Kevin Garnett: Celtics Reception Was “Bigger Than Minnesota”

This is bigger than Minnesota, even when I went back to Minnesota. Minnesota wasn’t like this.

-Kevin Garnett on his reception returning to Boston.

Earlier this season at the Target Center, Kevin Garnett received a tribute video from the Timberwolves — a nice little montage of moments documenting his career. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and Garnett stood and waived his thanks. It was a nice moment, but it didn’t feel quite right — like an old boxer returning to his gym years later when fans no longer remember him. KG is respected, mostly from the old-timers who remember what it was like when he prowled the Target Center floors. The younger fans weren’t totally sure why this man who hacked Kevin Love hard enough to draw a flagrant foul later in the contest was being lauded. “That’s Kevin Garnett,” the man sitting behind me said to his son. “He’s the greatest player in Timberwolves history.”

“Then why isn’t he a Timberwolf anymore?” the kid asked.

The first quote you see above was from Sunday night, which contrasted almost directly to Garnett’s Minnesota welcome. Garnett had just received a tribute video, a raucous welcome and a heartfelt, noisy thank you from the Boston crowd in the first visit Brooklyn paid to the Celtics since Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded. No one in Boston’s crowd was there to see Jared Sullinger or Jeff Green on Sunday. Everybody was there to say thank you to their departed heroes.

The contrast was blatant, and a large part of it can certainly be explained away by the time between Garnett’s tenures in Minnesota and Boston. The departure was fresh for Celtics fans, six years old for Minnesotans. There is no love lost for Wolves fans, just significantly more time passed.

But there’s more than that at play here. Continue reading

Streak Breakers: Timberwolves 121, Warriors 120

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Being 0-11 in close games requires some bad breaks, and Minnesota has been breaking worse than Walter White all season. The Wolves have had to watch unlikely shots fall, bad calls go against them and a variety of other unforeseen circumstances while compiling a close-game record that has threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

The luck may have changed last night, at least for one game. The Wolves got two big breaks in last night’s 121-120 win in Golden State that prevented them from falling to 0-12 in games decided by four points or less.

The first was a defensive mistake by Klay Thompson. With just under 15 seconds remaining in the fourth, Kevin Martin and Kevin Love played a two-man game — Martin passed to Kevin Love in the high post and ran past him, using Love as an off-ball screener. Rather than continuing to trail the locked-in Martin, Thompson stuck to Love. Whether he meant to double-team Love or expected David Lee to switch onto Martin, it was a mistake. Martin moved far enough away from Love to get a good look, which he knocked down to give the Wolves the lead.

Minnesota wasn’t quite finished getting lucky yet. The Warriors sent out a small-ball lineup to get the last shot, and Harrison Barnes ran a nice PnR with Steph Curry. Kevin Love helped try to trap Curry, who had time to get Barnes an open look at a jumper. But Barnes’ shot rimmed out, and the Wolves broke a very long, very over-emphasized streak.

Those two plays encapsulate everything we’ve learned about the Wolves in close games so far this year. Kevins Love and Martin are both quite good at scoring, as is Nikola Pekovic. On many nights, those three can carry the team’s offense. Ricky Rubio can pass the ever-living hell out of the ball, and he’s a solid defender, even if Curry lit him up (because, frankly, Curry lights everyone up).

Did last night feel like a turning point? Sure, absolutely. A close win will always feel like a turning point because of the emotional energy, and it will certainly feel like a turning point because we’ve seen a string of such losses. And in this case, it might actually be the start of things turning around, but it likely won’t be because the Wolves had an attitude adjustment or learned how to win close games, at least not entirely. It also will likely be because at some point, in close games decided in part by uncontrollable circumstances, a regression (or a progression) to the mean has to be expected.

Minnesota has lost some close games because of bad execution. Those are the kind of problems that can be fixed, and a win (with proper late-game execution) is certainly a good way to start turning things around. But given what we’ve seen so far this season, we will need a larger sample size than one game that featured plenty of luck before we can truly feel confident moving forward.

Still, one game is better than zero, and 1-11 feels quite a bit better than 0-12.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

A Brief Respite: Wolves 98, Jazz 72

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Ricky and the Wolves harassed Trey Burke into an off night.

For one night, the Wolves were spared the questions.

Is Ricky Rubio a bust? Is Kevin Love leaving town? Why is the bench so bad? Why is JJ Barea still shooting? Why pick Shabazz? Why trade Trey Burke? For one night, all of the questions were pushed underfoot by a dominant defensive performance as Minnesota held Utah to just 72 points, 23 in the first half, in a 98-72 win at the Target Center.

The turning point, ironically, was a 3-pointer by Rubio. The Wolves were flirting with a double-digit lead when Rubio found himself wide open on the left side of the arc in the second quarter. He eyed the basket and — in typical Rubio fashion — heaved the ball over his head, aimed his arms at the basket and tossed the ball through the hoop.

If that description felt long and overly laborious, it’s because Rubio’s jumper often feels the same way. But when that 3-pointer met nothing but net, the Target Center crowd seemed to cheer as much out of relief as support. Rubio’s shoulders seemed to relax, and his teammates all came over to whack his head and congratulate him. For a brief moment, the Timberwolves looked like an actual team.

Rubio finished with a typically Ricky line: 6 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, but it was his hassling defense (a trait which gets overlooked when critics are ripping apart his shooting) that stood out most. Kevin Love had a fairly quiet evening (and yes, I recognize the absurdity in calling an 18 point, 13 rebound performance “fairly quiet”). But it was Nikola Pekovic, arguably the building block of this team but we’ll get to that later this week, who had the biggest evening. He was downright disrespectful to Utah’s big frontline, putting up 27 points and pulling down 14 rebounds in the win. His hook shot is a combination of power and finesse — a few powerful bumps to knock opponents onto their heels, a swift turn and a stealthy flip shot held away from his body to keep it from being blocked.

Meanwhile, that rookie point guard the Wolves drafted and dealt? He has had better games in the NBA. Burke finished 2-for-10 from the field and was fairly ineffective as a floor general, tallying two assists and three turnovers. Burke will no doubt be a fine NBA point guard, but before we lament Minnesota’s inevitable demise due to the Trey Burke curse, we should probably be aware that the Timberwolves’ own point guard essentially stopped him cold.

The Wolves have another shot at Utah before the schedule stiffens up again. Back-to-backs against the same team are extremely hard to sweep, and the Jazz have a surprisingly good fanbase at home.

But that’s in the future. On Saturday, the Wolves played well and bought themselves a tiny bit of time and breathing room.

For one night.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Things Are Lacking: Kings 111, Timberwolves 108

iThe Sacramento Kings seem like they want to make the playoffs, which — you know — good for them and stuff, but they are 7.5 games back from Dallas for the 8th seed and 13th in the Western Conference, which is a lot of ground to make up and a lot of teams to pass at this point.

One of those teams is the Timberwolves, who actually realistically expected to make the postseason this year. But the Wolves are 18-20 now, two games under .500 and beginning to tire from how long they’ve been treading water. It showed on Wednesday, as the expectation-less Kings bounded around the court dunking and raining jumpers while the Wolves plodded from end to end, looking disheartened. They made a small push at the end of the game spurred by a pair of enormous 3-pointers by Kevin Love, but it wasn’t enough as Sacramento put them away 111-108.

“I keep saying we’re better than our record indicates but until we go out there and win games in a row and beat teams that we feel we’re supposed to beat, we won’t go anywhere,” Kevin Love said after the game. “We definitely need to start winning.”

They certainly do, because that easy month of January that was supposed to save the Wolves is slipping away rather quickly. Yesterday marked the halfway point of the month, and the Wolves could have set themselves up to move over .500. Instead, Minnesota is two games below with a trip to Toronto — where the Raptors have been rolling lately — coming on Friday. After that, they have a home-and-home with Utah, and although Utah is a bad team, it’s very difficult to win both ends of back-to-back contests with the same team. Then? Golden State, Portland, Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis to close out the month. None of that is going to be easy.

If you are sick of the constant playoff talk, I don’t really blame you, and I’ll move on now. Four Kings killed the Wolves in particular — Rudy Gay with 33 points on 19 shots, DeMarcus Cousins with 20 points and a defensive effort we wouldn’t have expected last year, Isaiah Thomas with 26 points and seven assists and (here’s the painful one) Derrick Williams with 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting. For those of you keeping track, that’s 85 points between four players on 65 shots.

Everyone of those names jumps off the page. Rudy Gay’s line was supremely efficient (although, to be honest, his shot selection was pretty typically Rudy Gay). DMC has been trying on defense for much of the year, which has been refreshing until it’s against a team you follow because then it’s cause for “Where in the world did this come from and when did he start playing help defense?” discussions. Isaiah Thomas may have actually done the most damage to the Wolves — the way he split PnR defense and performed his drive-and-kicks was destructive.

And then, of course, there’s D-Will, who played angry, engaged and efficient which is just the worst thing he could have possibly done for T-Wolves morale. Meanwhile, his trade counterpart, Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute, didn’t see the court despite Gay’s offensive explosion and LRMAM’s familiarity with Gay’s game.

I haven’t even mentioned Minnesota’s offensive game, mostly because you already know what happened if you’ve been following the Wolves this year. Kevin Love put up a solid line. Pekovic bruised down low. Rubio didn’t shoot very much or very well and everyone in Minnesota blew a gasket in their haste to put tonight’s loss on his shoulders.

That’s not fair, though. Rubio didn’t play well, but he wasn’t the reason Minnesota lost — that distinction seemed to belong to the Wolves’ first-half apathy and the way they accepted that not one, not two, not three but four Sacramento scorers were going to have big games. Rubio is a point guard, not a miracle worker. He is certainly flawed, but he’s not the only flawed member of this team, and all of the flaws worked together in perfect harmony to capsize Minnesota.

If the Wolves could only work together as well as their flaws do, we might have something here. As it stands right now, it’s not panic time but you can certainly see it from here.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Thinking Positive: Timberwolves beat Wizards 120-98

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I’m not going to say that the Wolves needed a win coming into Friday’s matchup with Washington, per se, but I’m not going to not say it either.

Minnesota, coming off a pair of discouraging losses to Los Angeles teams, returned home to face the 12-13 Wizards. It was an annoying record to consider before this game, since the Wolves — 13-15 before the game began — are a few games back in the Western Conference playoff chase, whereas Washington would be the sixth seed if the playoffs began today. But conference fortunes probably weren’t on the Wolves’ minds. Much more likely was the recent slippage not only in the standings, but also on the court. It had been a while since we’d seen the Wolves put together four quarters of good basketball (they were roughly 15 seconds away from doing so Sunday, but you don’t need to be reminded of that).

But the Wolves ended that streak Friday. After the Wizards started off hot, taking an early 9-2 lead, the Wolves responded with one of the more dominant quarters we’ve seen from them so far this year, winning the second 39-24. Most notable were the first four minutes, as Barea, Cunningham and Shved all scored to push Minnesota into the lead. This is notable because Barea, Cunningham and Shved are all members of the Timberwolves’ abysmal second unit that has been giving up leads like an informant talking to a cop.

But we don’t need to talk about that. The best part about tonight is that we can put aside the negativity of the past few games and be positive for a change.

First, a moment to express thankfulness for Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic who once again combined for 40-plus points and 20-plus rebounds. Minnesota’s offense, which has taken some lumps recently due to Ricky Rubio’s (perhaps historically) poor shooting numbers, has looked excellent running through its bigs — one stretching the floor, the other collapsing it. We all expected Rubio to be Love’s running mate for years to come, but Nikola Pekovic is quietly the second best-player on this team and also one of the best low-post big men in the league, which makes him the perfect piece alongside Love. If the Wolves go to the playoffs this year, they will ride in on the strength of their deadly front court.

Second, a small victory lap for Rubio, who only scored 11 points but got to the free throw line eight times. Rubio has been averaging just three free throw attempts this season, which has been in part due to his tentative play, but he was aggressive getting to the line. 11 points per game would be enough to get the critics off his back, especially combined with his nine assists.

Third, some applause for JJ Barea. Jub Jub is infuriating at times with his insistence on pounding the ball into the floor for 15 seconds of a shot clock, but I’ve quietly begun appreciating everything he does a little bit more. Does he miss a lot of shots some nights? Absolutely. Does he slow down the offense unrecognizably some nights? Yes sir. Is he one of the only productive players offensively off the bench, and does he have nights where he hits 8-for-10 from the field, making him a real weapon? Definitely. Barea might be the type of player we don’t appreciate until the playoffs when the defense locks up and the offense breaks down — a player who can create his own shot without an offense creating it for him.

And finally, a sigh of relief. The easier slate of games in Minnesota’s schedule actually began Friday, and the Wolves took care of business with ease. They beat an inferior team at home and moved back to one game under .500 with a chance to reach .500 against Milwaukee on Saturday. It’s not a resounding statement win, but it’s a quiet step in the right direction.

I’ll take it.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Death By Turnovers: Clippers 120, Timberwolves 116

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Figuring that things always look a little better in the morning, I took a few hours to think about last night’s game, and then I took a few more, and now here we are, a day later, looking back at arguably the worst loss of the season so far for the Timberwolves.

Don’t get me wrong, the Wolves have dropped games against opponents considerably inferior to the Clippers. The Celtics are bad, the Cavaliers might be worse. The Lakers game was uninspiring.

But there’s something especially disheartening about losing games that should have been won, and the Wolves should have beaten the Clippers. Jamal Crawford hit a layup with 13 seconds remaining, and then slammed home a pass from Chris Paul after the Clippers point guard stripped Kevin Martin in the backcourt to send the game into overtime. Minnesota took a couple of leads in the final period, but a 3-pointer by Jared Dudley was enough to help Los Angeles pull away in the end. The loss wasted monster efforts by Minnesota’s bigs, as Kevin Love put up 45 points and 19 rebounds while Nikola Pekovic added 34 points and 14 boards.

The loss has also sent the Wolves’ fan base into cardiac arrest. Fans seem to think that Martin’s blunder was some kind of tipping point, and perhaps they are right. But Martin’s turnover was explicable — Minnesota, attempting to get their best free throw shooter the ball, failed to account for Chris Paul’s ability to strip opponents on defense and put the play in the hands of a shaky ball-handler at best. Worse, they abandoned him behind the half court line, essentially sticking him on an island with a pair of tigers and telling him “Good luck.” It’s not that giving Martin the ball was a bad play for which Adelman should be blamed. Martin is a 93 percent free throw shooter so far this season, and sending him to the line is about as close to icing the game as a team can get. It’s not Martin’s fault either. If anything, the rest of the Wolves should have given him some help in the backcourt, but when you are picking those kind of nits, you can see that turnovers like Martin’s…just kind of happen.

After that, where should blame be assigned? To Rubio, who shot poorly once again and didn’t score? Probably not, since he finished with 12 assists and the Wolves were wisely running their offense through their bigs all evening (also relevant: Rubio’s defense on Chris Paul was excellent all evening). To Love or Peko-…hahaha no. To the bench, who — Barea excepted — finished with six total points? Sure, but the bench isn’t going to be a problem that gets fixed any time soon, if at all this season. To the overtime period, and a weary Wolves team coming off a difficult November/December stretch? Perhaps. It has been a wearying start to the season. But that kind of thinking requires context, and it’s hard to take context into account in the moment. Recency bias rules most basketball conversations, and recently, the Wolves have looked like a late lottery team, which obviously is not where they want to be.

This was always going to be a tough stretch, and there were always going to be disappointing games. January still looms as an opportunity to get above .500. But you’d be excused for being disappointed with the loss, even a day later. It’s not panic time yet, but last night doesn’t look a whole lot prettier the next day.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Opposite Directions: Wolves fall to Celtics 101-97

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Kevin Love’s 27 points weren’t enough.

Every game matters to a certain degree throughout the year. Some nights, for some teams, it’s simply a matter of playoff seeding — the Pacers are not overly concerned with tonight’s 101-96 loss to Detroit, except that it makes their goals of getting the number one seed one loss harder.

Other times, a loss can push a team in a certain direction, down a certain road. Tonight may not mean much at the end of January, but it meant something tonight. It feels like the Wolves really needed that win — they really needed to move over .500, not one game under it again. With a win, the Wolves would go home to face the fiery hot Trail Blazers with momentum, a one-game cushion and a chance to make a statement. Now, Minnesota is trying desperately to tread water, but there’s another swell coming, and when it pushes the Wolves two games under, it’s just that much harder to keep swimming.

The Timberwolves are 12-13. The Celtics are 12-14. If the Wolves are treading water, the Celtics are a beached whale that desperately needs to get back in the water and start sinking.

And yet, we have tonight’s result. Jared Sullinger scored 24 points and pulled down 11 boards…not quite Kevin Love’s line (27 points and 14 rebounds) but more efficient (Love was 9-for-26, Sullinger was 7-for-14). The Celtics shot 33 percent from 3-point range, but the Wolves shot 37 percent from the field overall. Opposite directions.

There were some positives to be sure. Alexey Shved scored 10 points and didn’t turn the ball over in 26 minutes. Dante Cunningham rediscovered his stroke, going 5-for-6 from the field. Gorgui Dieng actually finished a play off, scoring plus the foul.

But at some point, constantly looking at silver linings and saying “there were some positives, to be sure” feels empty. At some point, the inefficient chucking starts to get to you. The broken pick-and-roll coverage. The 14 offensive rebounds for the Celtics. The 11 missed free throws. The 28 percent shooting between Minnesota’s two best players. Getting out-hustled three times by Kelly Olynyk diving for a loose ball — three times that resulted in 5 points (which, incidentally, more than makes up the final deficit). The Wolves are a better team than the Celtics, and Minnesota should have won this game. Silver linings and all, this is a bad loss.

We thought the Wolves were a playoff team. They still might be — losses in mid-December by a .500 team don’t determine playoffs versus the lottery. But Minnesota is moving in the opposite direction, whether or not this loss matters in January.

The Wolves are one game below .500. It will now take two wins to keep treading.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Comeback Kids: Wolves beat 76ers 106-99

It took a big comeback to do so, but the Wolves improved to .500 with a win over the 76ers.

Don’t ask yourself if the Wolves should have won by 20. If you do, you will enjoy Minnesota’s 106-99 win over the Philadelphia 76ers considerably less, and that would be a shame, because this was a fun, weird, ultimately extremely satisfying game.

It started about as poorly as a game against a team whose front office is making a conscious effort to lose can start. The Sixers, it seemed, couldn’t miss in the first quarter and blew the game open early, leading 39-20. Minnesota then proceeded to win the next three quarters 86-60. So if one erases the first quarter (which may be difficult for viewers scarred by watching Tony Wroten and James Anderson sink shot after shot), the Wolves actually DID win by 20 plus. Take from that what you will.

For most of the third quarter, it felt like the Wolves were unlikely to actually overtake Philadelphia. Lots of comebacks stop just short of their intended goal — it’s actually intensely difficult to get over the last hump of a 20-point comeback. Once the deficit gets down to three or five points, the team charging back seems to feel a sense of accomplishment which takes the fire out of them for the last necessary run.

Minnesota didn’t encounter that problem tonight, and when the Sixers made one last push in the fourth quarter, Robbie Hummel knocked a big 3-pointer to ice the game.

There were a lot of contributors, so let’s give them their due in the bullet points: Continue reading