MINNEAPOLIS – It’s a funny thing, what language can do. Switch just a tiny, simple word, and you’ve said something different, created meaning where there might have been none at all.
When asked about his team’s chances of making the playoffs, J.J. Barea could not speak fast enough: “Positive.”
The word leapt out of his mouth before the question was finished, both of its implications lingering. Positive about the team’s chances? Or positive it’ll make it? For a non-native speaker like the Puerto Rican, the meanings may not have seemed so different. Positive about making the postseason, he insisted.
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There’s a lot left open for interpretation there, and the accident of language seems fitting for this year’s Minnesota Timberwolves, whose postseason fate remains uncertain. At 17-17 going into the All-Star break, the Timberwolves should feel like a viable contender in the Western Conference playoff race, though far from a shoe-in. But with a young, developing team, it’s hard to determine a ceiling, and a month from now, the players might be closer to positive that they’ll make the playoffs, rather than positive about their chances.
For now, though, playoffs are part of the conversation, and as the season speeds into its second half, they’ll remain as such.
“You’re right there,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You should look at it. But we talk about staying in the hunt, not necessarily getting there. Staying in the hunt is what you have to do, and to do that you’re going to have to be .500 or above.”
With Luke Ridnour’s perfectly timed buzzer-beater on Wednesday night, the Timberwolves made good on one part of that conversation, improving their record to .500 at the midseason break. But in the second half of the season, as the playoffs loom ever closer, goals will have to become more strenuous and precise. By the fault of a very jagged line, the Timberwolves find themselves in the Western Conference, which is this year the more challenging of the two conferences. They sit 10th in the conference, two spots out of a playoff position. If they played in the East, the Timberwolves’ record would be good enough to tie them for the conference’s seventh seed, but it’s interesting to note that the team is 5-8 against Eastern Conference opponents.
So .500 will likely not be enough. That’s been the number at the forefront of players’ minds for the season’s first half, but the team needs to find a foothold above .500 and hold onto it as the schedule progresses into March and April. The players know that, and they’ve emphasized that just replicating what they did in the first half will not be enough.
Perhaps the biggest challenge the team will face in the second half of the season will be its schedule. Coming off the break, the Timberwolves play 19 of their final 32 games on the road, a streak that includes a seven-game road trip in the middle of March. Several weeks ago, that might actually have been heartening; the team for a stretch had a better record on the road than at home. But recently, those marks have evened, and the team is .500 both on the road and away. So, from a statistical standpoint, the road-heavy schedule shouldn’t matter, but the grueling pace of that much time traveling will definitely factor into the team’s approach and performance.
It’s been a season of exceeded expectations thus far, but the Timberwolves have underperformed at the basket so far this year. They came into the season derided for their defense and lauded for their scoring abilities, but the team that’s emerged has been far from that original vision. The Timberwolves are 15th in the league in floor percentage (the ratio of scoring possessions to total possessions), at 48.1 percent, and 46.9 field-goal shooting puts them 20th in the NBA. However, they’ve held opponents to a floor percentage of 47.6 percent, good for 13th in the league, and opponents are shooting just 43.8 percent from the field against them. That’s the 11th-best shooting defense in the league.
Guard Luke Ridnour, who has shot an impressive 50 percent from the field in the team’s past three games, said that a lack of rest has contributed to the team’s scoring woes. Despite that, he knows what Minnesota is capable of.
“I think we’ll catch fire as we keep going,” Ridnour said.
But there’s no way to guarantee things like better shooting and wins, no fail-safe formula for a winning record. There are only tweaks and adjustments, hours of practice cobbled out of a schedule devoid of spare time. Adelman knows this better than anyone, but there’s one adjustment he’s begun to make in recent games that he thinks will carry over to positive results in the second half: a solidified lineup.
“Early in the season, we weren’t having anybody that was separating themselves from the other guys,” Adelman said. “One game it would be one guy; the next game it would be somebody else. You’re always kind of mixing and matching.”
It was often hard to follow. One night, Michael Beasley was the team’s next offensive hope. For a stretch, it was Wayne Ellington, who shot 65.0 percent from the field during a five-game streak in January. It was a constant string of surprises and difficult to negotiate a lineup that might lead to sustained wins.
But in recent weeks, with the emergence of Nikola Pekovic at center and a fully healthy cadre of guards, Adelman has found some measure of order in his rotation. His starting lineup of Kevin Love, Wes Johnson, Ridnour, Ricky Rubio and Pekovic seems nearly set in stone, and Beasley has become the first player off the bench. Barea is getting consistent minutes, and forward Derrick Williams has found some semblance of a role, as well. When players stand up and remove their warmups during games, there’s no longer a collective gasp of “Why him? Why now?” that there might have been in the season’s early days.
“You just get a feel for the players,” Adelman said. “You see how they fit in with the team and the main group. I think it’s easier when you play nine guys. It’s easier because everybody knows what they’re going to do.”
There’s an obvious downside to the nine-man rotation Adelman has embraced: six of his 15 players aren’t going to get regular minutes. Anthony Randolph has become a consistent healthy scratch, and Malcolm Lee has yet to take the court since rehabbing his injured knee. Anthony Tolliver is a rare sight in games, as is Darko Milicic, who had been a staple of the lineup earlier in the season. It’s a tough fate for those players to swallow, but it’s also motivation. Their team is winning, and they should be driven to do whatever it takes to play a part.
In January, when the team struggled with injuries, it was often forced into an eight-man rotation. Now, to have the luxury of that limited pool of players when everyone is healthy has simplified the team’s approach, Love said, and he hopes that his teammates on the bench are looking for their opportunities. For Love, the limited rotation comes with few consequences. He’s always been expected to start, to shoulder 40 or more minutes. Adelman, though, bares the brunt of the negative impact. He knows that morale could suffer, that players might not want to talk to him and hear his explanation for their diminished or nonexistent roles.
It’s a young team, and many of the players whose minutes are disappearing are just a few years removed from being college stars. It would be hard to fault them any measure of flagging morale, but the Timberwolves’ locker room has yet to bare the scars of Adelman’s adjustments. For the first time in years, there’s a hierarchy of age and experience, an atmosphere of team that’s crucial to success. On Sunday, the rookies received backpacks – pink Hello Kitty for Lee, pink Disney princesses for Williams, and a pixelated, pouting Justin Bieber for Rubio. They’re to carry them to every away game as a reminder that they’ve been slacking on their one rookie duty: to buy special soap for the locker room.
Things like that didn’t happen to rookies last season. There was no thought to kitschy self-mockery in a season where the jokes were directed at the Timberwolves, rather than among them. Right now, it doesn’t matter how many minutes a player is logging or if his performance is meeting his own expectations. The team is winning as often as it’s losing, and though heightened expectations will become harder to meet in the second half, the team’s attitude should lessen the sting of road games and the ever-present need to be better than it was the night before.
So smile when Lee slides his iPad into that shiny pink sack, toting it out of the locker room with his other, more professional leather bags. It’s OK to laugh at this Timberwolves team, because it’s impossible to mock what it’s done thus far on the court.