MINNEAPOLIS – A trick of the schedule, and they’re all thinking back to last season.
Last season, just as this one, the final game before the All-Star break ended with the Jazz. It ended with a close game, a floater from Luke Ridnour to win the thing, 100-98, and to push the Timberwolves to .500.
Consider that moment, for a second, rather than the spring collapse that obscured it. Derrick Williams remembers it, remembers Feb. 22, 2012. He talked about the game Wednesday morning, about how well the team was playing that night, about its hope for the playoffs before the words ACL and Ricky Rubio had anything to do with one another. And he’s right. The Timberwolves were good that night, and for several weeks after. They had earned their playoff hopes, no matter that we’ve all now forgotten they ever existed.
This year, though, Minnesota didn’t have what it took to coast into All-Star weekend with two consecutive wins. It fell four points short, losing 97-93 to Utah, with a deep sense of déjà vu permeating the night. But it was not déjà vu to that last Jazz game, not when the outcome rendered the thing so different; no, it was instead a pervasive sense of having been here before, and recently, as the Timberwolves are making it a habit of losing these close games in their final minutes after having mounted furious comebacks.
They’re missing game-winning shots, making errors in the moments when they have no room to flinch. They’re in those positions because of full quarters of lackadaisical play, and they know it. They know they can’t keep doing this, turning it on and off at will, leaving themselves with no margin of error at the end. They know it, and it keeps happening, and the season is beginning to look depressingly formulaic.
“Our guys just have to understand, with the people we have out and everything else, that we don’t have that big a margin of error,” coach Rick Adelman said. “We’ve got to play the game for 48 minutes.”
Adelman said that he didn’t understand his team’s lack of urgency at the outset, how it appeared to be looking past the night and to its five days off.
“I don’t know what we’re looking forward to,” he said.
And he’s right. For a team like this, which has faced so much adversity, living in the now is crucial. But here’s the wrinkle: bigger picture, there just may be something to look forward to, a silver lining to these crash-and-burn episodes.
Last season, it didn’t matter that the Timberwolves went into the All-Star break at .500. By the end of the year, they were 14 games under, last in their division. By the end of the year, there was all that, plus an ACL tear for Rubio, a flop of a rookie season for Derrick Williams and an omnipresent sense that the team was about to be blown up.
There was too little to look forward to. Kevin Love was already an established threat. Nikola Pekovic was a bright spot, but injured, too, with bone spurs having slowed him at the season’s end. Rubio was hurt, and badly, and Williams had become something of a punch line – or a punching bag. The future was uncertain at best, and the team’s young supporting cast had proven unworthy of being anything worth building around.
This year, though, that has changed. This year, there’s Alexey Shved, headed to Houston for the Rising Stars game with Rubio, and even with his tough night Wednesday – 10 minutes, his only addition to the box score a turnover – he’s still a pleasant surprise with the good possibility of a big role in the future. More importantly, though, there are Rubio and Williams, one a Twin Cities darling, the other climbing his way out of the hole his rookie season dug him.
On Wednesday night, despite the loss, they gave a glimpse of what they can be.
Rubio finished the game just a rebound short of a triple-double (a rebound that once graced the box score before being unceremoniously yanked away in the fourth quarter), with 10 assists, 18 points and nine rebounds. He shot poorly, sure, 3-of-13, but he made 12 of 13 free throws, a feat few Timberwolves have accomplished this season. Williams, too, was imperfect, but he finished with a team-high 24 points and 16 rebounds. His 7-of-17 shooting wasn’t great, but it was the way he did it, aggressively and with a purpose, that stood out.
“I thought some of the things Derrick did, he got more aggressive,” Adelman said. “He got to the line 11 times, you know? He had a little bit of a balance to his game.”
Adelman, who doles out compliments of Williams as if to utter them would be a jinx, was as effusive as Rick Adelman will ever be about the forward on Wednesday. He lauded his aggressive game, especially one play in which Rubio drove from the baseline and Williams cut to the basket to score. He’s been prone to stand at the perimeter and watch in such cases, Adelman said, but this time, he acted, and it was enough to gain notice from his coach.
Even with Williams’ struggles and Rubio’s return to health, the two have found a certain chemistry on the court. The high points are the thundering alley-oops, which the basketball gods seem to have constructed the pair precisely for, the low points the flubbed dunks, poor shooting nights and timidity. Lately, though, it’s been a story of more upside than down, and Williams admitted that he’s never played with a point guard quite like Rubio.
“Ricky’s going to look for you for any kind of pass,” he said.” You’ve just got to be ready.”
“You’ve just got to be ready for him at all times.”
Ready for the pass, and ready for the commentary. Williams said that Rubio is getting more and more comfortable admonishing him for bad plays. This season, they’ve played 406 minutes together, a number that is quickly approaching the 560 they logged all of last year, and it’s showing. Rubio will come up to Williams after games, and during, too, and critique his aggressiveness, his balance, his eye for the ball. It’s a habit of Rubio’s that’s grown over time, and Williams seems more than okay with the point guard’s constructive criticism.
Derrick Williams is far from perfect. As is Ricky Rubio. (Excuse the sacrilege of putting such a sentence in print in Minnesota.) But they’re looking like bright spots, for sure, draft picks that may just pan out, if over more time than the team would have preferred thanks to injury and bumps in development. But they’re getting there, maybe not to the point where they’ll win this team a close game, but at least so far as to keep it fighting.
This wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year in Minnesota. It was supposed to be it, the first playoff berth since 2004, but that’s not how things are going, not now and not without a major overhaul. But it doesn’t have to be a lost year, either, not if Williams keeps jumping, Rubio keeps dishing and the habits keep forming.