Defense, attention to roles give this year's Timberwolves a different look.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS – Rick Adelman told Brandon Roy not to worry about the missed shots. Don't worry about the 10 field goals, the five three-pointers, the two free throws. They'll come.
My, what a positive after a 92-80 win that came in spite of the
Timberwolves' offense, in spite of Roy's shooting, in spite of so much. But Adelman isn't delusional. He's been doing this too long to be. He's had too much success. He's too patient to worry about that last step just yet, not when the rest of the process is going so well and his players are embracing the roles they've been given.
So maybe Adelman isn't worried. Maybe Roy isn't either. But that doesn't take away from what Friday night's game was offensively. It was messy, luckless, a thing of air balls and angles too far off for success. If you'd told me there was a force field around the Timberwolves' basket, there were far too many moments when I might just have believe it.
Roy went 4-for-14 from the floor, good for 28.6 percent field-goal shooting. That was worse than his team's overall 36.8 percent mark, but not by much. Chase Budinger struggled as well, missing all five three-pointers he attempted and nine of 12 field goals. Nikola Pekovic went 2-for-8 from the field, Derrick Williams 3-for-12. Nothing was hitting. Nothing.
If it hadn't been for the team's solid defense, that lack of offense could have been cause for disaster. But by limiting the Kings to shooting just as poorly as they, the Timberwolves held on, and in doing so they earned themselves a one-time pass. This shouldn't happen again, not when for the first time since Adelman arrived a system seems to be in place and players are committed to playing the roles that will best serve their team.
There's that team defense, first of all, which could have been one of those things that sounds so good in theory but collapses in practice. It hasn't collapsed, and by limiting the Kings to 80 points, the Timberwolves continued the trend they began in preseason, when their opponents logged an average of just 80.9 points per game. There's no lockdown defender, no star of the defense, no fail-safe body to protect the rim. Yet somehow, the coordination and philosophy is working, and defense is no longer a word that incites Adelman to cringe.
"It's just one game, but we've got to have that same effort, that same team effort if we want to be good," Roy said.
Roy and Budinger may have been missing, but they were missing from the right places, on the wings where they belong. Budinger has earned a reputation as an ace 3-point shooter – he showed it in preseason – and Roy should be able to contribute from long range as well. That's what Adelman has asked of them, and the system worked on Friday to the point where they were in position and got the ball where they needed to be. This wasn't a case of players taking bad shots but rather one of poor shooting. It's hard to say empirically which scenario is worse, but for the Timberwolves right now, it's better to avoid the former, which they did in their first game.
"Offensively we've got a long ways to go," Adelman said. "We missed so many shots, but we stayed with it in the fourth quarter."
And then there was Pekovic, his big body lodged in the paint as he's been training to do for months. Maybe the shots and putbacks weren't falling, but he was where he needed to be, and he was getting the ball.
At point guard, J.J. Barea took over the game, scoring 21 points and directing traffic as well as he has in a Timberwolves uniform. He saw the floor, saw his teammates, and got them the ball when and where they needed it, even if they couldn't take the next step and actually score.
The roles are there. This thing is beginning to flow, at least up to a certain point, the crucial one where ball leaves hands and swishes through net, in theory. But players are getting to the positions they need to, and they seem to have adjusted to the tendencies and habits of their new teammates. No one is worried about doing more than he needs to do or forcing himself into roles that don't make sense. When a team has some notion of depth and this level of versatility, such a scheme can work, and it's yet another intangible reason this year's team should be better than last year's.
Last season, roles were a shakier concept. It's hard to imagine that Darko Milicic knew his; in fact, his descriptions of what he'd been tasked with differed largely from what Adelman explained. The same could be said for Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, even Wes Johnson at times. There was no sense of organization to the group, and injuries forced players into roles bigger than they could handle.
Now, even with the injuries to Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, there's a clearly defined order. Even if there's little designation between the two forward positions, each player knows what he must do depending on the matchups he faces. There's no need to overstep boundaries, to doom the team by trying to do too much. It might not be a roster full of All-Stars, but the group was put together thoughtfully, with an eye for specific needs and how certain players would address them.
After Friday's game, Cunningham tried to put the whole thing into words, how his team had won despite its shooting struggles and offensive inefficiency. It took players picking up when others were struggling, shifting the shooting from the wings and tightening on defense.
"Regardless of the lineup, this team is deep," Cunningham said. "We have a lot of guys that are just raring to go at any minute …"
Roy interrupted him.
"A lot of guys ready to do what?" he asked, laughing. "Raring to go" was not going to cut it, apparently. So Cunningham clarified:
"We've just got a lot of guys that are ready and just willing to give whatever it takes to get the W out there."
But there's a difference between Cunningham's notion of whatever it takes and chaos. With these Timberwolves, whatever it takes needs to be organized and defined from player to player, not some mad rush to compensate for what they're missing. So far, so good, as long as next time they re-learn how to shoot.