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A Couple Steps Behind

Well, last night, I ended up with a frozen world wide web (quite possibly literally, as there's ice all over the lines in this neighborhood) And with the Wolves failing to close out another close game, one might have been tempted to just let the Open Game Wrap be it....but there were simply too many things worth talking about to leave it at that.

The best way to describe the Thunder in comparison to the Wolves might be "big brother". As teams, they're built in more or less the same mold....from the same family, if you will....but one is simply older than the other.

Even though the Wolves made a surprisingly competitive tilt out of this one, the Thunder showed intangibles the Wolves currently lack at the two most crucial times of the game: right at the beginning and right at the end. OKC murdered Sota in the opening 5 minutes, building up a quick 20-11 lead before the Wolves found their fighting spirit. Then the Thunder closed the game on a 20-6 run, after the Wolves snagged the lead behind the dominant play of, of all players, Darko Milicic.

Timberwolves_thunder_basketballThere's a lot to be said about talent levels. There's a lot to be said about having the league's reigning scoring champ, runner up NBA MVP, and FIBA team actual MVP. But the Timberwolves aren't really any less talented than the Thunder (and by talent, I'm talking potential, for those of you more symmantically inclined) There's not much of a talent gap between Durant and Michael Beasley. There's not much of a talent gap between Wes Johnson and James Harden. If anything, Love is more talented than Jeff Green, and (if recent play is anything to go by), the same can be said of Darko with respect to Nenad Krstic. Etc etc etc

The biggest difference is that the Thunder are just older...individually and as a team...and that extra time has allowed them to integrate things into their team the Wolves have not. They play together in a way the Wolves do not. They communicate in a way the Wolves do not. They understand each other's strengths and weaknesses and tendencies in a way the Wolves do not. And this isn't any fault of the Wolves. It's simply that Minnesota, as currently constructed, has had a three week go of it; the Thunder, the better part of three years. What they beat the Wolves with tonight was ultimately a set of things that the Wolves can only acquire themselves with experience: chemistry, flow, and the grit to close out tough games. This Oklahoma team has won 50 games in a season and taken the best team in the West to the limit in the playoffs, and the difference between the Thunder doing that versus the Wolves trying to do that was the difference between the Thunder winning tonight and the Wolves trying to win tonight.

There's really no moral victory to this one. The Wolves had every chance to win it, and they didn't. But that's no reason to let some very positive things go unmentioned.

  • Darko Milicic. What has gotten into this guy? In the last 5 games, he's averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 3.8 blocks. More impressively still, he actually dominated most of the second half of the game tonight. More than just the fact he put in 10 points, he was doing it a way that threw the Thunder defense off balance. For a good 8-9 minute span, the Wolves' offense ran almost exculsively through Darko, and he made the most of it, not only scoring points himself, but reading the defense and moving the ball for other players to get shots too. Even when he wasn't getting the assist, he was often starting the swing that led to the bucket
  • I cannot stress enough how crucial it is for this team to find a servicable, defensively proficient backup center. Right now, the dropoff defensively for this team when Darko goes to the bench is the top of Niagara Falls versus the bottom. That is to say, it drops off a cliff. Anthony Tolliver plays some decent center in emergency situations, but we can't sustain playing him there 10-12 minutes a night, even against an undersized team like Oklahoma. If/until Pekovic is healthy and ready to contribute at both ends, this team needs to get Darko relief in the pivot
  • Yes, you heard correctly; Kevin Durant did indeed call Darko one of the best centers in the NBA. And well, I suppose if he can consistently put up 14-7-3 on 50-ish% shooting games, that's actually true
  • Kevin Love snapped himself out of the one game funk, putting up a 24 point, 17 rebound, 3 assist game against the Thunder. He had a tough matchup facing a guy who's a natural small forward in Jeff Green, but he gave as good as he got, hitting 4 of 6 from deep and equaling the entire Thunder starting frontcourt in rebounds
  • Unfortunately, Michael Beasley took his place is the terrible game column. Beas scored just 15 points on 20 shots, committed 5 turnovers, 5 fouls, and forgot how to pass in the second half. After two stellar post-entry passes to Darko and a few great attempts to set up cutters in the first half, Beasley simply didn't move the ball thereafter. There are certain comments a Mr. Ron Artest made that Beas might want to look into. He tried to take things over in the fourth quarter, but ended up just turning it over. And more painfully, he inturrupted the great flow the Wolves had going moving the ball through Darko in the post. As Jim Peterson said, the guy got tunnel vision in the closing stretch
  • The team as a whole showed its youth when they stopped feeding the post in the fourth quarter. Don't fix what isn't broken. Another lesson learned, hopefully
  • At some point (which, by their lack of offseason commitment, might be now) the Thunder will need to realize that they can't start Jeff Green at the 4 if they want to compete with the Lakers or Spurs
  • Both the Wolves and Thunder tried to match defense to offense, with Wes Johnson guarding Durant, and Thabo Sefalosha guarding Beasley to start the game. Both players struggled from the field, shooting a combined 13-36, but one player made it to the line for 17 free throw attempts. The other, just 3. Much like how the Thunder are largely and advanced version of the Wolves, Durant is largely and advanced version of Beasley. Action Mike has the shot and go-to attitude down, but the free throws and handles are still catching up (hopefully)
  • Sebastian Telfair crashed back to earth tonight. He's had a long string of very good games, but it's simply not in his histroy to play like that for a whole season. Bassy has been the better point guard so far this year, but tonight Luke Ridnour, despite a few bad stretches of failing to get the offense going, was a vastly superior. I like Bassy, but I think it's only a matter of time before Ridnour takes back the starting spot, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Telfair ultimately traded by the deadline
  • Speaking of point guards, I don't know if there's anything this Wolves team can do to counter Russell Westbrook. He's too quick, too strong, and too damn athletic for any of our point guards to match up with. Westbrook not only has made huge strides scoring the ball (from 39% FG shooting his rookie year, to 43% so far this season), he's also become a great facilitator. He had 3 assists in the first 2 minutes of the game, 6 by the end of the first quarter, and ultimately finished with as many dimes as shot attempts (14) Just a nightmarish player for the Wolves to try and stick with, and a guy I think will be talked about with the likes of Paul, Williams, Rondo and Rose in a year or two
  • Anthony Tolliver played a fantastic game. Not only did he fill in admirably at center when Darko sat, he also wound up spending a lot of time in the second half on Durant and did agreat job of it. He was beating Durant to his spots on the floor, bodying up to get him off balance, and contesting all his shots from right in front of his face. The guy just had great awareness of everything that's going on, and works as hard as any player out there not named Kobe Bryant. He picks his spots, plays within his limits, and doesn't back down from any situation
  • Corey, likewise, played a pretty good game, all things considered. He committed a couple of really stupid fouls in the first half, but he hit his shots and got after it on defense, particularly in the passing lanes. He's quietly putting together a solid, positive impact season, and for the moment shows no sign of being a guy on the edge of being forced out of the rotation
  • Brewer also made, as I put it in the game thread, the prayeriest of prayer shots tonight. Fouled on the baseline, careening out of bounds, he throws up what's basically a chest pass at the rim that bounces three times on the top of the backboard, rattles around in the hoop, then drops in.
    The guy is practically making a career off these impossible circus shots. It's to a point where you just kind of have to accept that these things consistently happen for him. Only Corey....only Corey...
  • One last note on Darko: his 3.8 blocks/game average over the last 5 games is more than the entire Wolves team averaged last season. Assuming Darko stays at his 2.8bpg average for the whole year, he's going to end the season with 230 blocks, which will shatter the previous single-season record of 178 set by Garnett in 03-04

The Wolves have another tough tilt coming up on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs, who have quietly built the best record in the entire league. Tiago Splitter, a potentially epic rebounding battle between Love and DeJuan Blair, and our first look at an Eva Longoria-less Tony Parker. Should be a party...don't miss it.