MINNEAPOLIS – The early days of this Timberwolves season are putting some severe restrictions on Alexey Shved’s vocabulary.
Great. Everything look great. We play great. Everybody play great. The rookie might sound like a Russian parrot, repeating it back, over and over, but in this case, what else has there been to say?
There’s been no need for him to add “terrible” or “disappointing” or “frustrating,” all of which have significantly more syllables than his current standby. Someday he’ll have to learn, but for now, great is enough.
But it was not so great when Nikola Pekovic missed an easy layup with 10 seconds left and the Timberwolves up by three, even less great when George Hill took the ball down the court and sank a 3-pointer with 3 seconds to go.
But when Luke Ridnour inbounded the ball to Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger cut in from the 3-point line, wide open, and Kirilenko passed him the ball to set up a shot almost identical to Pek’s just seconds before, there was another chance at great.
“Chase got such a great cut,” Kirilenko said. “I look, one eye on the clock, and it was like 2 seconds, and I was like, ‘Nice.’ But I was worried, like about Pek’s play.”
No need. Budinger corralled the ball and made the shot at the buzzer, and it was back to great, a 96-94 win.
When the Timberwolves returned from the locker room to begin the second half, they were down by a point and conspicuously missing Brandon Roy, who was back in the locker room tending to that gimpy right knee. It was “sore,” “bumped” – terms that would put any other player back out there for the second half but not Roy. Not with his history.
J.J. Barea was absent, too, as were Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, of course, and the Timberwolves’ season had begun to resemble the plot of “And Then There Were None,” with Target Center the island and multiple murderers, from knuckle pushups to the scorer’s table. But take that, Agatha Christie, they won, and in grand style this time.
Most teams would count themselves fortunate to have an elite power forward, one of the most promising young point guards in the league, a former All-Star shooting guard and a solid backup point guard with a championship ring. The Timberwolves have all that on their bench, injured. Most teams would let that doom them. But the team that once lost because of adversity is now winning in spite of it. The Timberwolves are fueled by it.
“We’re a very resilient team,” Budinger said. “We’re a very deep team, and that’s what you’re seeing right now, is a lot of guys stepping up when guys are getting hurt or going down. Each and every game, it seems like there’s a new guy stepping up for this team, and that’s why we’re getting wins.”
And so in spite of it all, the Timberwolves are 4-1, their best start since 2001-02.
In spite of it all, they recorded the 25th buzzer-beater in franchise history, the fourth of coach Rick Adelman’s tenure.
In spite of it all, they shot 50 percent from the field, their best mark of the season.
In spite of it all, they boarded a plane to Chicago as the best team in their division, tied for the best record in the Western Conference.
In spite of it all.
It isn’t luck. It isn’t magic. It isn’t even Adelman’s coaching skills, which are more apparent in these early days than they ever were last season, now that he has material with which to work.
It’s this crazy puzzle, which looks so strange on paper but fits so well on the court. With Love out, Derrick Williams can bring scoring. Dante Cunningham brings energy, rebounds, dunks. They do not quite equal Love, but they’re enough. With Rubio and Barea out, Ridnour plays as much as he can, and Malcolm Lee does as much as is asked. With Roy out, Shved takes over, playing some version of shooting guard that looks a lot like point.
There are places where the Timberwolves are hurting, sure; the point guard situation is thin, and there’s no one dominant scorer. But Adelman has also had an embarrassment of riches in other places; Williams could play more, and play more well, but then what about Cunningham? Budinger has been key to the offense – he led the team Friday with 18 points – but when he sat for a breather, it took longer to get him back in because of how well Shved was playing.
There was no way anyone could have seen this coming.
It’s far from perfect, still, and no matter how many times you wonder how great this is all going to be when Rubio and Love return, there will be kinks between then and now. Shved’s vocabulary will have to grow to include those negative terms because some nights, it won’t look like this. Some nights, he’ll be too small and his passes won’t fly and his shots won’t hit. Some nights they’ll need Rubio and Love, and they’ll look like a team of backups and role players forced into bigger roles.
Some nights, the mistakes will be too much. But not Friday. Not even when a sure thing by Pekovic failed to fall, when the Timberwolves had a chance to put it away and couldn’t. On Friday, the mistakes and the injuries were so easy to forget, or at least to brush off, even for Pekovic.
After the game, the big man was asked if he gave Budinger a hug as a thank you for making the shot that he’d flubbed just moments before. Pekovic’s response: