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The Timberwolves emerge from the wreckage

Saying goodbye to one of the most god-awful chapters in the book of horrors that has been T-wolves basketball.

Coach Flip Saunders was asked if he thought the team experienced a lull when Ricky Rubio was on the sidelines. “Yeah, it lasted for 46 games,” Saunders cracked.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Prior to Wednesday night’s stirring home victory over the Miami Heat, the Minnesota Timberwolves had five defeats for every win so far this season, an 8-40 record that was the worst 48-game start in the sorry history of the franchise. Even at 9-40, the current edition of the team is tied with the slapstick squad of 1991-92, who under the hapless reins of Jimmy Rodgers, eventually set the floor (since matched by Kurt Rambis and company in the 2009-10 season) for season-long ineptitude with a 15-67 mark. 

There are special circumstances and strategic reasons for this season’s horrendous performance, of course. As most everyone knows, the Wolves have been wracked by injuries, simultaneously losing three veteran cornerstones who possessed a wide breadth of complementary skills. With what was already a specious chance at a competitive season thoroughly vanquished by these physical woes, team management decided to punt success on the scoreboard in order to better develop young talent on the court. 

But “development” should not be allowed to become a refuge from accountability. So yes, let’s welcome the return of those cornerstone vets — center Nikola Pekovic, shooting guard Kevin Martin and point guard Ricky Rubio — and say goodbye to one of the most god-awful chapters in the book of horrors that has been Timberwolves basketball for many of its 26 seasons of existence. 

But at the risk of sounding churlish, let’s not forget that every franchise owes its fans a semblance of competence on the court, a low bar that can be reached through professional pride, dogged effort, and an unwavering focus on the fundamental components of successful teamwork. From early November to late January, the Timberwolves organization frequently failed to reach that standard.

A new phase of professional performance

The veterans have trickled back into the mix. Center Nikola Pekovic emerged to seemingly full-blown health after being beset by a bevy of mysterious foot ailments that had many people connected with the team legitimately wondering if he’d ever be a reliably functioning cog again.

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Upon his return, it has been satisfying to see Pek, an amiable, live-and-let-live personality if there ever was one, openly chagrined at the indifference to defense displayed by his teammates. It is one reason why the Wolves have permitted only one of their past six opponents to shoot 50 percent (and it was exactly 50 percent) — an admittedly low hurdle, but one the team struggled to surmount with the veterans gone.

After Pek’s re-baptism into the NBA scrum on January 25, Kevin Martin rejoined the team two games and three days later, and has promptly drained crunch-time shots to fuel a pair of wins over Eastern Conference opponents, the Celtics and the Heat. Even Martin, an infamously poor defender, has managed to slightly upgrade the perimeter coverage while providing the most reliable scoring threat on the roster.

Last, and most crucially, Ricky Rubio resumed his position as floor general of the Timberwolves last Monday night versus the Mavericks in Dallas. In game 48, the Timberwolves duplicated their season-opening starting lineup for the first time since game 5. And promptly fell behind 10-0.

But this lousy start was the product of surface rust, not root malignance. Rubio and Pekovic were out of sync on a pick-and-roll play, causing an offensive foul on Pek. Rubio’s ability to back-pedal at a sharp angle on that healed ankle was initially found wanting on dribble-penetration by J.J. Barea and Monta Ellis. Pek’s low-post moves weren’t yet refined enough to prevent premiere defender Tyson Chandler from thwarting open looks at the hoop. And Martin and Wiggins barely touched the ball.

Minnesota outscored Dallas the rest of the way, falling 100-94, a six-point defeat that was in sharp contrast to the prior two blow-outs where the Mavs triumphed by double-digit margins. The Wolves were surging in the fourth-quarter, outscoring Dallas 12-3 in the 4:18 Rubio was allowed to play before he exceeded his minutes limit and was forced to the sidelines. During that stint, he had two rebounds, two assists, two turnovers and two fouls — a neat packet of positive and negative signs of aggression.

Saunders chose to apportion Rubio’s minutes by playing him some in every quarter. The plus/minus results of those four periods were minus 9, minus 2, plus 1 and plus 9.

Rubio hunted for points early, showcasing the improved stroke with the higher arc and softer touch that he has honed under the tutelage of coach Mike Penberthy, making three of his first five shots. Significantly, the midrange jumper he canned moving to his left opened up the ability for him to successfully drive the lane later. While it is true that he has had trouble finishing at the rim in the past, some of that is due to opponent begging him to launch jumpers and thus already primed to contest his drives.

Validating energy

The loss to Dallas felt like a missed opportunity; the Mavericks didn’t play very well and a win was there for the taking. By contrast, Wednesday night’s victory over Miami was borne of resilience and became a testimonial to the infectious enthusiasm Rubio brings to the court every night.

The Wolves jumped to a 12-6 lead in the first five minutes because Rubio doled out five assists to three different players and buried the only shot, a pull-up jumper, that he took. But shortly after a pair of fouls sent him to the sidelines, Miami went on a 9-0 run that kept the game tight for the rest of the first half.

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The Heat took control in the third quarter on the strength and quickness of center Hassan Whiteside, who continued his phenomenal stretch of play since being signed by Miami out of obscurity last month by scoring ten points and grabbing nine rebounds in ten minutes. Much of that came at the expense of Pekovic, who went to the bench less than five minutes into that third period and never returned.

After the game, Saunders spoke of some tenderness in Pek’s troublesome feet. He’s been back for nine games, the length of time he lasted before sitting for more than two months. Right now it’s unclear whether it is a bump or a roadblock to surmounting this chronically troublesome part of his body.

In any case, the Wolves were down by ten points with 9:45 to play when Saunders mercifully lifted lodestones Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine out of the mix and brought in Martin and misplaced cornerstone Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves promptly went on a 9-0 run fueled by Gorgui Dieng (taking advantage of Whiteside’s absence) and Mo Williams.

With seven minutes to play in a one-point game, Saunders inserted Rubio to close it out (take that, Rick Adelman) and the Wolves scrapped their way straight through to the nail-biting finish. Thad Young had a vital steal and slam dunk. Wiggins put back a key offensive rebound and nailed a jumper off a Dieng dime. Martin spaced the floor with missed and converted jumpers that all made sense to launch. And Rubio was the hustle serum, galvanizing energy by his own pesky example and then rewarding the industry he had spurred in his teammates by getting them the ball in the right place at the right time in the right rhythm, or simply upholding his role in the team defense—a missing commodity when Williams and especially LaVine are on the court.

After the game, Saunders was asked if he thought the team experienced a lull when Rubio was on the sidelines. “Yeah, it lasted for 46 games,” Saunders cracked. 

Young blooms, Wiggins wanes

Just how much that “lull” or level of dysfunction was allowed to pervade the team during the absence of the veterans is apparent when you consider the sharp reversal in fortunes among the two holdover starters from that fallow period.

The change in attitude, energy and thus ability in Thad Young in recent games has been remarkable, and a little bit damning. Sure, it is discouraging to be victimized by the inexperience and inattention of your teammates, to run the floor and not receive the pass when you are open; or to switch coverage on defense and then watch the man you were guarding left free to score.

But when you are the sole remaining veteran among the starters, your response to these corrosive challenges goes a long way toward setting the tone for the team. Young chose to succumb to the malaise. He loafed instead of hustled, gambled instead of girding the system, lost direction at precisely the time his team required a compass.

These flaws were evident at the time (something I wrote about). And they’ve been confirmed now that we see Young basking in the glow of his team’s return to competence.

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In Dallas, he played a vigorous and mostly marvelous second half at both ends of the court, especially the diligence with which he defended future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. Against Miami, he did yeoman work helping Dieng frustrate Whiteside in the paint. These examples of unsung grittiness are a sight for the sore eyes of Wolves fans who watched him rebound and defend with the faux fiber of limp celery, his passion for the game as fractured as Kevin Martin’s right wrist.

Since the veterans started returning on January 25, Young has suddenly found his shooting stroke, making nearly half his shots from the field (46-for-93) and a remarkable 26-for-29 at the line, boosting what was a sub-.500  free throw percentage up to 67.2. He is alert, engaged and willing to do the sort of glue-guy “little things” for which he was renowned during his stint in Philadelphia.

By contrast, Wiggins has too frequently been ignored in the flow. For weeks on end, he was called upon to fill the vacuum in veteran leadership created by all the injuries, thrust simultaneously into being his “go-to guy” on offense and defensive stopper on defense. It was an enormous burden to toss on 19-year old shoulders, but Wiggins admirably grew accustomed to it.

Now, with the insertion of Martin back in the lineup, Wiggins is forced to endure more rugged matchups by playing small forward. With the insertion of Pek, the offensive focus is more frequently going to be post-entry plays. The result of these things is fewer and more difficult touches.

After the Miami win, Saunders said that he does not want to have to keep calling plays for Wiggins and that his burgeoning star needs to develop more chances for himself within the context of the offense. That’s all well and good. But here’s an idea: Why not give your heralded rookie — the sole reason this season can’t be regarded as an abject failure thus far — a cookie now and then? Three games ago he went off for 33 points while often being guarded by Lebron James. In the two games since then, he has attempted fewer shots per minute than any member of the eight-man rotation.


Player rotations in flux

Coming close to full strength on the roster is obviously an encouraging change that has already produced less incompetent hoops action. But it may be awhile, if ever this season, before the Wolves get the opportunity to really settle into some productive player pairings and relationships on the court. Along with the returning veterans getting physically and mentally re-acclimated to the NBA grind, other catalysts on the horizon include the return of potent scorer Shabazz Muhammad from an oblique injury and the potential disruption of a trade before the February 19 deadline.

That trade deadline occurs near the end of the NBA’s week-long break around the All Star Game. Although the Wolves have a jam-packed schedule, with five games before the break, the hiatus begins in less than a week. Among the players most likely to be dealt are Mo Williams and Thad Young — I would have included Kevin Martin, but Saunders says he is not moving Martin.

If Young is traded, the power forward situation becomes a matchup-responsive jumble, with Gorgui Dieng holding down the spot against large frontcourts, Shabazz Muhammad getting time as an undersized forward against smaller teams, and Bennett as the fill-in until Robbie Hummel is able to return. That would be my recommendation, anyway, assuming that Young doesn’t fetch a power forward in return.

A three-wing platter of Muhammad, Wiggins and Martin rolls the dice in favor of quickness and floor-spacing and feels like a compelling experiment. Saunders has already tried a hulking front line of Pekovic and Dieng, with mixed results that produced sub-standard offense. But that was with Young as the small forward—slotting in Muhammad and Wiggins beside Dieng, Pek and Rubio sounds like a unit that could really get after it at both ends of the court, with spectacular results, pro and con. It would also enable Martin to come off the bench and provide scoring. Unfortunately, a unit that involves Martin, Bennett and Chase Budinger — let alone LaVine — might be the worst possible defensive alignment on a historically bad defensive team.

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Trading Williams, assuming another point guard doesn’t come back in the deal, means more steady minutes for LaVine running the offense. That’s a terrible idea. LaVine needs to either spend time in the D-league or logging minutes at his natural position of shooting guard — preferably beside Rubio.

Then again, every player on the team needs to play “preferably beside Rubio.”

Right now, there is too much uncertainty coupled with too little information about specific player pairings to confidently predict the best lineup rotations for the Wolves. But even entertaining the possibilities involved is a tonic for fans — and yours truly — as we contemplate the final 33 games of what thus far has been a mostly dreadful season.

Who knows, like birdwatchers out in the bush looking for that rare sighting, we may even get to see a few more three-point buckets on offense and 24-second violations emanating from the defense. Let’s christen the search “Eyes on the Surprise.”