Wolves take step forward vs. Maccabi Haifa

MINNEAPOLIS – Leave it to the man who speaks English as a second language to explain this better than anyone has in the past three weeks.

Ever since these new-look Timberwolves showed up in Minneapolis, the talk has been about chemistry and relationships, the intangible things that are supposed to translate and show on the court.

Then, even more recently, there’s been another emphasis on combinations, on getting players together on the court to find their best matchups and positioning.

It’s been that, chemistry and combinations, over and over, and yet with injuries and personnel decisions and the general “who cares?” attitude that can color preseason games, it’s been little more than talk.

And then in Tuesday’s 114-81 win over Israeli Super League team Maccabi Bazan Haifa, it began to make sense. There was visible chemistry, and the combinations kept on coming. The likely opening-night starters – Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Roy, Luke Ridnour and Andrei Kirilenko – played in tandem for the first time, and suddenly, it evolved from awkward to enjoyable.

Moments after the game, his cheeks still flushed from his 28 minutes on the court, Kirilenko found the words to capture what the Timberwolves have been talking about all this time. There’s no need to expound any further, really, or to explain why these vague C-words matter – not after Kirilenko waved his hands as if he was conjuring some kind of spell and put it in so few words:

“You kind of get that, let’s say, glue, getting everybody together and get everybody going.”

All this time, the Timberwolves have been looking for their glue. On Tuesday, with an inferior opponent, a healthy lineup and the ability to focus singularly on themselves, they found it. It’s still that weak kind of preschool glue stick at this point, and they’ll need rubber cement. But they’ve found the glue. Their play has hinted at it, and better yet, they still know that this isn’t as good as it can get.

There are more than two weeks remaining before the Timberwolves’ regular-season debut against Sacramento on Nov. 2, and in that time, that glue should solidify. Roles will seem clearer, and making decisions about games will come more naturally to Rick Adelman and the team’s coaches. Right now, there are so many options, too many ways to tweak the team that just might work. There’s still time to experiment, but it’s drawing to an end, and to have early evidence of some viable options must be comforting.

“Eventually, come November, you’ve got to make decisions on your rotation,” Adelman said. “It’s not going to be written in stone, but you’ve got to make at least an intelligent decision of this seems to be working the best right now.”

After just four preseason games, players are still learning more about one another and where they need to be on the court, catching onto instincts and inclinations. No one was fully pleased with Tuesday’s effort – the first half was excruciating at times, and the offense still needs work – but at least they’re recognizing the glitches.

Love talked about several instances in the game when Roy caught the ball and wanted to go left, but Love was in his way. Love remembers that, and he’s already looking to correct it. With more time together, it should be an easy fix.

“We have some nice passing,” Roy said. “We know guys can do that. We just got to make sure the court is spaced so those looks and those opportunities can present themselves.”

There are so many factors tugging the importance of what happened on Tuesday in either direction. Yes, Love, Roy and Kirilenko combined for 56 points. But it was against an inferior opponent, hardly an NBA-caliber squad. (Scale tips in one direction.) But Maccabi Bazan Haifa nearly beat Golden State last week. (Scale tips a bit back in the other.) And this was the first time the first-team offense seemed to hit a rhythm. (Tips a bit further.)

So what have we learned, with all these factors and disclaimers? We’ve learned that there’s something here, something that’s perhaps yet to solidify and still at least a bit hidden. But there’s something, and even these first hints of it are enough to provide some hope.

Now back to that glue and Kirilenko, who seems to vocalize everything in his own perfect, poetic way. The Russian veteran could be the spokesperson for the team at this point, with his sound bytes that transform what might otherwise be clichés or trite athlete-speak into comprehensible wisdom. He knows what he wants to contribute, and his approach should color the way the team thinks about its game from now on.

“I’m really looking for, let’s say, valuable action on the floor,” Kirilenko said. “It doesn’t really matter how many points you score. It’s really not that important. The important thing is how you, let’s say, execute on the floor. How you run. How’s the quality of the game? If you’re playing right, you’re always going to get something.”

They might only be words, but that seems like a decent description of how a winning team is born. It’s not as if its as easy as Kirilenko says it, Timberwolves do it, but that attitude already seems to be sticking. There have been the first hints of success, but these players know that it goes beyond statistics or point totals, and they know that it can get better.

Now, combinations makes a bit more sense. So does chemistry. What were once platitudes are now becoming assets, and that’s when this starts to get fun. 

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