MINNEAPOLIS – "It's men against boys right now," Flip Saunders said when asked about the Wolves short-handed 122-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night, in which they allowed a season-high 78 points in the paint – the second-highest total allowed in franchise history (80 is the record).
"Basically it was one-on-one," Saunders said about the almost unbelievable advantage in the paint. "It's a man's league, at some point you'll have to stand your ground. I told our guys we're not going to play zone. You're going to have to learn how to play. If you get your butts kicked, sometimes that's part of growing up."
The Wolves indeed got whooped, and showed no real resistance after going down by 12 at the break. Everything the Nets ran offensively worked about as perfect as Lionel Hollins could ask for. They finished the game shooting 57.8 percent from the floor to the Wolves 46.6 percent, getting into the lane at will while finishing easy dunks and layups throughout the contest. Perhaps the young players will learn something from getting beat down by an average opponent that had an extra day's rest and didn't have to play against a collection of the top players on the Wolves, though I'm skeptical about how much growing actually occurred tonight.
For the most part, I saw more of the same bad habits that Wolves fans have grown accustomed to throughout the year – Andrew Wiggins settling for long two-pointers, Zach LaVine unable to handle the point guard duties without driving Saunders and fans nuts, Gorgui Dieng and Adreian Payne getting destroyed in the paint, consistently out of position, unable to keep the opponent from scoring easy buckets near the rim. There were plenty of Kevin Martin shot attempts (7-16) combined with poor defense too. I saw a team missing a laundry list of key players yet again. To put it simply, there was a lot more of the same.
There isn't much to take away from this loss in general. I didn't have many expectations to begin with given the circumstances surrounding this tilt. The Wolves were dismantled by the Spurs less than 24 hours earlier in San Antonio, on a tough back-to-back with four significant players listed as questionable – Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett, Gary Neal and Nikola Pekovic – entering the game. All four of those guys were DNPs (we already know how the Wolves typically play without Rubio and Pek in the lineup) and only 8 players logged playing time for Minnesota – three rookies (Wiggins, LaVine and Payne), three sophomores (Dieng, Lorenzo Brown and Justin Hamilton), along with Martin and Chase Budinger. That's not exactly a recipe for success.
It's no secret that Brooklyn (27-38) has underwhelmed this season, currently sitting 2.5 games behind Miami for the final spot in the Eastern Conference, especially when you consider their $88 million payroll, but this was a vital game for them to win and they responded with 78 points in the paint. Brooklyn entered the night averaging a league-best 49.2 points in the paint per game since the All-Star Break.
"You aren't going to win any games giving up that many points in the paint," said Budinger, who had his best game for the Wolves since scoring 19 points in a loss against the Celtics on December 19. He finished +7 (LoBro did too) with 18 points (8-10) and 4 rebounds in 26 minutes. "He's moving without the ball," Saunders said in response to Budinger's play over the last four games. "He's playing with a lot more confidence. He's playing team basketball, doing a nice job defensively."
Justin Hamilton showed some good things again, posting 15 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 33 minutes. I need to watch him more defensively, but I like what he's doing on the offensive end of the court; he generally knows where to be and understands how to get good shot attempts at this point. He's been a pleasant surprise. As for Brown, he went 0-5 with five rebounds and five assists in 17 minutes. Everything ran smoother with him at point.
The only other aspect of this game I wanted to touch on was how quickly LaVine went from being completely on fire from the floor in his first 14 minutes (5-7 with 14 points, 4-5 from downtown) to completely falling off the proverbial cliff. He started the game really well offensively, again running the point, but he essentially self-destructed in the final four minutes of the first half. It took him almost no time whatsoever to turn a solid half of play – he was impressive enough offensively to counteract his below average defensive on Deron Williams and Jarrett Jack – into a pretty awful one.
Here, let me walk you through it real quick:
With 4:26 remaining in the second quarter, LaVine entered the game for Brown. Brooklyn was up 51-50.
4:09 – LaVine bad pass (Thaddeus Young steals it as he tries this awkward, forced drop-off pass to Justin Hamilton in transition).
3:18 – LaVine bad pass (Bojan Bogdanovic steals).
3:14 – Bogdanovic hits an 18-footer and Saunders calls a 20 second timeout, seemingly irritated with his rookie
shooting guard point guard. He puts Brown back in the game.
2:14 – Hollins calls a timeout, up 58-53. Saunders goes back to LaVine. Yeah, that sure was quick!
1:51 – The score is now 61-55. Wolves ball... LaVine double dribble turnover. Nets score. Next possession? Wiggins turns the ball over. Thad responds with an easy layup. And... what's next? How about another LaVine turnover? YES, BINGO. ANOTHER ONE. Joe Johnson collected another steal off a bad pass from the rookie. Bogdanovic makes a driving layup to put the Nets up 67-55 with :35 seconds on the clock. And that's the score at halftime.
I counted four turnovers for LaVine in this sequence. Remember his first 14 minutes on the court? Forget about savoring that for more than a brief stretch. My goal in recounting all of this is not to make LaVine the whipping boy of the recap. I've said it here before plenty of times, I believe in him off ball as a shooting guard prospect. The things he did well in those 14 minutes tonight can be duplicated. The mistakes he made (offensively) could have been minimized. I don't expect Saunders to roll with Brown at point guard ahead of his prized rookie, but this is yet another example of what we've seen throughout the year. LaVine does some excellent things when he isn't forced to dominate the ball. Despite this, the way Saunders uses him has barely changed.