It's a different team. In just two games it's a different team. From style to defense to confidence to the feeling in the crowd, Kevin Love has changed this team from a squad that was featured in "worst ever" conversations on ESPN (really, they went that far) to one that looks like it could see a few more 2-2 weeks before the season is over.
Is two games enough to call Love the best player on the Wolves? Is it enough to give him the title of the Most Valuable Wolf? I don't know about the sample size but I do know this: When Big Al Jefferson went down with a season-ending knee injury, each and every person in the stands knew exactly what the Wolves lost: 20 points/10 rebounds. When Kevin Love was out for 6 weeks with a broken bone in his left hand, what did the Wolves lose? Rebounding, defense, transition play, 1/2 court spacing...the list goes on and on. Again, we're dealing with an extremely small sample size but I think it's enough to admit, at the very least, that Love is the straw that stirs the drink. (Personally, I'd go farther than that; I think he's the best player on the squad by a long margin but we'll wait for 20 games before fleshing that one out.)
In last night's contest Love finished with 18 points on 6-9 shooting (2-3 from 3) with 10 boards and 4-4 from the line in 26:29. It was all on display. The rebounding, the outlet passes, the team defense, the way in which he completely changes the Wolves' 1/2 court offense...it's absurd. This guy simply keeps possessions alive or ends them in a favorable fashion at a stunning clip. This is the key to his play and it is what I mention whenever someone who doesn't know much about basketball asks me about his game: Whether that is ripping a defensive rebound away from an opposing player and hitting a teammate in stride 50 feet down the court for an easy layup or tipping an offensive rebound out to a guard for an open jumper, there is no other player on the team who does more stuff than Kevin Love. Stat sheet or no stat sheet, he does stuff, and that's all you really need to know. (Although it should be noted that this stuff does indeed show up on the stat sheet in one way or another. Love consistently leads the team in Popcorn Machine's HV, which is reb + block + assist + steal - turnovers . Last night he ended up with a team high of 12. He did so in about 8 minutes fewer than the next closest challenger.)
As for the team, check out the Four Factors from last night's tilt:
Not bad, not bad at all. The eFG is through the roof for 2 reasons: limited 3 point shooting and a large number of transition buckets. The Wolves went 4-9 from beyond the arc while finishing with 17 points in transition. Nothing will help a poor shooting club more than limiting their 3s and getting layups in transition....well, nothing except a ton of free throws, which ended up in the Wolves favor too, as they ended up with 7 more FTAs than Utah.
The other big theme of the game was Wayne Ellington. Once again Corey Brewer did not play in the fourth quarter and the sole recipient of his minutes was his fellow Final Four MVP, Mr. Ellington. In the fourth, Ellington scored 8 points on 3-3 shooting from the floor, 2-2 shooting from the line, with 4 rebounds and 1 assist. He made two key defensive rebounds that triggered easy buckets on the other end and, best of all, he played good enough defense along side of his excellent offense to swing the Brewer Balance in his favor. For those of you who don't know what the Brewer Balance is, it is the equation that determines when the former Gator should be taken off the court. Whenever a player comes along whose combination of offensive prowess and defensive adequacy can produce better results than Brewer's defensive mastery and offensive ineptitude, the Brewer Balance swings away from Corey and, in this case, to Wayne.
One of the best things about Ellington at UNC was that his usage rate in Carolina was probably right around the relative percentage he could put up in the NBA. He wasn't the top dog on UNC but he still produced and was effective. He has a similar role with the Wolves. Al Jefferson is Ty Hansbrough, Jonny Flynn is Ty Lawson, Ryan Gomes is Danny Green and Kevin Love was played by Ed Davis and Deon Thompson. Ellington falls somewhere near the intersection of role player and significant contributor and it all depends on how the game comes his way. That's a good professional player to have on your roster and it will be interesting to see if Ellington can continue to adjust to the NBA and how close he can really get to the role he played at UNC. So far, the Wolves have to be encouraged by his play. It's the type of performance that seamlessly fits into a rotation.
One of the things that we have talked about on this site since the start of training camp is that Ryan Gomes may have priced himself out of the 2010 guarantee on his contract, especially considering the fact that Corey Brewer's option was exercised. Check out Gomes' numbers from the last 5 games. Last night he went for 23/5/5 on 9-10 shooting and some fantastic mid-range 2 man game work with Kevin Love and Jonny Flynn. If Gomes continues to play like he has over the last 5-10 games, and if he can continue to do so in the part of the offense that best highlights his skills, is he worth the $4.2 guaranteed option on his contract? He's been the Wolves best player this year (until Kevin Love came along) and he, along with Love, are the team's best 2-way players (Sessions could probably be thrown in here as well if he was given more minutes).
Wrapping this thing up, the Wolves are dangerously close to being able to field a competitive two way team that can bring it on a night-in/night-out basis. Their wing play is the big hold up but between Love, Gomes, Sessions, Jefferson and Flynn, they have guys who belong out there and that's a big upgrade over what we have seen in recent years. What is amazing about this is that Love appears to be the player to make it all work. Without him, we're seeing a lack of effort and a bunch of crap. With him, it's all different....or at least it has been for two games. I have a feeling it will be for many more.
What say you?