Wolves at Clippers Preview: Kevin Love helps frail old men

The Wolves played last night, the Clippers are very good, Doc Rivers is coaching, this will be a tough game. This has been your preview. And now, the movies!

All I know is that if Jay Bilas needed something off his shelf, he would NOT call Blake Griffin. Griffin’s wingspan just won’t get it done against taller, longer shelves.

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

When: 8:30 pm CST

See/Hear it: FSN and WCCO AM 830

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Wolves crush Lakers 113-90

The last time the Wolves beat the Lakers…well…you already know.

On March 6, 2007, the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Los Angeles Lakers 117-107 in double overtime. Ricky Davis scored 33 points to lead the Wolves, while Kevin Garnett added 26. Marko Jaric scored 12.

In 2007, Jim Carrey was starring in a mediocre thriller called “The Number 23,” and Jonah Hill was drawing genitalia in “Superbad.” An Avril Lavigne album was the top-selling record overseas.

In 2007, Florida won its second consecutive NCAA men’s basketball championship on the strength of big men Al Horford and Joakim Noah, as well as a scrappy wing named Corey Brewer.

You know where I’m going with this lede. All of these things happened in 2007, which was the last time the Wolves beat the Lakers, as will no doubt be pointed out ad nauseum over the next couple days. And that’s fine. But more important than the end of the streak — much more important, in fact — was the way Minnesota snapped it.

Maybe “snapped” is the wrong word. “Obliterated”? “Demolished?” Whatever. What matters is that the Wolves crushed the Lakers 113-90, riding a historic first quarter for 48 minutes to claim a big win.

Just how historic was that first quarter? Take a look at some of these numbers, from the Wolves PR team:

  • The 47 points bested the franchise record for points in a quarter.
  • Minnesota scored a franchise-record 47 points on 16-of-21 shooting. The Wolves missed their first two shots of the game and went 16-of-19 to close out the quarter. The Wolves ended the quarter on a 30-9 run over the final 6:06.
  • The 47 points were just three off the league record for most points in a first quarter. It was just the 28th time in league history a team had scored 47+ points in the first quarter.
  • As a team the Wolves hit on 7-of-9 attempts from long range in the first quarter – Love 4-of-5 and Martin 2-of-2.

If NBA Jam developers were writing code, they would have made sure either Kevin Martin or Love missed a little more in that first quarter. They were unrealistically, unbelievably hot. And although they cooled off eventually, the Lakers would never get closer than 14.

Putting aside the first quarter (with difficulty), let’s get to some real bullet points:

  • We are nearly 400 words into this recap without mentioning that Ricky Rubio finished with a high-quality triple-double. Rubio tallied 12 points, 10 boards and 14 assists, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 2-for-2 from 3-point range. His shooting was probably unsustainable, but his passing was excellent, and he bothered the Lakers into turnovers repeatedly, finishing with five steals.
  • Nikola Pekovic had fairly solid game, scoring 14 points and pulling down seven rebounds. He seemed to get into the flow around the basket a little better as time went on.
  • Minnesota’s defense, for the most part, was EXCELLENT. The Lakers finished with 18 turnovers, and although I wasn’t keeping track, the vast majority were forced by Wolves defenders sneaking up behind bigs for steals or getting their into passing lanes. Steve Blake, of all people, managed to light the Wolves up at times and finished with a team-high 19 points on 11 field goal attempts. But a big part of the reason the Wolves were so successful on the break (19 fast break points, according to ESPN who usually guesses such things very conservatively) was because the defense was stealing the ball and creating transition opportunities.
  • Here’s another reason the transition offense was working so well:

  • Playing Minnesota would be STRESSFUL for a defense. You have to be paying attention every single second on both ends because A) If you fall asleep on defense, Rubio will make you pay B) If you fall asleep on offense, Corey Brewer is leaky like a faucet and C) Kevin Love. See above.
  • The only rainy cloud on this otherwise sunny game: All five starters played more than 30 minutes in a blowout because the bench couldn’t really hold the lead. This wouldn’t be a big deal except the Wolves play the better of the two LA teams tomorrow night in Staples as well.

Minnesota is good this season. The Lakers are not. It wasn’t tough to project that this would be the year the Wolves ended the drought. But after all of the melodrama, it was nice to see Minnesota drain the tension from the beginning.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Gorgui Dieng shows flashes as a rim defender

Gorgui Dieng is an afterthought for most Wolves fans at the moment.

That’s probably fair. After all, the three scenarios in which he receives minutes at the moment are 1) The Wolves are up by 20 late in the game, 2) Ronny Turiaf is injured, Pek needs a break and Dante Cunningham is using the restroom or 3) Ronny Turiaf is injured and the Wolves are up by 20 late in the game.

He is by no means an offensive weapon yet, although his growth is probably a little bit stunted by playing with JJ Barea. If/when SportVU technology releases the “Players who dribble away from the screen in a pick-and-roll” stat, the category will probably be led, written and sponsored by Barea. But even when Barea ignores Dieng’s attempts to screen, Dieng is enthusiastically rolling to the baskets, and he’s obviously trying to get more comfortable in that particular set.

But that’s not why Wolves fans can be encouraged by Dieng’s early play. In limited minutes on the defensive end, Dieng has quietly been demonstrating why the Wolves saw fit to just snap him up 21st in the draft, instead of trading down and gambling they could get him.

Stats first: Dieng has played in three games and is averaging 7.8 minutes per game. He has tallied three blocks in those three games, but according to NBA.com’s new SportVU statistics, Dieng is allowing opponents to shoot just 40% at the rim. Dieng’s sample size is clearly small enough to invite questions, but there is visual evidence that his defense could eventually be extremely solid in the NBA.

Before we begin lauding Dieng, we should point out that, at the moment, he’s averaging 15.7 fouls per 36 minutes. Carrying that out, he would foul out two and a half times per game as a regular contributor. His small sample size is obviously inflating that number, but he is still trying to understand what is and isn’t called in an NBA game.

But that last sentence is important: He’s still TRYING to understand. After committing his third personal foul by burying his arm in Jermaine O’Neal’s back (it was a fairly weak call, but one for which rookies will rarely get the benefit of the doubt), Dieng was extremely frustrated. But when Jermaine O’Neal went back to the exact same spot, we see Dieng throwing his arms up to make it obvious he isn’t fouling anyone.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 7.13.34 AMThe result? O’Neal is forced to pass out of the post. Klay Thompson ends up with the ball and drives to the basket late in the shot clock. Once again, Dieng is alert.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 7.13.55 AM

Thompson goes to the opposite side of the basket, but Dieng covers a lot of ground and is long enough to send Thompson’s shot away with a highlight-reel rejection.

Moving out of order through the clips in the video above, the first clip shows a similar court awareness. Dieng is committed to help defense, even when it’s difficult to get to the offensive player.

Klay Thompson breaks up Golden State’s set a little bit by simply beating Alexey Shved off the dribble (not for the last time). Toney Douglas is in the lane to screen Dieng off O’Neal, which ends up turning into a screen to prevent Dieng from helping on Thompson.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 7.12.57 AM

By this point, the Wolves have swarmed the paint, and Thompson’s shot was going to be difficult anyway, but Dieng fights through the screen by Douglas and rejects it with his elbow.

The other clips above are essentially confirmation of what we knew about Dieng coming out of college. At Louisville, Dieng intrigued NBA scouts by blocking 3.2 shots per 40 minutes and by anchoring the top-ranked defense in the country. His muscular 6’11 frame and his 7’4 wingspan, as well as his quick feet and leaping ability, give him all of the tools to be a solid individual defender. Young big men often get into foul trouble (just ask Nikola Pekovic), and they often straighten themselves out. If Dieng can prove himself capable of understanding help defensive schemes in addition to his solid individual defensive abilities, he could be a tough rim protector for Minnesota.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Explosions: Minnesota Timberwolves fall 106-93 to Golden State Warriors

An artist’s portrayal of Klay Thompson around 9:30 CST.

ex·plo·sion [ik-sploh-zhuhn] noun

1. an act or instance of exploding; a violent expansion or bursting with noise, as of gunpowder or a boiler (opposed to implosion)

2. Klay Thompson’s fourth quarter barrage against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 6.

The Timberwolves will lose some games they should win this season, and they will win some games they should lose. Sometimes, it will be the result of a better team playing down to their level. Sometimes, it will be the result of Minnesota playing on the second night of a back-to-back.

Other times, the Wolves will lose games that, frankly, they were always going to lose because the other team was better and Klay Thompson went nuclear and detonated all over everything in the fourth quarter.

Tonight was that night. The Timberwolves hung with the Warriors through the third, trailing by five just before the end of the quarter. But a 3-pointer by Maureese Speights (I’m not kidding…it wasn’t meant to happen tonight) gave the Warriors an eight-point lead, and a driving layup by Harrison Barnes to start the fourth pushed that lead to 10. Klay Thompson took over from there, scoring 19 of his 30 points overall in the fourth quarter to lead Golden State to a 13-point win.

Let’s do some bullet points:

  • Kevin Love played well, scoring 25 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, but he needed 25 shots to get his points. On the other hand, Love’s jump shot looked wet like Lake Erie, especially in the first half.
  • Kevin Martin also had a solid first half, dropping 16 of his 23 overall points. Martin finished 2-for-3 from 3-point range.
  • Steph Curry left in the third quarter with what appeared to be an ankle injury after Rubio fell on him. It was a remarkably similar play to the one that injured Rubio against the Lakers a couple of years ago. Fortunately, from the sound of things, the actual injury wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
  • Is it possible to have 22 quiet points and 15 quiet rebounds? If it is, I’m pretty sure David Lee achieved it. The weight he lost in the offseason seems to be adding some versatility to his movements.
  • Curry finished the game 0-for-3 from 3-point range. The last time Curry didn’t make a 3-pointer in a game was March 15 when he went 0-for-5 against the Bulls. I’d call it a pretty safe bet that had Curry stayed in the game he wouldn’t have finished with zero treys.
  • Shabazz Muhammad scored his first NBA basket with about 20 seconds remaining on a drive to the hoop. Down by 13 with less than 20 seconds remaining, I was amused at how offended ‘Bazz seemed that he didn’t get an and-one call. He did, however, get a nice ovation from the few fans still in their seats.
  • Rubio struggled badly from the field, shooting 2-for-8 and scoring seven points, and his passes seemed a little bit off all night. Even so, he created some nice looks for his teammates which resulted in seven assists and some passes which led to fouls. He also should have had considerably more than seven; Corey Brewer missed at least four layups right next to the rim.
  • Gorgui Dieng is not good at basketball yet, but he makes a difference around the basket. For all of Pek’s many benefits, he remains a mediocre rim protector. Dieng blocked two shots in six minutes (on pace for 16 blocks per 36 minutes!!) and may have altered a few more. He might be a nice asset as the year goes on.
  • Speaking of Pek, Minnesota’s main big man finished 4-for-11 with nearly all of his shots coming around the basket. That means A) Pek is operating in his comfort zone and B) Pek isn’t making shots in his comfort zone. Not what you like to see early.

That will have to do it for tonight. On Friday, Minnesota will play host to the Dallas Mavericks. Monta Ellis may have it all, but it doesn’t seem likely he’ll have it as thoroughly as Klay Thompson.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Lang Whitaker: Ricky Rubio looks “noticeably bigger”

This photo, from Feb 2012, may not be accurate anymore.

In his first two seasons, Ricky Rubio surprised many fans and analysts by being a solid defender. One of the many incorrect stereotypes of European players is that they don’t have the speed or tenacity to hang with NBA-level talent on the defensive end, and Ricky Rubio disproved that by moving his feet smartly and using his excellent length to disrupt ball-handlers.

But Rubio has never sported a very impressive frame. Although sites like DraftExpress pointed out that his frame could carry NBA muscle, he always remained thin, despite two years in the NBA presumably on an NBA training schedule. Last offseason was essentially a wash as Rubio spent all of his energy recovering from his ACL injury. This offseason was Ricky’s first chance to really add to his body.

On NBA.com’s Hang Time Podcast, Lang Whitaker revealed that he saw Rubio looking “big” in June. Save your muscle-watch jokes. Whitaker himself participates in the #MuscleWatch idea on Twitter, laughing at all of the articles claiming a team’s player has “lost 15 pounds!” or “added 15 pounds of muscle!” or “come to camp in the best shape of his life!” If Whitaker says Rubio looks bigger, he probably looks bigger.

From the podcast:

He’s big. I saw him in June and he was big. He was wearing a tight tank top. I asked him if he was trying to show off, and he laughed and said “Yes.”

He said he has never lifted weights his entire career. He always thought he needed to be fast not strong to be a point guard. Last year he got pushed around so much he thought “Maybe I do need some muscle.” He looked noticeably bigger.

You read correctly: According to Whitaker, Rubio said he has NEVER lifted before.

It’s not necessarily unprecedented. At Summer League in 2012, I overheard an exchange between then-Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and Detroit center Andre Drummond. Frank asked Drummond if he had lifted weights at UConn. Drummond shook his head, and Frank nodded, looking like he had expected as much.

Some of these guys, for whatever reason, haven’t lifted weights. This isn’t a knock against Rubio’s preparedness to this point — he certainly works extremely hard on other areas of his game. It’s just that weight training, apparently, has not been a part of his regiment until now.

Much has been made by many writers (including myself on this site) about how Rubio will shoot this season, and whether he can make an offensive leap. But if Whitaker is correct and Rubio has added some muscle, he could be a force on the defensive end. He doesn’t have exceptional quickness, but he managed to stay with some exceptionally quick guards. There was, however, no denying that Rubio wasn’t as strong as many NBA point guards, and with bull-like players such as Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams in the league, adding some muscle certainly can’t hurt.

We haven’t seen many pictures of Rubio coming out of training camp, and it’s going to be harder to feel out his size until we see him running and flexing in basketball action. But he looked broader in Media Day videos, and it will be fun to see how much improved strength helps him going forward.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.23.04 AM

His shoulders certainly look bigger here.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Chase Budinger sustained a “cartilage injury to the left knee.” Because of course he did.

For whatever reason, the basketball Gods seriously hate Minnesota. Related: Chase Budinger is injured again.

Sigh. From Timberwolves.com‘s Mark Remme:

The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced that forward Chase Budinger sustained a cartilage injury to his left knee. Budinger will visit Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama early next week. An update to Budinger’s status will be provided after that examination.

I’m going to list the reasons this doesn’t sound good. And then I’m going to go curl up in a comfy chair for a while and contemplate about how cruel the basketball gods are.

  1. “Cartilage” injuries are bad, bad, bad news. Lack of cartilage is what prevented Brandon Roy from coming back, and what will — inevitably — prevent Andrew Bynum from reaching his full potential (also: bowling).
  2. It’s his left knee again. Repeated knee injuries are bad, bad, bad news.
  3. Dr. James Andrews is the world-renowned doctor responsible for…well, just about every big-name knee surgery around. And while it’s certainly good that Budinger is getting examined by the best, it also doesn’t bode well that he’s traveling all the way to Alabama to have the best take a look at his knee.
  4. On a cold, unemotional note, Budinger is guaranteed $5 million per year for the next two seasons and has a player option on the third. The good news is that it’s in Minnesota’s best interest to make sure he’s healthy, so he won’t get jerked around at all. The bad news is, well, you know. Everything.

We will keep you updated as the story progresses, and we certainly wish Budinger the best in his recovery. But it appears that the injury bug likes the climate in Minnesota.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Ricky Rubio’s jump shot: A closer look

If trends are any indicator, Ricky Rubio missed this shot.

Over the past week or so, we have seen quite a few people take on the topic of Ricky Rubio’s scoring, a legitimate concern as the extremely talented-but-flawed point guard enters his third season in the league.

Zach Harper, on A Wolf Among Wolves, took a nice look at how Rubio could up his shooting percentage to 40% next season,  which would be a very modest improvement:

Ricky’s finishing in the restricted area has been pretty terrible in his first two seasons. Last year — granted while he was coming back from ACL surgery — Rubio made just 44.3% of his attempts in the restricted area. League average for guards was 56.6%. As stated above, average for point guards of top offenses over the past nine seasons has been 55.5%. If Rubio were to somehow improve to that 55.5% mark in the restricted area while still taking on average the same number of attempts he had the last two seasons, that alone would raise his field goal percentage to 39.1%, putting him right around that mark of 40%.

I highly recommend you go read the entire piece, as it’s chalk full of interesting information and worthwhile details like the paragraph above.

One of Harper’s points — and it’s a solid one — is that asking Rubio to improve to 40% doesn’t mean we are asking him to improve his jumper. All that’s required is he improves his shooting around the rim.

But Rubio’s jump shot, although it hasn’t shown a lot of improvement in his first two years, might not be unfixable. Watching his tape, he seems to have a few bad-but-fixable habits.

Here is Rubio’s shot chart from last season, per NBA.com/stats:

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 9.05.23 PM

Clearly, his shooting isn’t great, or even good. Around the rim, he was abysmal, as Harper wrote in his article. But, interestingly, on long two-point attempts, Rubio shot .404 . That’s not an efficient percentage, but it indicates that he’s actually pretty solid from that range, even though it’s a shot most shouldn’t be taking.

For Rubio, however, shots from that distance are essential. Guards who can come off a screen-and-roll and be a legitimate threat from mid-range find themselves in position to score frequently, and for Rubio, the pick-and-roll was an important play even by point guard standards. According to MySynergySports.com, a staggering 42.8% of Rubio’s scoring plays last year were as a pick-and-roll ball handler, meaning if he felt confident firing away from mid-range, a screen could spring him.

Around the rim, Rubio is frequently off-balance, trying to put too much English on the ball off the backboard and fighting a losing battle. But off a pick-and-roll, Rubio often looked more comfortable getting set and firing up a shot (36% from the field per  MySynergySports.com, 0.71 points per possession).

Let’s be clear: those numbers aren’t good. As a scoring pick-and-roll handler, Rubio was just 122nd in the NBA in points per possession. But going through his shot attempts from last season, there was a noticeable trend: When Rubio is able to square himself toward the hoop and land with his feet facing the basket, he was considerably more likely to knock down the shot. Take a look at a couple of examples:

In the first two clips, Rubio comes off a screen and gets both of his feet lined up immediately. In the third one, he is fading to his left a little bit, but he still lands facing the basket.

This held true pretty well throughout his attempts. Even when Rubio would be kind of off-balance, if his feet went up facing the hoop and came down in the same formation, the shot had a much better chance of going in. This shouldn’t be rocket science. Squaring up is a fundamental skill taught to potential wings at a very early age. But it’s interesting to note how much it helped a mediocre-at-best jump shooter like Rubio.

Rubio’s shooting splits also line up with something else notable: He seems to set himself best by far off the dribble. In spot-up attempts, per MySynergySports.com, Rubio shot 29.6% overall. He was so bad, in fact, that his poor 3-point shooting (31.7%) actually eclipsed his overall percentage, despite the fact that 3-point attempts made up just over half of his spot-up shots: 63 out of 121 spot-up field goal attempts were behind the arc.

It’s not a secret that Rubio is bad at spot-up shooting, and you can see defenses adjusting accordingly (which is part of the reason it’s so critical for him as a developing point guard to get some semblance of a jumper). At times, it got a little embarrassing how willing opponents were to hand the Wolves a good look from 3-point range.

But when you look at the video, Rubio’s form will tell you essentially everything you need to know about his spot-up shot at the moment.

I didn’t bother freezing any of the video in part because the hitch in his shot and his form is more pronounced when the tape is played continuously. Slowed down, Rubio appears to be doing fine on spot-ups. His body is square (in part because defenses give him weeks to set himself), his release is high enough and he gets some leg under his shot. But all of that is precisely the problem: He appears to be running through a mental checklist as he enters his shooting motion. You can sort of see him painfully lining the ball up with the basket and letting it go. It’s very rudimentary form.

The ironic thing is that when Rubio doesn’t seem to think about his spot-up very much (in that he just catches and fires immediately without lining it up beforehand), it looks a lot more natural (check his shot along the right baseline at about 0:57). Meanwhile, when he doesn’t take the time to set himself on his off-the-dribble jumpers…well…

My point is not that Rubio needs to develop his spot-up shot, at least not yet. Rather, it seems plausible that he could be a decent off-the-dribble shooter, and — as Zach Harper’s article pointed out — we aren’t asking for elite shooting. We are simply asking for decent mediocrity.

There’s no cure-all that will turn Ricky Rubio into the greatest point guard of his generation, but there are ways, seemingly, to improve his shooting percentages, which would go a long way towards pushing him into the conversation of elite point guards.

Ricky Rubio, right now, is not one of the 10 best point guards in the league. Minnesota needs him to be if they want to move beyond the designation of “low-rung playoff contender.” Rubio has the offensive awareness, the defensive tenacity and the basketball IQ to move into that list, but he isn’t there yet. We can only hope that, at some point, he figures out how to start making the jumpers fall.

The lay-ups too. If he went ahead and made a few shots around the rim, that would be ideal.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.