One of these years the Wolves are (hopefully) going to have themselves a Magical Revenge Tour through the league; cutting their way through teams that had, at one point, given half-assed efforts, joked through the better part of the 2nd half, stayed out too late the night before because they knew full well that the Wolves weren't going to give them a fight....you get the picture.
Last night was not the beginning of the MRT but it was a catalyst for a few things that we need to talk about below the fold.
For those of you who don't remember, the Wolves ended the 2008 calendar year with one of the most embarrassing games in team history against Dallas. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was booted from the contest early on and that left assistant Dwane Casey in charge against the man who unbelievably fired him a few years prior, Kevin McHale. The Mavs came back for the win from a 29 point 2nd half deficit. The most disturbing thing about the game was not that the Wolves gave up a nearly 30-point lead in less than 24 minutes; it was that Kevin McHale told his team not to foul with 45 seconds remaining in a 5 point game. They gave up. I argued at the time that McHale shouldn't have been allowed to board the plane back to Minny.
Last night with about 8 minutes to go in the 4th quarter the Mavs' announcers on League Pass said (and I'm paraphrasing) "This is the part of the game where the Wolves typically fall apart...This is where their guard play just can't stand up to the challenge." Typically opposing announcers limit their generic comments about the Wolves to far-out statements about Ricky Rubio or the inability of Kevin Love and Al Jefferson to play together, but the Mavs announcers showed themselves to be one of the few groups who get it right: The Wolves' perimeter play is atrocious when it matters and it is the single biggest reason why they lose. They have seen the damage up close and personal and they know full well that the Love/Jefferson pairing is not the problem when weighed against the likes of Sebastian Telfair, Rashad McCants, and Randy Foye or, a rookie pair in Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington. They have seen the pattern that we Wolves fans are treated to upwards of 80 times a year. When Rodrigue Beaubois hit his 3rd 3 pointer of the 2nd half, when Dallas went to the 3-guard lineup, when the Wolves had an ugly 24-second violation with just under 5 minutes left, and when the announcers hooked on to pointing out that Flynn was trying to dribble the ball into the ground on every possession, I thought we were going to see yet another Dallas disaster. When Dallas took the lead on a pair of free throws on a foul that put Ryan Hollins out of the game, I was fairly certain that we were being treated to another collapse special.
What saved the game for the Wolves? For one, while Our Beloved Puppies were on the wrong end of a 14-2 4th quarter run, they never stopped playing hard on defense and they collected a series of charges that kept the attacking Mavs from collecting more points from their big run as they should have. This allowed them to (barely) make it through an extended offensive drought.
What also allowed them to win is that they shot the lights out for the entire game. They ended with an eFG of 60.2%. That's pretty damn impressive for the guys in blue. What's even more impressive is that the Wolves won a game in a fashion that they typically lose by. Check out the Four Factors:
They lost in 3 of the 4 areas yet they walked away with the W because they shot the hell out of the ball. In a normal Wolves tilt, this means that bad defense allowed the opposing team to go nuts from the floor and no matter how well the Wolves controlled the offensive boards or got to the line, they ended up losing because a 60+ eFG is just too much to deal with. The Wolves were 12-22 from beyond the arc. Corey Brewer was 3-4 from deep including a gut-checker with 2 minutes remaining off of a Ryan Gomes offensive rebound that put the Wolves back in the lead and was the turning point of the final 120 seconds. Did Dallas play poor defense? I haven't watched them enough this season to say one way or another, but they did have some nice defensive plays in the 4th quarter and the Wolves had to earn every point down the stretch. OK, Dirk's foul on Brewer's 3 point attempt with 1:07 remaining was garbage defense but...well, I think the Wolves will take it.
Moving on to broad Wolvesian philosophy, I think we can start drawing two conclusions from the team's recent play. First, Rambis got it right: It is better to have a reserve lineup that is worth a damn than it is front-loading the starting lineup and watching the D-League-esque 2nd string get blown out of the building. Wayne Ellington, Damien Wilkins, Ramon Sessions, and Kevin Love holding their own off the bench and they have allowed Rambis to shorten the rotations and play with confidence when the starters head for the pine. We can quibble about who should be starting, but it's hard to argue with the idea that a shortened and more talent-spread-out rotation has led to better performance.
Second, Ryan Hollins is showing signs that the only thing missing from a Love/Jefferson frontcourt is the type of player we have been calling for on Hoopus for the better part of 2 years: an athletic back up big who can guard both positions. Is Hollins savvy enough to be this type of guy in the long run? Is he good enough? I'm not optimistic, but what I am hopeful for is that he is showing that a 3 man rotation between a combined 96 minutes is the way of the future for a front court anchored on Love and Jefferson...if Kahn does decide to keep the pairing together. Earlier this year I wrote that, for the first time, I didn't think a Love/Jefferson pairing could work in the long run. This was, in part, due to the fact that the type of player they need to pair them with is so rare and so specific, that I don't think they would ever be able to find him. Joakim Noah isn't walking through that door. That being said, the last few games with Hollins in the starting lineup have renewed my hope that such a type of player is possible and that it could work...it's just not very likely and I have no idea if they can ever find their magical mystery athletic 3rd big (or a magical mystery athletic and insanely rare small forward).
A few things to wrap this up:
- Runner up for play of the game: Flynn's drive through the heart of the Dallas defense for a kick out to a wide-open Wayne Ellington, who daggered a 3 from the corner to put the Wolves up by 7. The arena emptied at the second the ball went through the net. Flynn dribbled way too much all night and he had issues getting by Beaubois, but he played well when it mattered and he set up a fantastic look for the dagger shot.
- 3rd place for play of the game goes to Damien Wilkins and his 45-foot shot at the halftime buzzer. This trimmed a 7 point Dallas lead to 4 and it really changed the tenor of the game.
- Beaubois could be a very good player in a few years. He is insanely long and quick. If he puts it together, the Mavs could have themselves a nice player for a long time.
- I picked the Mavs to make the finals this year. I have no idea what is going on with them right now but they are too talented to be playing this poorly. Dirk is one of my favorite players and I think he is woefully underrated. Here's hoping they can turn it around for the playoffs.
Well folks, that about does it. The Wolves face a fantastic challenge tonight. They go up against one of their rebuilding peers (Memphis) who just happens to be miles and miles beyond where the Wolves are at. 4 in a row against the Griz would be a fantastic sign. Winning both ends of a back-to-back would be another. Let's see if the Wolves have what it takes and if they will answer the bell and play well against a squad that ran them out of the gym the last time they played.
UPDATE: I really can't overstate just how big of a game tonight's tilt in Memphis is for the Wolves. This is the biggest game of the year for them. It is a chance to show their fans (and themselves) that something has changed and that they are going to go out and give a 48 minute full effort against a peer that has moved well ahead of them in the rebuilding process. This should be viewed as a playoff game for this team and it will be very disappointing if they don't treat this game with the kind of importance it deserves.