It would appear, dear Canis Hoopusters, that the Timberwolves have found their foil: the Indiana Pacers. A team that's perhaps even more haphazardly put together than even ourselves. They aren't all that good,but they're young and they're chaotic, and sometimes that ends up working just by sheer unpredictability.
I was at tonight's game against Indiana, and there were a few things that most definitely stood out. I've got five finals points from preseason play, plus a few observations from this one game....a game that might have been more telling than all the other preseason games combined.
1) Kevin Love is maybe the most standout role player in the NBA:
Love was a roller coaster of contrasts tonight in particular. He had a flurry of catch-and-shoot plays were he couldn't miss, but mixed in a number of try-to-create-off-the-dribble plays that all ended in disaster. There's no question the guy can put up some huge numbers, but it's also been apparent this preseason that those numbers will come as a part of the system as a whole....not from Love trying to create on his own.
S-n-P really nailed it when he said Love can be a transformational role player who plays in the gaps (I don't know about "transformation", personally, but you get the idea). When he reads the floor and takes what the defense gives to him, he's a monster. But this preseason has seen several attempts by him to try and get shots up when the defense is stacked against him, and it isn't working.
He's the most stable player on the roster....I don't know about best, but there's no question he's the most consistent and reliable. He can do a ton of damage in the scoring column when he sticks to his game: catch-and-shoot from open gaps in the defense and crashing the offensive boards. And in our system in particular, those gaps are going to be numerous...we've seen all preseason how deadly Love is when he finds those forgotten spaces and shoots from them. But he does need to play within himself, because the times he tries to become the primary ballhandler are getting more frequent and more painful.
2) This team needs Darko:
And no more was this apparent than tonight.
It goes well beyond just a single-game matchup issue, and beyond the philosophy of being "better than the other options" as well. Darko is an integral part of this team....for better or worse....on both ends of the floor.
On the defensive end, the dividends are obvious. Milicic is the team's tallest, longest player, it's best shot blocker, and a real force as a pick-and-roll and helpside defender. Tonight, obviously, the team could have really used that sort of size and intuition against Pacer center Roy Hibbert, who abused our big men all game in the paint. Not to say anything about the team as a whole giving up 90 points in the first three quarters alone, to a Danny Granger-less Pacers team.
But I also discovered tonight that Darko is a key component to our offense. The system fell apart against the Pacers, and about halfway through the third quarter, I finally figured out why: we can't use the triple-post triangle with Koufos or Pekovic. They don't facilitate well enough.
I have a whole article on this planned, so I won't get in-depth with this thought right now, but suffice it to say that this realization made a lot of things fall into place.
How ironic (sad, depending on how you read these things) is it that we probably missed Darko more tonight than Indiana missed Granger?
3) Pekovic has a lot of adjusting to do:
Maybe this isn't a surprise exactly, but still. The guy is indeed (as Team President Chris Wright said) the strongest human being you'd ever hope to meet, and his scoring ability in the low post is pretty damn good no matter who in the NBA you compare it too. And although he's certainly no Usain Bolt, he hasn't had too much trouble keeping up with the team.
But he's also got a lot of things to work on. First off, he commits a ton of fouls. This preseason, he averaged 4.2 fouls per game, in just under 16 minutes of play. That's over 12 fouls in a standard NBA 48 minute contest. Obviously, this figure needs to go down, and pretty drastically.
Second, as many of you have already noted, he gets called for 3 Seconds on defense quite regularly. Personally, I think 3 Seconds is a waste of rulebook space anyway, but that's a different topic. For now, it's in the Rules, and Pekovic needs to adjust to it. The calls have been for a number of reasons....sometimes he gets lost, sometimes he gets distracted, sometimes he just gets careless. It isn't one single mistake he repeats over and over, so there's that at least. But obviously giving the other team technical free throws isn't something we want to get into the habit of.
Pek didn't get called for it tonight, but he didn't play much either, and well....if you lose Roy Hibbert, you're probably blind.
The good news is these are things that most foreign big men struggle with at first. The Mavericks had these problems with Dirk, the Rockets had these problems with Yao, the Raptors had these problems with Bargnani and I'm sure the Spurs will have these problems with Splitter off and on. It's easily correctable with a little mental focus and simple experience.
4) The NBA's new technical rule is ridiculous:
Ok, this isn't Timberwolves specific, but it's worth saying. The "no argument" policy the NBA has handed its players and referees this season is out of control. Rasheed Wallace was a smart man to retire this year, because I doubt he would have made it through a single game under these guidelines.
The Wolves got T'd up twice tonight for absolutely asinine reasons. The first was for Bassy basically just saying "what" after a foul call, the second was on Tolliver for nothing more than an incredulous expression after getting called for a foul on a block attempt (which looked like a clean block in the replay, no less). When even Tim Duncan's O_O face is game for a ref to whistle a tech, I think the situation is way too extreme. Basketball is a competitive sport and the players are intense. It's not just unfair, but unreasonable to expect them to just not talk in the heat of battle.
I mean, seriously. When Grant Hill gets ejected for anything less than murder, something is wrong.
5) The fans are starting to get it:
Ok, so here at Canis Hoopus, we're not exactly what you'd call a collectively optimistic bunch. And tonight's game probably didn't help that much either. But I have to say, having been inside the Target Center for this one, the fanbase in general is getting pretty excited.
Target Center was maybe 1/4 filled tonight, but as the fourth quarter rolled in, it got louder than any game I attended last year, and it wasn't even close. The entire lower deck was yelling. When Brewer took off on his breakaway miss, the guy across the aisle practically leapt over the row in front of him in excitement. The fans sitting courtside catcalled the refs the entire game. The marketing team was showing a lot of fans around, and at least 3 groups in my section alone....plus myself....bought 10 or 20 game flex plans (which are, BTW, a fantastic deal)
What I learned is that even though the casual fanbase isn't saying much, they are indeed paying attention. They just want the team to be worth it....same as us. David Kahn's plan might not be a hot seller on CH, but the impression I got from most fans tonight was overwhelmingly positive. The team is 10x more athletic and 100x more exciting than last season, and that's what people see. Sure, here at CH, we over-analyze everything and look at aspects of the team most of them don't, but we're cynics. That's part of being hardcore. When you look at it from the perspective of wanting the team to be better and more entertaining, well, check and check. The Wolves have been super-aggressive in their marketing this year, both in terms of connecting with the fans and giving them something worthwhile to watch, and I think they're doing a fantastic job of both so far.
Misc Game Notes:
The Flex Pack really is a great, great ticket deal. Basically the games are divided into four categories (marquee, premier, value, and super-saver), and each game is them assigned a ticket value. You can go through the entire home schedule and pick 10 or 20 games you want to see, then pay the ticket price for each individual game as its listed by category. It ends up saving a lot of money, especially if you pick heavily from the value games, since those tickets are listed below the flat rate we all were paying last year.
Speaking of the value category, I ended up being a lot more interested in that than the premier category. The value cat includes games against the Suns, Hornets, Nuggets, Rockets, and two games apiece against the Spurs and Thunder. The only premier game I was really interested in was the Magic.
For those asking about Heat tickets, it turns out the Flex Packs are the only way to get tickets to that game, and from the sound of it, that one's already sold out.
ALSO by buying my pack tonight, I got an invitation to a luncheon with Tony Ronzone. So stay tuned.
Anyway, about the game....
We missed Darko in a big big way. Several, actually....offense, defense, depth...we could barely match the size and length of Solomon Jones, much less Roy Hibbert
To answer Biggity's game thread question: no, Kosta Koufos is not the real deal. He's servicable as a third string big man, and that's his ceiling really. As fans of a team with the Wolves' sad history of centers, I get that its easy to get excited over any 7 footer who's even halfway decent, but let's not get carried away here. In the grand scheme of things, is Koufos really anything special compared to a Hilton Armstrong or Aaron Gray or Josh Boone?
And speaking of Roy Hibbert, this guy is a beast. He's a lot leaner than I remember him being last year, and he was very aggressive tonight. He's got a great combination of size and skill, and some pretty exceptional court vision for a center. If he ever gets in the right frame of mind (or the right situation...I'm not sure which is his foil right now), he'll join Brook Lopez in the "best young center" discussion. He's not a bruiser, but then again, he doesn't need to be. That's why Tyler Hansbrough is for. Those two will make a pretty formidable frontcourt as a duo.
Paul George shot the ball well tonight, but I highly doubt he and Wes Johnson play on comparable levels in the long run. His handles and court vision are weak, and his defense only looked good when he was on Ellington, who's a good 5 inches shorter. But what really separates the two is basketball IQ....Wes had a modest statline tonight, but he played smart and with his team. George more or less just ran around looking lost....even some of the catch-and-shoot baskets he made were plays that caught him by surprise. He won't be perpetually clueless....this isn't a repeat Gerald Green....but he's not going to be a brilliant basketball mind either. Comparing his BBIQ to Wes' is like comparing Trevor Ariza's to Shane Battier.
As for Wes, the question about him and zone defense seems to be a non-issue. I didn't see (and haven't seen) any problems with him playing man-to-man defense. If anything, he's been excellent defensively.
As for Ellington, I'm thinking he's a guy who's best in small doses. He's a tough kid who can shoot it pretty well, but as a 30 minute, all-purpose player, he's overwhelmed. Part of it tonight was certainly that Indiana likes to play small forwards as shooting guards (Dunleavy, Posey, George) and part of it is Ellington has a perplexing new habit of putting the ball on the floor and driving into defenses he doesn't have a prayer of getting a good shot off around (have I mentioned that Roy Hibbert is a big, big dude?)....but part of it is he's just not that kind of player. Granted, with Webster and Wes, he's not going to see 30 minutes a game, but still, his best role is support off the bench for 6-7 minute shifts.
Collison, Rush, Granger, Hansbrough, Hibbert. That's a pretty good lineup in a couple of years.
The Wolves have a new arena personality, nicknamed B-Wright, who has twice the enthusiasm of even Rylander, if you can believe that. But he did a great job...was very smooth, very likeable, and the chemistry between him, Rylander and Natalie Kane seemed a lot better than it was between just Natalie and Mike last year.
Love is getting the final introduction spot, but the fans were more enthusiastic about Beasley.
I wouldn't say the refs were biased, but they definitely didn't do us any favors. It was particularly disappointing with Beasley, who was making a very strong effort to attack the rim and draw fouls. He took 5 free throws on a night he should have taken 10.
Like I mentioned above: Kevin Love in the gaps = amazing. Kevin Love off the dribble = disaster.
Also, I'm all for trying out Love as a backup center.....just not when a 7'2" giganto-man like Hibbert is on the floor.
Beasley got pretty careless with the ball a couple times. He even turned it over making a simple, 4 foot outlet pass to Ridnour after a rebound. And both he and Love need to seal their men better when they post up....way too many deflected post-entry passes tonight.
Kurt Rambis obviously doesn't know who he can trust in the crunch, and who can blame him? He intentionally played a less-than-ideal lineup during OT just to see what some of his guys could do. Even Love was on the hot seat tonight....he made that last three off the inbounds, but based on Rambis' screaming and Love's helpless shrug after it, I'm guessing that wasn't the play that got drawn up (I wouldn't draw up Love dribbling out at the three point line either) That might be the biggest story of the season....who does Rambis end up utilizing the most when it matters?
Also like I mentioned above, the crowd was really into it tonight, especially in the fourth quarter and OT. The team is way more exciting that it was last year. And way better.