubio, he’ll beat you with the pass. But on Friday, Rubio demonstrated he may also be able to beat you with the shot. And if that becomes a pick your poison scenario, it will be a significant boon to the Wolves crunchtime offense.

This brings us to Sunday night’s thrashing of Detroit, which came courtesy of Nikola Pekovic, the Montenegrin bruiser who showcased his vintage rendition of a twirling block of granite en route to 29 points in 32:30 minutes of play.

For the past two seasons, a primary focus of any matchup between Minnesota and Detroit has been the potentially epic clash of two of the game’s most rugged performers, Pekovic and Pistons center Andre Drummond. Pek is listed at 6-11 and 295 pounds; Drummond the same height and 280 pounds. In the past three meetings, however, it has been a gross mismatch.

Pek had 18 points and was a plus-16 in 33 minutes of a 27-point Wolves win in December of 2013. Drummond was minus-19 in 29 minutes. In the rematch last March, Pek had 17 points and was plus-24 in 29 minutes of a 13-point Wolves victory. Drummond fouled out and was minus-9 in 21 minutes of play.

On Sunday night, Pek again went to work on his talented counterpart, drawing early foul trouble that caused Drummond to sit less than five minutes into the game. He had eight points and was plus-8 in the first period, the margin of the Wolves lead after that stanza. He set the tone for the second half with two quick baskets backing down Drummond to start the third quarter.

But it was crunchtime, in a game when Rubio was forced to rest his ankle and the Pistons were surging, that big Pek really stepped up. Fifteen of his 29 points came in that period, including eight from the foul line as Detroit was reduced to haplessly hacking him.

Through most of the game the offense ran through Pekovic, who deployed handoffs to teammates that were a feature of Rick Adelman’s offense the previous three seasons. But much of the time, he simply outplayed Drummond, the massive cornerstone of the Pistons future.

“Drummond is one of the better centers in the league,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said after the game. “But he loves to block shots. In order to block shots he wants to give that big [man] a little space. If you give Pek space, he takes up that space. Before you know it you are leaning back and you can’t get to that shot.”

In the end, Pek was plus-18; Drummond minus-14. The Wolves, 3-1 in February, riding their veteran trio back-to-back-to-back.

Fun times over?

Wolves fans will likely have to savor these last three games in isolation, for the schedule gets brutal for a fairly long stretch moving forward, beginning with contests against the two best teams in the NBA — Atlanta tonight, and then Golden State Wednesday, both at home in the team’s final games before the week-long All Star break.

As mentioned earlier, along with their individual strengths, the return of the veterans inspires their teammates by offered up a more realistic chance to effectively compete and maybe win a few games, something missing for most of December and January. Thus we have seen Thad Young playing with more vigor while jousting against larger foes such as Zach Randolph of Memphis and Greg Monroe of Detroit. We have seen Mo Williams curb his tendency to gun up jumpers and look for his teammates more often in the offense. We have even seen Young and Williams break a sweat on the defensive end of the court.

This is a welcome sight, a reassuring reminder of just how much the Wolves were missing during their dreadful doldrums. It also reminds us that Young and Williams are followers on this ball club, not leaders, usually capable of being motivated far more frequently than they can motivate others. As the trade deadline approaches and Williams and Young are the primary source of rumors regarding changes in the Wolves lineup, those reminders about the pecking order on this roster are also reassuring.

Wiggins is here, and blooming. Rubio is getting healthy and shooting better. Martin remains a long-range bomber and Pek a leviathan with twinkle-toes at the ends of those troublesome feet. In the deep winter of February, the future looks brighter.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/09/2015 - 02:57 pm.

    Rubio’s lack of assists

    can be overstated.
    As I think you’ve pointed our, basketball could use something like hockey’s second order assist; the pass that sets up the pass that leads to the point. Rubio’s strength is his overall sense of the court; how to control the flow of play. This may not lead to an immediate assist, but will make a good shot more likely as the flow of play continues.

    • Submitted by Tom Om on 02/10/2015 - 12:45 pm.

      Rubio and Secondary Assists

      Last season Rubio was second in the NBA in Secondary Assists p/g, Second in Points Created by AST Per 48 Min, and FIRST (by a big margin) in FT Assists per game.
      This year he is, again, in the top 3 of almost every passing category per 48 minutes.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/09/2015 - 04:25 pm.

    Growing into roles

    I figured the vets would transition easily, but Bennett has impressed me with his passing into the post the last few games; they obviously play him differently than they would a guard, but he still gets Pek the ball in a good position to score. His defense has at least been spirited as well; he didn’t get burned by Bosh or Randolph and they had to work for their shots, which is a step up from watching guys go by him off the ball. He’s on his way to staying in the rotation when Hummel comes back. I don’t know that LaVine is growing into a role, but he’s a year younger and will hopefully be starting the first of a long streak of DNPs tonight.

    This team is 6-11 since Muhammad went down. Does that indicate anything? I mainly ask because I have no idea; those 2 wins after he went down (Indy and Denver) may have been just “sick of losing” efforts, and they obviously were struggling up until their regular starting 5 were healthy. Still, from the time those starters all went down to the time he went down, they were 2-24 (both wins when Brewer was still on the team).

    It’s just nice to not read any comments about lottery odds being affected. I would have no problem with them actually getting the #1 pick or a top 3 pick, but it seems like some were acting as though all the losses cemented that status in stone when we all knew the vets didn’t have season-ending injuries and would be back early enough that shutting them down for the season wasn’t an option. If they don’t end up with a top 5 pick after all of this shakes out, they’ll still have a chance at an All-Star-caliber player and (depending on Sacramento) 1-2 nice 2nd-rounders in the 30s that they could find more talent with.

  3. Submitted by Paul Mueller on 02/10/2015 - 09:27 am.

    Pek

    Britt,

    As a sports fan and teacher I really enjoy your style of writing. The metaphors you use are as on point as a Rubio pass. I would like to humbly submit a suggestion about Pekobic. I think he is more of a Behomoth with twinkle toes than a Leviathan with twinkle toes. What was your reason for choosing Leviathan?

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