It's cold outside.
I want to start by saying what a joy it was to watch Dirk today. He doesn't play for the Wolves, but he's never the enemy to me. The dude is gracious and has aged as gracefully as you could ever hope for in this league. He's one of the most singularly unique talents the NBA has ever seen and his status is in the same stratosphere as Garnett and Tim Duncan. Enjoy him while he's still here, people. Dirk has been an absolute gift to basketball - one of the few players I have loved as much as Garnett over the past 15 years.
So this game was not fun for the first three quarters. Then it got really, REALLY fun for the last one. The problem is, the Wolves started playing competitively because Sam Mitchell finally went with a lineup he's categorically avoided using all season: Towns, Rubio, Wiggins, Shabazz and Bjelica.
That is, FYI, the lineup I've been clamoring for the Wolves to use since the season opener.
Shabazz is a perfect compliment to Rubio and Wiggins. Wiggins in particular. Bazz nails that tryptic of skills that fill the gaps between those two: running the floor, hard cuts, and corner threes.
Rubio flourishes most when the offense is in motion. The Wolves generate a decent number of lanes even with their antiquated system, but often fail to capitalize either because of a lack of legs (Garnett, Prince) or more often, a lack of recognition (LaVine, Dieng, Payne). Shabazz is a blessed relief to this; when he sees an open lane to the hoop, he takes it. This scrambles the defense and gives Ricky a great target for his passing wizardry to work with. And in transition, Bazz's more modest athleticism actually helps him, as it forces him to play the angles and pick his moments, as opposed to Wiggins who tends to blunder straight into defenders then realize you can't just jump over guys in the NBA like you could in college.
Ricky Rubio with the no-look pass and Shabazz Muhammad Flys in from deep for the big slam! #Twolves pic.twitter.com/KKjwZ8wIS1— NBA On Def Pen (@NBAOnDefPen) January 10, 2016
Shabazz also brings a much-needed style counterpoint to Wiggins. His grindy-crashy game keeps the defense from loading up on Andrew and takes the physical heat off of him, because Bazz will end up bullying weaker players when he gets that mismatch. The Wolves avoided a lot of Dallas' dreaded point guard hydra sets tonight because Carlisle was rightly unwilling to let Bazz post up Ray Felton or Devin Harris.
Shabazz has really found his offense of late, averaging 15 points on 55% shooting the last two weeks.
As for Bjelica, he just needs to play. He's driving the struggle bus right now, yes, but he's also the type of player who is only going to get out of it by fighting through. His positives as a player are too important for this team to not put on the floor, particularly with Mitchell fixated on Wiggins as a shooting guard. The Wolves need threes and a reliable second facilitator somewhere on the floor. With this roster, Bjelica has to be that guy.
And Wiggins...well, I'm not sure exactly how to classify the state he's in right now. Struggling is probably the closest verbiage to describe it, but it's also a lot more complicated than just a drought. Struggling implies Wiggins can fight out of it with enough time, and I'm not sure that's the case. He lacks dimensionality. I said I would write more on this at some point and I promise I will. But yeah. It's more than just teams figuring him out.
Meanwhile, Mitchell played a game of Russian Roulette with the lineup tonight. He wouldn't say why, but I have a feeling it was a combination of Dirk and guys just not playing well.
It amazes me how much rope Adreian Payne gets. Bjelica and Towns get yanked for every little mistake, but Payne (and to a certain extent, Dieng) just kind of get to do whatever.
Which is kind of the core tale of the afternoon. After scoring just 13 points in the 3rd quarter, the Wolves exploded for 32 in the 4th quarter. But did so by accident. They did it with a lineup Mitchell went to as a last resort, after everything else had failed. Shabazz has been playing because both Martin and LaVine are ice cold as shooters. And Bjelica got on the floor only after a comedy of errors from Payne, including but not limited to:
- whacking Wiggins in the face
- playing fullback on a dunk attempt
- making a handoff pass to Wiggins then standing right on top of him as Andrew tried to find space to operate
- inbounding the ball pretty much directly to Devin Harris
Towns gets pulled for a modest lapse in defensive rotation. But Payne stays on the floor for all that. Huh.
The inbound was what finally benched Payne, who managed to go -15 in 15 minutes of play. That put Bjelica on the floor with Towns, Rubio, Wiggins and Bazz, and well, the Popcorn Gameflow tells the tale.
Did Wolves find something in Ricky, Wiggins, Bazz, Belly, KAT lineup? Final 8:08 outscored DAL 21-18, shot 8/14 (1/2 3ptrs) w/ 6a.— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) January 11, 2016
The Wolves' offense was a well-oiled machine in the fourth. They moved bodies. They moved the ball. They ran the floor. They got open shots and, for the most part, made them. There wasn't anything awkward or lilting about their play. Everything flowed the way it should have...the way it always should. That five-some has the perfect set of complimentary skills and enough basketball IQ to compete with 80% of the league, and yet it takes everything else crashing and burning to get them on the floor together.
Yes, the Wolves found something with that lineup. But they found it by accident, and it should have been obvious from the beginning. Losses are never fun. But if this is what it takes to put Payne on the bench and Bazz and Bjelica on the floor, then it was a worthwhile outing.
- I cannot think of a single better player for the Wolves to have as a backup big than Zaza Pachulia. He is everything Payne and Dieng are not - set killer screens, plays great team defense, and keeps everything simple and efficient. No wasted motion. Nothing out of control. The guy is 90% intangibles while still producing. Zaza had a double-double by halftime, crashing the offensive glass and decimating the Wolves' defense with elevator screens to free up Dirk.
- I'm a big fan of Rick Carlisle. The guy is a mad scientist of a coach who somehow gets a 37 year old Dirk and a pile of misfits to compete every season. He's had his faults, and a few cases where things were just not destined to be (like Rajon Rondo), but his ability to scheme for opponents and get usefulness out of guys like Raymond Felton and JaVale McGee is a marvel to watch.
- Sam said after the game that KG is hurting a little. No elaboration, but it sounds like the even-more-limited minutes is preventative rather than a growing concern.
- It is so good to see Pekovic playing again. I genuinely believed he was done. Hopefully he can keep going. Even 10-12 minutes a night will be a huge help, if only to keep Payne and Dieng from playing critical stretches.
We have KG, Towns, Bjelica and Pekovic and have somehow ended up with a Dieng/Payne lineup What in the nine Corellian hells is that— canishoopus (@canishoopus) January 10, 2016
- Yes, I saw Star Wars more than once.
- Yes, it was worth it.
- Yes, there are five planets in the Corellian system, and nine hells in their religion.