Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving were last year's top ROY contenders. Both were in street clothes tonight, and that resulted in something less than spectacular
While the Wolves blew out the hapless Cavaliers in the box score, it sure didn't feel like a blowout in the mind. Least of all from inside the Target Center itself.
The Wolves had to scrap too hard too early to put away a team with the NBA's second-worst record and missing two of their best three players....their starting backcourt, in fact. And granted, we are too, technically, but it's a little different when the Wolves can bring in a Ridnour and Barea and Shved, rather than a Jeremy Pargo or Donald Sloan.
An immediate 8-0 lead became a 10 point lead, then a 12 point lead.....then dwindled down all the way to a 35-35 tie before the Wolves managed to build it back up and keep it. But even then, the result felt less like the end of A New Hope and more like the end of Saving Private Ryan. '....holy hell....we're still alive...?"
Now it's not like this team can't amount to something special. As we saw last year, clear as Caribbean ocean water, Ricky Rubio can propel a team with a force far beyond his numbers. But, despite all the improvements, are we starting to slip back into a place where he's the only one who can get us anywhere?
As the squad stands currently, I'd say tonight was the strongest evidence yet that Kirilenko is this team's best weapon and key to success. It was awesome to see him on the floor again, and he stepped back into his role without missing a beat....8 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks. He played 30 minutes, needed just 5 shot attempts, committed just 1 foul (a throwaway with just 2 minutes left in the game) and had a very non-deceptive team-best +23. The best offensive play the Wolves had in their arsenal....one that will probably remain the best at least until Rubio is back....is Kirilenko with the ball at the corner of the free throw line while everyone else runs around in crazy circles like Troy Barnes...
Kirilenko really has an amazing ability: he sees when a teammate has an easy bucket even before that teammate does. The Wolves employed Kirilenko Corners on back to back sets in the third: the first resulted in a Kevin Love three where Love had enough time to marvel at how wide open he found himself. The second was a Lee layup where Malcom was visibly shocked to catch the ball and realize he was directly under the hoop. Kirilenko saw it before he did.
But on the flip side.....something is wrong with Pekovic, and it's not just a bum ankle. He never complained, and he never stopped trying. He still bullied his way to rebounds and trucked up and down the court like he thought he was Usain Bolt. But when he gets the ball....well, he's not the same Pek. I haven't quite figured it out yet, but it's definitely in his head, and tonight sort of felt like an invisible tipping point. Adelman lost confidence in the big guy. He started using Pek as a sub for Love, rather than as part of a dynamic duo, and then held him out completely in favor of Dante Cunningham.
I won't claim to have the answer, but I have a good guess based on what I saw from row Q tonight: Pekovic is struggling to expand his game. I think Adelman is asking him to be more circumspect....to slow down, survey the court, read the double-teams coming, look for the smart pass....those sorts of things, and that's gone to war with Pekovic's nature of catch-and-immediately-roll to the hoop. This is no bad reflection on him...no one can question his work ethic and we've all noticed him moving the ball more. But if that's outside his nature...? I don't know. Adelman has his system, and guys who don't pass the ball usually don't find a place in them. Pek is a lot of awesome things, but a Vlade Divac isn't one of them.
System and fit are half your success in this league. Pek himself is a shining example of this: just compare Rambis Pek to last year's Pek. But the more I watch, the more it feels like we're starting to see Pek caught back in the Rambangle again, and....well, Pek is Pek. The difference isn't him so much as what he's being asked to do.
I feel like there's something to be said here about those Pau Gasol rumors coming back, but I don't know how to frame it, so I guess I'll leave it at that for now.
So yes...all in all, not really the elated feeling you'd expect out of an 18 point blowout win. 'Pyrrhic' might be the best way to describe it. I don't know if it's the injuries or a change in the system or something we can't see from the outside, but something isn't clicking with this squad, and it's holding them back.
- I feel like a broken record et al Malcolm Lee, but I'll say it again, because the impression is just so strong: if his head could even halfway catch up to his athleticism...
- I will add this new comment about Lee though: he plays the right way. He does, by nature, what we've spent years begging guys like Foye, Beasley, Johnson and Williams to do: unless he catches the ball with no one in his area code, he looks to attack the hoop every chance he gets. Every chance. Just relentless activity to try and find a way to get a layup or dunk. That alone will make him at least a servicable player in this league for a long time.
- I overheard a comment that reflects our good friend Robson and pretty much sums up Luke Ridnour this year: "I feel bad because he tries so hard, but you can kinda' just see on his face this look of 'I'm too old for this $%*^"
- Love (hopefully) turned the corner on his cold shooting tonight, as he scorched the nets for 36 points. He also thoroughly befuddled Anderson Varejao, which I'm not sure I've ever seen before.
- Varejao is also a lot heavier than he used to be. I'm not sure if it's just layover from the injury or an intentional thing to better battle at the 5 spot, but there's no doubt he has a shades of Shawn Kemp thing going on.
- Dante Cunningham is still awesome.
- Also awesome is the new Coats video ('by' Kevin Love) The Session one if interesting, but the other one....the one where he faux plays the keyboard while Pekovic makes photobooth faces....that may be the best short film I've ever seen anyone not named Pixar do. It just wants to take itself so seriously....SO seriously....
- Remember when everyone though Dan Gibson was a big deal? LOLOLOLOLOLOL
- Tyler Zeller's got a future in this league, alligator arms and all.
- Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin, and Russell Westbrook just dropped 80 points on the Lakers. James Harden or no, that trio is as good as any "Big 3" in the NBA, if not better.
And Hasheem Thabeet has become a legitimate, productive NBA player for them. If he keeps trending upwards, well....I for one do not look forward to trying to get shots off around a KD/Ibaka/Thabeet frontcourt.
I get that James Harden is an awesome awesome player. But I still think this works out heavily in OKC's favor in the end.
Welp. Off to watch Dark Knight Rises documentary features.
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