Texas ass-whoopin’; Spurs rout Wolves 104-86


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Just keep dribbling, just keep dribbling ... dribbling, dribbling, dribbling!
Just keep dribbling, just keep dribbling … dribbling, dribbling, dribbling!

Coming into this game, there were two things I didn’t really like.

  1. The San Antonio Spurs are really good at kicking ass.
  2. The Wolves are really good at staying at .500.

Those two facts played a big part into the final of tonight’s bout. The Spurs are just so good at making okay teams like the Wolves look pretty bad. And the Wolves, well, are really good at making themselves look pathetic in cities not named ‘Minneapolis.’

We’re gonna play a little game here. Now don’t go cheat by looking at the box score! Just take a look at these opposing numbers and guess which team is which.

  • Team A: 35.5 FG%, 5/17 3PM, 40 REB, 17 AST, 16 STL, 10 TO, 10 PTS OFF TO’s
  • Team B: 56.8 FG%, 9-13 3PM, 46 REB, 31 AST, 10 BLK, 20 TO, 16 PTS OFF TO’s

Ahh, who am I kidding? This isn’t even a game when everyone can win (Or cheat). Obviously, Team A was the Wolves. What tipped you off? The FG%? Yeah, most likely. But everything else seems up to par. They don’t typically get out-rebounded but when you shoot that bad, it can happen. The assists are awfully low but the Spurs make it look puny with their insane total. 16 steals is nice. That was mostly caused by bone-headedness from the Spurs and their surplus of turnovers. But when you can only convert 10 points out of 16 steals and 20 turnovers, you’re doing something wrong.

Or maybe you’re not doing anything wrong. There’s something funky about these Wolves. The poor shooting nights have become synonymous to almost any game they get into. Kevin Love is prone to have bad nights, as is Kevin Martin, but there’s just no help ready to step up. Nikola Pekovic has been the most consistent option all season long. Otherwise, if one of those two guys have an off night, it’s pretty much a wash for that one because no one has, or maybe even can, step up and make a difference in the scoring column. Corey Brewer’s awful December is creeping into January. JJ Barea’s too busy dribbling. Ricky Rubio, HA!

There’s not too many other options from there. It’s good to have Chase Budinger back but from a reduced bench role until he’s 100-percent, he won’t be able to get enough time or shots to reduce any void left from either Kevins’ off-night. Everything I’m laying out shouldn’t be new, and it’s definitely very much alive in the back of Rick Adelman’s mind, especially when he stares down his bench in some clutch moments during any game. The help has to come from within because I don’t see any roster movement coming soon. But it also needs to come soon. 36 games into the season means we’re almost halfway done, so a run has to come soon, otherwise we’re facing ping-pong balls yet again.

I don’t mean to get all panicky, especially after a blowout loss to one of the league’s, not just the conference’s best. But these are recurring faults game-in and out, and it’s getting more and more frustrating as the season wears on. Let’s hope that both Kevins and the Wolves as a whole can turn it around Wednesday at home vs Derrick Williams and the Sacramento Kings.

I don’t want to talk about it: Wolves lose 104-103 to the Suns


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Here’s the thing about the Phoenix Suns. They’re like that person who shows up to a dinner at a restaurant that the hosts setup with a reservation ahead of the time. Because there is not enough room for this unexpected guest, the restaurant has to may have to pull up a chair or move a couple of tables around to accommodate the extra person. Of course, this is a metaphor (or something) for the Western Conference, and the Western Conference is crowded so therefore this figurative restaurant is also crowded and this makes everyone uncomfortable. Plain and simple: they don’t belong, but they are here and we have to deal with it.

Don’t get me wrong; the Suns are good. They are also exactly the team that you don’t want to run into coming off of a blowout of a bad team. In the same way you want to have a short memory with a bad loss, it’s helpful to have a short memory with a big win.

The Timberwolves roared out to an early 11-2 lead behind six Kevin Martin points. The Suns saw this and thought this was a terrific idea like that person at the restaurant who orders the same thing as you by going on an 11-2 run of their own. Thanks to Channing Frye, the Suns managed to escape with a modest four-point lead at the end of one.

In the second quarter, Chase Budinger, making his season debut, scored five points, but it was Phoenix’s 12-3 run at the end of the half that would give them the 53-47 advantage.

It was in the third quarter that the Timberwolves continued to do the two things they were successful at in the first half — getting to the line and making threes — and were able to use that to carry them to a lead at the end of the third and eventually a late game lead.

Are you wondering why I skipped over a quarter’s worth of game? Because something happened, again, and I think we need to talk about it. I talked about it on Hardwood Paroxysm over the weekend while the site was down, but I’m willing to open up the conversation again.

Over the course of the game’s final 2: 45 the Suns managed to outscore the Timberwolves 8-1 to seal the game, including a Gerald Green baseline jumper that made you go, “YEAHOKAYWHATEVERGERALDGREENIFYOU’REGOINGTOHITTHAT…” It was tough, a little hard to stomach, but this is not the end of the world. Most of the Timberwolves’ issues are fixable, and while they do have time on their side, the sooner they get fixed the better.

For example, Corey Brewer’s foul on Gerald Green’s jumper with about 2:34 to go. On this play Brewer runs up behind Green as he’s about to release and catches him on the wrist. Why commit that foul then and there? It made no sense and eventually led to two made free throws by Green.

When the Timberwolves would try and run an offense the defense would sag off of Ricky Rubio, jamming the passing lanes and making it more difficult to get into their offense. This led to a rushed Kevin Love turnaround baseline jumper, a bobbled entry pass to Nikola Pekovic and Rubio eventually throwing a pass that was interception right under the basket and eventually helped the Suns seal the game. Even Kevin Martin got a chance to win it with his 10-footer at the end of the game, but it missed and the rest is now history.

Tonight was frustrating, no doubt. However, there is still plenty of time to turn things around being just 34 games into the season. Being in the Western Conference, these games are important so there does need to be a sense of urgency, but their 0-whatever record in late-game situations could wind up not mattering at all come April. The Timberwolves are one game under .500, not 15 games under. Nobody is guaranteed a playoff spot and the Timberwolves are no exception and will have to resolve their issues before it is actually too late.

Tonight is one of those games where you will need a short memory as a team (Probably a fan, too) since the last thing you want to do is compound your problems by letting it take another game from you. It’s not like I’m going to sit here and tell you that tonight wasn’t a disaster of an ending because it was, but that doesn’t automatically make it a predictor of latter season success. The Timberwolves will turn around to do it again against the improved Bobcats on Friday and if they can’t leave this game behind then they will have bigger problems than this.

Notes:

- Love finished with 15 and 12, but on 4-20 shooting and five fouls. Pekovic added 17-12 and Rubio finished with 7-8-8.

- For the Suns, Goran Dragic led the way with 26-8-9 and Channing Frye chipped in 22 points off of five three pointers.

- Both teams finished with 12 turnovers, but the Suns scored 18 off of turnovers to the Timberwolves’ 13. Though the Timberwolves won the points in the battle (42-28) and had twelve more free throw attempts than the Suns tonight. Yeah, they should have won, but late game execution and all…

Lest the three-ball reign; Wolves rout 76ers


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HTW is back and so is the Wolves' firepower (For one night, at least)
HTW is back and so is the Wolves’ firepower (For one night, at least)

Ahh, it’s good to be back! A bug in our system may prevent us from writing about our beloved Wolves but it certainly did not bring down any passion I still share for this team.

So watching them win huge, 126-95, in Philly tonight was a blessing because we can all agree that the last few games, particularly the loss to OKC, totally sucked.

The Wolves used a three-point barrage to beat the 76ers to a bloody pulp tonight on their homecourt, and boy, was it needed. Here’s the analogy I’ll use; how many of you are the middle child? Bueller? Anyways, if you are, you know what it’s like to get beat up by the eldest. I mean, they’re bigger, stronger and, of course, older and wiser. There’s usually no way out of it except to scream for mom to tell them to stop. So you’re sitting there, all pouty and bruised when you’re little sibling walks into the room. They rub you the wrong way, poking and teasing, and next thing you know, you’re wailing on them out of sheer frustration.

That’s the mentality the Wolves had coming into tonight’s contest. The big, bad older brother Oklahoma City beat us up pretty good, even if it was close. It’s still bitter and hurts deep inside. So what’s the best way to get that out? Beat up on the younger, less experienced one, who simply loves to instigate the matter. That was Philadelphia tonight. It’s nothing personal against Philly. The Wolves were looking for anyone to take their frustration out on tonight. It just happened to be the poor 76ers.

But I don’t care. They needed this blowout win to prove it to themselves that they’re not broken. The season is still very long and there’s time to figure out how to scheme out a win over the bigger brother another day.

To get into the numbers a little bit, the Wolves ended up draining 16 threes, a season-high for them. The 76ers actually nailed eight themselves, which is pretty good. But what was mostly different from tonight than most of the Wolves’ scoring outbursts was the dispersion in the scoring. Typically you see just Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic dominating the scoring column. Well, they did so again tonight (42 points combined) but Corey Brewer added 15. Kevin Martin also netted 18. But the bench really came up big, which isn’t so typical, coming up with 47 points as well, mostly from JJ Barea (13), Dante Cunningham (10) and Alexey Shved (10).

Those last three guys are going to be a big piece of the season’s story moving forward. If Adelman can find some trust in those guys to come off the bench for 15+ minutes per game and NOT screw things up too drastically, this team’s makeup will be greatly different than if they can’t. Cut down the turnovers and at the very least just turn those into field goal attempts, and I think this unit will be more reliable than the previous couple months. Barea is the starter but Shved is going to be key as well because he has the potential to fill a sixth man sort of role. It’s just all about consistency for all three of them, which they’ve struggled with all season long. So really we just have to hope and pray that these kinds of nights happen a little more often.

Twas a great win tonight, and now the Wolves are back to .500 at 17-17 (That’s nothing new). They get one day rest but then gotta come prepared for a fiery Suns team on Wednesday night. Luckily, it’s at home but it won’t be as easy as preseason predictions had it to be.

Timberwolves drop Bucks, 117-95, get back to .500


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Although the Bucks came into Saturday night’s matchup with the Timberwolves with the league’s worst overall record, the game carried some importance for Minnesota who had hit a bit of rough patch the last couple of weeks. The Bucks were getting Larry Sanders back from a hand injury and the Timberwolves were, well, like the Bucks, on the second night of a back-to-back. Still, with a victory in Milwaukee the Timberwolves would be able to do three things: 1) Move back to .500; 2) jump the Denver Nuggets for sole possession of third place in the Northwest division; and 3) reclaim the ninth seed in the Western Conference.

Spoiler alert: They did.

The Bucks came out with a ton of energy in an, “Aww, isn’t that just precious” kind of way. They were able to match the Timberwolves’ energy to start the game and were able to keep it a close game until about halfway through the first quarter when they scored 16 points on 14 points in the paint. However, they couldn’t resist the urge to commit careless turnover after careless turnover, including several passes thrown directly to multiple Timberwolves. In fact, in the first three minutes, Ricky Rubio had tallied three steals. I’m not sure the Bucks remembered they were wearing white.

As the game carried on into the second quarter, the Timberwolves continued to build their momentum behind a strong team three point shooting  performance and points off of turnovers. Minnesota shot 11-24 from distance for the entire game and with 25 points off of turnovers. The Timberwolves force the second most turnovers per game and forced 20 more on Saturday night, so when they finished the game with 18 of their own they were able to mitigate those negative effects with their 25-12 points off of turnovers advantage. By this point the energy the Bucks exhibited early on had faded and the Timberwolves led 64-55.

To follow up two 30-plus point quarters, the Timberwolves were able to add on to their lead with another 39 point frame. Continuing the good things that had enabled them to take and hold the lead and finished the half up 103-76, including what was once a 30-point lead. Placing the worst team in the league, this was hardly surprising.

Naturally, the Timberwolves took their foot off of the pedal in the fourth quarter and allowed the Bucks to creep back into the game some. Halfway through the fourth after the Bucks had cut the lead back into the mid-teens, Adelman re-inserted his big three of Rubio, Love, and Pekovic to stop the bleeding. This isn’t as much cause for concern as it was a team that was up big on a far worse team falling asleep at the wheel and then regaining consciousness in time to put them away for good. When the Bucks were back within 12 with less than two minutes to go and Martin hit that elbow jumper to cause the Larry Drew time out, it was over. Done. Did we really need the last 12 minutes to learn this result? No, not really, especially on the second night of a back-to-back.

Love led the Timberwolves with a brilliant 33 points, 15 rebound and four assist game on 11-17 shooting, including 4-6 from three. Nikola Pekovic played well with 19-11-3, but when the Bucks threw Sanders on him late his length gave Pekovic some problems and turnovers. On top of it all, the bench contributed 19 points, which is just what the Timberwolves need to be successful for the rest of the season.

Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 23 points and nine rebounds. OJ Mayo added an efficient 19 points on 8-12 shooting off of the bench, but gave the Bucks very little else. And Sanders finished 10 points and nine rebounds in his return from hand surgery.

Nothing like a little Eastern Conference back-to-back to get your confidence back, right?

 

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.

Frequently Asked Questions: Timberwolves fall to Lakers 104-91


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I’m tired, I won’t lie, so I have no idea where this recap is going to go. If there is any way for me to get this up in a timely manner, it’s going to be now. I apologize; this is not the recap you need or really deserve. Though if you’ve clicked the link you probably do need the recap, so this will be better than nothing.

This wound up not being  a very fun game to watch, especially for bed. In the NBA you never assume that one team is going to run away with the game, but given how short-handed they were I think a lot of people expected the Timberwolves to come away with victory here. They were down Kobe Bryant (HAVE YOU HEARD?!), Steves Blake and Nash, and Jordan Farmar as well. That’s a whole lotta, “Welp, crap.” to deal with, but the Lakers made due anyway. On the other hand, the Timberwolves were coming off of some rest time and were mostly healthy.

So, why didn’t they win? Was it just one of those games? It really could have been, but this team is perplexingly inconsistent: beat Memphis, lose to Boston, beat Portland, lose to the Lakers. Are they just rising up to the occasion against better teams and playing down to others? I don’t think so. They’ve handily beaten Boston and Oklahoma City and then lost to them the next time around.

Is it the way the roster is constructed? Maybe the current parts, namely the bench, don’t make sense. Perhaps not getting more from Alexey Shved and Shabazz Muhammad has hurt them on top of Chase Budinger’s absence. At the time these were pieces that you looked at and thought if they could get anything the team could have depth, but now feel more empty than expected.Did having Luke Ridnour cover up for some of JJ Barea’s deficiencies the last two years? Dante Cunningham is now the best scorer of the front court reserves, which is fine as long as the team runs the offense through Love when it matters most, unlike tonight.

The Timberwolves can score since they are currently third in the league in points per game, but they are near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage, two point and three point percentage; they also play at the third fastest pace in the league. Only six, seven if you count Gorgui Dieng, players on the roster are currently shooting above 40 percent from the field. The list of players sub-40 percent shooters is: Ricky Rubio, Robbie Hummel, JJ Barea, Alexey Shved, Ronny Turiaf, AJ Price and Shabazz Muhammad.

I only bring this up because no other Timberwolves scored in double figures besides Love, Pekovic and Martin– the usual suspects. Cunningham is just below .448 percent on the year and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is at .485, but it’s not as if LRMAM is a sustainable source of offense. This isn’t a new question, but this bench is definitely a concern for  a team with serious playoff aspirations.

At 13-14, the Timberwolves are far from hapless, but at 27 games you wonder how much of the true nature of the team you are seeing and how much room they have to grow. 56 games is still a lot of games, but some of the things that we were seeing or were hoping to see have begun to fade. And that could just be from the nature of the ebbs and flows of the season, but for a team with playoff aspirations, not being able to defend or shoot efficiently is a problem. Or this is just impatience showing through, and I’m just fucking tired and everything is fine because we’re just 27 games in. Then I look at a team like the Lakers and their circumstances and wonder how they’ve managed to exceed their expectations. Maybe our expectations and predictions don’t mean anything and they just make more sense together. Rather, what if they complement each other better as a team versus just having a few players complement each other well.

Whatever. I might be stupid, I might be onto something or on something (I’m not on something, FYI.) At this point in the season we may have expected to have more questions answered, even though it doesn’t feel this way. This was a game of runs, but ultimately a game that should have been won. The momentum was there when they took the lead at the end of the first half, but let it slip early in the first, and spent the rest of the game see-sawing before letting it ultimately get away.

Yeah, 27 games might be too soon, or not; I don’t know. Here are some coherent notes:

- Kevin Love had 25 points and 13 rebounds, but it was a disappointing finish considering that he had 20 at the half. To be fair, the Lakers did a good job forcing the offense away from him in the second half.

- Nikola Pekovic had 22 points and 13 rebounds himself. Of those 13 rebounds, 10 were offensive and he also went 8-12 from the line. That is a lot of offensive rebounds.

- Pau Gasol was on triple double watch for the Lakers finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Xavier Henry added 22 points and Nick Young added 25, including a big three at the end.

- How you lose after forcing 19 turnovers and getting 23 points off of those turnovers is a little beyond me. Kind of what happens when you lapse on the transition defense early and giveaway easy points you don’t need to. That wasn’t all of it, but it was part of it, and I’m tired.

Back to old ways; Wolves beats Portland, 120-109


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Ahh, teamwork
Ahh, teamwork

So the Timberwolves whooped up on arguably the hottest team in the West right now pretty good tonight. And although the final margin was just 11, the deficit was really  a lot bigger, according to the eye test.

This was the first time since probably early November that the Wolves actually looked like the offensive powerhouse they’re built to be. They had just about every facet of their offense working in unity to create a beautiful symphony. Kevin Love played the inside-out game, burning Lamarcus Aldridge from both areas. Nikola Pekovic was a monster in the paint by using non-monsterish, finesse moves like that new turnaround mid-range jumper. And then Kevin Martin picked up the slack by being an efficient scoring guard from all over.

The first half was one of the most entertaining halves I’ve seen the Wolves play this year, and there’s been a lot of them to this point. But they just had it working and against the Trail Blazers, who’ve had our number in the past, it was exciting to watch them go full-throttle. And by “number”, I mean they’ve won 21 of the last 23 meetings against the Wolves. Ouch. It’s typically a tough, back-and-forth meeting between these two that seems like it should be dominated by terrific, one-on-one play between Love and Aldridge but always comes down to some random perimeter guy from PDX (Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum) blowing up Wolves at the seams. And it was oh-so close to being that way again tonight.

After jumping out to a 30-plus point lead in the second (It was 69-43 at halftime), the Blazers staked their bid at a comeback. Behind the incredibly gifted Damian Lillard, the Blazers kept pushing the Wolves into an uncomfortable spot, time and time again down the court. Soon enough, that “impenetrable” lead dwindled down to just four points and almost all was certain that the Blazers would finish this comeback and, at the very least, take the lead.

Luckily, the Wolves had just enough fight in them to fire up some threes to finish the third quarter on a solid run of their own. Three-pointers from Love, Martin and JJ Barea (Two from him, actually) stemmed the run and pushed that lead back up to 20 points before the fourth quarter, as the Wolves ended up sealing the deal in the end.

It was that trio, Love, Martin and Pekovic, that did all the damage in a multitude of ways to take down the fiery Blazers tonight. Love narrowly missed recording his first career triple-double with 29 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. He actually finished the first half with eight of those nine assists. And then Martin made a nice return back to early-season form, scoring 22 points on 8-15 shooting. But it was Pekovic that took the cake for me. He netted a career-high 30 points and 14-19 shooting. He was so, so good at sealing the Blazers’ centers in the paint and then finishing on easy layups. He also showcased that new turnaround mid-range jumper, which fell a couple times tonight. We’re starting to see some growth in his game, leaning more towards finesse moves around the rim. It may seem awkward at first, and I’m not sure why we’re not used to it having watched Al Jefferson play in Minnesota before, but the numbers will continue to roll in for him and he’ll get the recognition league-wide that he deserves.

Speaking of deserving, Mr. Lillard needs some praise. I don’t care that he’s on the Blazers. This dude is insanely good. Right now, I’d take him over Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and, yes, even Ricky Rubio. He carries himself with such great maturity and his body language clearly proves his desire to win and get better each and every night. His game just about has it all, and we certainly saw that tonight, while he tried to lead the Portland comeback single-handedly. If the Blazers continue on this hot run of theirs, look for Lillard to continue to put up huge numbers and slide under the wing of national attention.

Now back at .500 on the season, next up for the Wolves are the Lakers with a battered but battling Kobe Bryant on Friday night.

The rise and demise of Ricky Rubio


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Ricky Rubio’s good and all, but could he be better? Oh yeah.

Just a quick note before you read on, Ricky Rubio went 2-12 with six points in last night’s loss to the Celtics. He even lost significant playing time to the hands of JJ Barea and Alexey Shved down the stretch. This is the story of the rise and demise of Ricky Rubio and his offensive charm.

In 2009, former President of Basketball Operations David Kahn was in a prime position to turn the Timberwolves’ misfortunes around in a big, big way. Armed with two draft picks in the first seven slots in what seemed to be a pretty solid draft talent-wise, Wolves fans were more than excited to get off the hump and in a hurry.

Well, four years later, we know how that scenario turned out. Most notably, Kahn chose Syracuse point guard Johnny Flynn over the country’s college basketball sweetheart in Stephen Curry. Flynn is currently playing (pro?) basketball in China, although rumor has it he left the team already, while Curry is becoming the superstar some thought him to be right out of college. Despite dealing with a myriad of injuries in his short career, he’s still the face of the Golden State Warriors, averaging 24.1 points and 8.9 assists per game, leading them to a modest 13-12 record this season.

Meanwhile, the other storyline of that draft was Sir Ricky Rubio. The mystical point guard out of Spain was all the rage from that draft because of how mysterious he was. At just 19 years of age and a big question mark regarding his contractual eligibility, Rubio was a hot commodity but it was like having a really big, shiny box and not exactly knowing what’s inside until you open it.

Thanks to a trade with the Wizards, the Wolves were lucky enough to open that box. And even though they had to wait with it under the tree for two years, what was inside was just as shiny and exciting as the box itself. Rubio, alongside Love’s emergence as one of the NBA’s top players, finally rejuvenated a desperate fan base and even instilled some hope for a brighter future in Minnesota. Better late than never, amiright?

But now that we’re in Rubio’s third season, that glitter and shine we all fell in love with is starting to dull and it needs a major rebuffering. The youngster with boyish charm off the court and flashy game on is now struggling to regain that favor with the fans, or at least this critic.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on the guy. After all, on the surface, Rubio could very well turn out to be the best Timberwolves point guard of all time. The competition isn’t all that fierce from Pooh Richardson to Terrell Brandon to Stephon Marbury. If he stays long enough, he could and most likely will break records for assists and steals in Wolves history. Through 122 games played over his three year career, he’s averaging 7.8 assists per game, giving him 950 on his career, which puts him just outside of the top 10 in Wolves history but on pace to break Kevin Garnett’s record of 4,146 in just about six more seasons. Not easy but definitely possible if he remains a Wolf. He’s clearly a magician when it comes to distributing the basketball. And although we haven’t seen as much flash this season like we have in the past from Rubio, he’s still posting consistent numbers and finding players for open shots. He’s ultimately what keeps the offense moving and he’s any coach’s dream point guard from that standpoint.

Then you have the defensive side, where Rubio may just be one of the best on-ball defenders at the point guard position. At 6’4″ with long, swaying arms, Rubio wreaks havoc at the top of the key. He’s got quick feet to stay along with even some of the quickest, more athletic guards in the league. At first, he struggled with those guys because of just how explosive they are. But after a few years of getting used to the speed of the NBA game, he’s figured out how to better position his body to stop the head-on drives to the basket. Perhaps the best part of his defensive game, though, is his mental makeup to gamble and take risks. And, boy, has it paid off. We’ve gotten used to Corey Brewer’s cat-and-mouse defense, where he lunges at offline passes to get a finger on them, but Rubio is more particular about it. That special Spidey sense has equalled 2.4 steals per game, which already leads the Timberwolves all-time, although he’s still a long ways off of Garnett’s 1,282 total steals. It’s still clear that Rubio’s killer instincts on defense are potentially more valuable than his offensive prowess, and I really mean that.

Part of my reasoning about his defensive skills being more important is because he seems more mature than he did when he first started on that end, whereas on offense, Rubio still has a lot of room to grow. Specifically, we’re singling out Rubio’s poor shooting numbers.

Typically, by a player’s third season, they start to solidify habits in their game. By that third year, a player’s maturation has just about blossomed and the things they’re doing on the court now are likely what you’ll see for the rest of their career. That doesn’t bode well for Rubio’s shooting habits. As of right now, Rubio is a career 36 percent shooter, 33 percent from deep. Those current numbers make him the poorest shooting point guard in the NBA in the last three seasons. Ouch.

Let’s have a look-see at what Rubio’s shot chart looks like this season:

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A little bit too much red on that chart, if you ask me. But as you can see, he’s actually improved on his three point shot, which is good. But there are two areas that really strike a nerve, given Adelman’s offense and Rubio’s strength running the pick and roll. The mid-range jumper is key to being a pesky pick and roll guard. Think about your options when big Pek comes and sets that screen. For one, you can go right over the top and shoot the jumper from deep. But that’s not a very high percentage shot. So another option is to use the screen and go around, giving you either a clear shot to the basket or an open area to hit the pull-up jumper. That’s what makes Chris Paul such a dangerous option because he can hit that shot with ease. And then your third option is to attack the basket and look for a layup before the help defense collapses down on top of you.

Now, that second option of taking that pull-up jumper is not Rubio’s strength. We’ve seen him hit it before but the problem is that he comes so sharply into that shot at such a steep angle that, once he actually rises to take the shot, he’s moving forward so much that the shot is almost always too deep. And that’s a real problem considering Rubio’s jumper is on a low-arcing curve, naturally, which leaves very little room for any touch. And then you have that third option of attacking the rim. But the problem is Rubio is not very good at absorbing contact, especially with the body, so he shies away from contact quite often. When he draws the foul, that’s a good thing because he can hit free throws at a decent clip. Otherwise he finds himself in trouble in the paint and around the rim, as proven by his paltry 29-72 clip in that area. For most players, that should be close to the easiest shot in basketball but for a sly, slinky guard like Rubio, who masters finesse over speed and power, he can get beat up pretty good down there.

For being a pick and roll artist, you have to be able to expand your game. In his first three seasons, Rubio has not been able to do that. And for someone who appreciates elite talent for what they do (i.e. Chris Paul) it’s hard to look past Rubio’s glaring blinding weaknesses on the offensive end. The flash is fine. The charm is exciting. The defense is wonderful. But Rubio still has a long ways to go before the Wolves go and consider giving a player a big, or a potential max contract, to someone who can’t even crack the “below average” category in terms of shooting percentage. The name of the game is to put the ball in the hoop, and Rubio’s not even average at that. C’mon, man!

So whenever you go back to that 2009 draft and debate with your buddies, everyone always dwells on the “What if we took Curry over Flynn.” But isn’t it fair to evaluate, with over three years now in the league, if taking Rubio over Curry was the right choice? It’s too late to dwell on any past decision but it’s time to start thinking about whether or not Rubio was and is the right choice for the long-term future of the franchise.

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.