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Everybody, Get Back to Work

The Sensitive Subject illuminated within the Timberwolves portion of local media outlets throughout the weekend was ultimately diffused, following a victory over the San Antonio Spurs, Tuesday night at Target Center. Albeit serious, the accusations against Dante Cunningham are his to deal with, the legal process doesn’t intensify with the same speed as news outlets after these stories surface; nor should they, and as Derek James points out — Dante Cunningham entered yesterdays’ game virtually unnoticed following the concerning news that took place surrounding his personal life over the weekend.

Before Tuesday night had ended, I can only speculate, the topic had left nearly everyone’s mind.

In-wake of injuries, the Wolves signed a familiar face, Othyus Jeffers, during the day. Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad were inactive, likely for the remainder of the season, and those who would play seemingly didn’t have anything to play for. However, they were not a team that played that way.

While the Wolves and Spurs were supposed to play one-another on December 4th, a fire within a Mexico City stadium, prior to the game, kept them from doing so. Henceforth, the two met last night in Minneapolis. The match up’s significance had greatly diminished. The Wolves weren’t playing spoiler, there will be no postseason, and the State of Hockey’s beloved Wild were hosting a make-or-break meeting in St. Paul that would determine their postseason fate. There were very few in attendance, despite the presence of the stoic Spurs, in-town.

Ricky Rubio, Robbie Hummel, Corey Brewer, Kevin Love and Gorgui Dieng trotted out to start the game against Cory Joseph, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan. The Wolves scored the first basket, and the lead was theirs for the duration of the evening. Rick Adelman’s offense went to work, and Rubio and Love looked to do the heavy lifting during the first quarter. Love, despite shooting only one of seven from the field, was the Wolves’ top distributor during the opening frame with three assists. He’s refined his passing out of the high post throughout the year, a point of emphasis entering this season.

Rubio, although his scoring production is oft the subject of warranted criticism, has been notably more-and-more aggressive slashing to the basket as the year has gone on. Knowing this, the Spurs’ defenders encouraged him to settle for midrange jump shots by sagging into the painted area while Rubio dribbled at near the top of the key. He was able to successfully counter this familiar defensive scheme by connecting on three elbow jumpers on as many attempts during the first.

Without Tony Parker, Joseph and reserve point guard Patty Mills were left to orchestrate the Spurs’ proverbial offensive machine. Minnesota contested shots, denied entry passes and made everything difficult with tenacious defending. The disinterested Spurs scored only 34 first half points, the second-least points scored by a Wolves opponent in a half this season. Minnesota compiled a 20-point lead by halftime, and there seemed to be no passion lost from within the home club.

The one-sided route leveled during the third and fourth quarters, but the energy level from the bench refused to cease until the game was over. Love, who struggled from the field early, scored 10 third-quarter points. Rubio matched Love’s scoring output. Dieng added five points and five rebounds, and the Wolves’ starters balanced scoring provided a 22 point lead entering the final frame. Ronnie Turiaf, who plays as fiery as anyone, hammered home multiple, alley-oop dunks with less than five minutes to play. Even Jeffers, signed earlier during the day, Tuesday, entered the game before it had ended.

With a little over a minute to play, Jeffers received the ball and Cunningham set him a screen near the left elbow. He went around the screen, into the lane, and found a streaking Cunningham with a bounce pass. “DC Hustle,” as he is known, emphatically attempted to add an explanation point to the victory, but to no avail. He missed the dunk attempt and the game ended, the Wolves had beaten the Spurs — 110-91.

Whilst negative, pessimistic, feelings of defeatism oft surround sports in Minnesota, the uneasy — saddening and troubling — news that punctured the Wolves organization was left at-ease, at least temporarily, following Tuesday night’s victory over the Spurs. Adelman emphasized the importance of setting the tone for the remainder of the week, post-game, and victories, ala last night and against the Miami Heat, last week, are a prime representations of the Wolves’ mental focus as they approach the end of yet another disappointing season.

“Liked the way we played. We came out and played solid. The guys on the bench came in did a nice job. They missed a lot of shots in the first half but we were doing what we wanted to, making them jump shoot and not give them layups because they are such a great passing team. They get cut to the basket and we were able to at least limit that some.” – Adelman

Perhaps it’s the type of tone that could echo throughout the postseason, and even into next year. Regardless, they played with as much energy as a playoff-bound team, without the stadium full of roaring fans. In a surprising victory over the Spurs, on a night when most eyes were on the Wild, across town, the Wolves showed that they’re playing for their own benefit.

These were men, accustomed to performing in front of a grand audience, working to accomplish a task at hand. This wasn’t a job done at the request, or for the glory, of others. The victory gives the Wolves opportunity to feel confident about themselves, as well as what they accomplished.

The White Flag Still Waves; Wolves fall to Nets, 99-114

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If the snow is melting all around you and the sun is shining on your skin for the first time during 2014; the Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t going to make the playoffs. It’s an awkward point of the season and there are many questions regarding Kevin Love and Rick Adelman’s future with the Wolves, but there’s a micro and macro approach to how fans can go about perceiving each performance throughout the remainder of the season.

There are still games to be played, and valuable information can be collected from each instance.

The Wolves and the Brooklyn Nets are both quite polarizing teams. The Nets, constructed of proven veterans playing under the instruction of rookie head coach, Jason Kidd, are flourishing late in the season. Brooklyn was 28-12 since the beginning of 2014, entering Sunday. Conversely, the Wolves are a congregation of young, mediocre, but appropriate components meant to appease Rick Adelman’s expiring, yet not quite outdated, offensive vision. For comparison’s sake; the Wolves record since the start of the new year entering Sunday’s game against the Nets was 21-19.

Kidd, who inexplicably received the head coaching job without previous experience, spoke highly of former T-Wolf Andrei Kirilenko during morning shootaround, as he should have. AK47 is a versatile defender with an unselfish, offensive mindset that make the Nets better — Brooklyn is 26-11 in games that Kirilenko plays. As for the other former Wolf, Kevin Garnett did not play on Sunday and will likely miss the remainder of the season due to back spasm.

Adelman, on the other hand, is nursing a roster with many players in different stages of recovery. Nikola Pekovic returned to the starting lineup in Brooklyn, after playing 21 minutes in the Wolves blowout win over the Lakers last Friday. Chase Budinger’s legs, or lack there of, have been in question since his return and it’s unsure whether or not he’ll return to a fraction of his former self. Let’s also not forget that Ricky Rubio is on pace to appear in all 81 games this season, and he’s not yet two years removed from having reconstructive surgery that repaired two, torn ligaments in his left knee.

While the starting lineup of Love, Rubio, Corey Brewer, Pekovic and Kevin Martin began the game, how Adelman was going to integrate Gorgui Dieng into the rotation was an illuminated question entering Sunday’s game. Because of his recent outbursts — both scoring and on the boards — Dieng’s presence among the Wolves’ core has grown immensely, depending on the perspective. Some believe it would be best to trade Pekovic, because a small sample size states that Dieng has the potential to be a prominent NBA center, which (in my opinion) is lunacy. Pekovic played eight-and-a-half minutes in the opening quarter and scored four points, in addition to collecting three rebounds, while Dieng played only three-and-a-half minutes and tallied three points and two rebounds during that time.

Joe Johnson led the way for the Nets in the opening quarter by converting on all four of his three-point attempts, and the Wolves trailed by three at the end of the first frame. Johnson, aside fellow starters Deron Williams, Shawn Livingston, Mason Plumlee and Paul Pierce, also added two assists. For the Wolves, Martin seeked to insert himself early, scoring nine on four-of-seven shooting from the field, and Rubio did as Rubio does en route to six first quarter assists. Still, the Wolves trailed the Nets after one.

Love was three-of-five shooting from the field and scored seven points during the first quarter, and that was about the entirety of his evening in terms of his offensive production. According the Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, Love sat on a dolly outside the Wolves’ locker room before the game and was chatting with Jeff Schwartz, his agent who is based in New York City. Love’s future with the Wolves obviously remains uncertain. His recent depressing*…speech?……after a road loss to the Memphis Grizzlies clarified the obvious; Love is gassed after carrying a vast majority of the load this season. He failed to score in either the second or third quarter on Sunday night.

Brewer and Martin, both acquired during the offseason, were the two Wolves players that kept the game close throughout the first three quarters, but without the usual punch from Love the Nets went for the jugular when the fourth quarter began. Brewer, a puzzling conundrum on the offensive end if he’s not receiving outlet passes that lead to easy buckets, was surprisingly efficient (6 of 9 FG w/ 15 points in 18:38 minutes) during the second and third quarters. The notorious gambler also found himself with four steals, but continued to drive me batty with the unnecessary risks on the defensive end. Martin was the Wolves leading scorer entering the fourth, he had 19 points on 8 of 13 shooting despite only four trips to the free-throw line. Usually, Martin obnoxiously tries to create contact so that he can try to rack up points from the charity stripe. Reminder: Kevin Martin is not Kevin Durant.

The Wolves trailed the Nets, 82-85, entering the fourth quarter.

It’s unquantifiable, but the Nets wanted a victory on Sunday night more than the Wolves. The difference between a team bidding for seeding in the upcoming postseason and a group all but mathematically eliminated from postseason contention is immeasurable, but between these two teams, the definable gap is 12 points. No statistic can signify that Brooklyn played more engaged, and with greater effort, during the final quarter. Two minutes went by and what was a three-point deficit grew to six, then 10, until it reached 14 with four minutes to play.

Adelman determined the Nets lead was insurmountable with just over two-minutes to play in the game. Insert Robbie Hummel, Alexey Shved, and Shabazz Muhammad, these three played aside Dieng and Brewer as the Wolves waived the proverbial white flag — Adelman had seen enough. The Wolves would not play the foul-game, and the 10 point deficit at the two-minute mark was all the Nets needed to secure the victory.

Final: 113-99, Brooklyn defeats Minnesota.

The current makeup of the Wolves roster, well, it is what it is. Questions will continue to surface; will Love leave? Is Adelman on his way out the door? But, on the floor, it’s important to focus on the team’s overall demeanor. Body language, motive, and signs of development from the younger players are small, intricate details to keep an eye out for in order to properly assess this team’s future [with the information we know to be certain.

That being said the performance outside of the starting lineup is an issue, and Adelman’s rotations aren’t helping. Sunday, those outside the starting lineup accounted for 23 of 99 points. Can the Wolves find a way, or will Adelman determine a rotation, to conduct bench scoring, or is their fate frozen until Love and Adelman’s futures are decided? There’s multiple approaches that may help assess and evaluate the Timberwolves, just remember to differentiate between the speculation, and the hard data reflected by the players that are still playing basketball — however meaningless it may be.