We keep hoping for a relief from these losing doldrums. We know this season is lost. But after nearly a decade of pounding our heads against the wall, waiting for the next day, the brighter day….when will it arrive? This was supposed to be the year to not just make the playoffs, but to get on the map as a middle-of-the-pack seed come April. When the injuries started to pile up, there was still hope. Sneak into the playoffs, and we’ll still feel okay about this season. Alas, the injuries never stopped. And in turn, neither have the losses.
The first half gave us a surprisingly good basketball game, considering the circumstances and overwhelming shortcomings of the two squads that shared the court. The Lakers took a ten point lead more than once in the first half, but the Wolves fought back within one possession each time, all the way up until the Lakers took a 57-47 lead into the break. Nikola Pekovic went down with a strained abdominal muscle just nine minutes into the game, and Wolves were forced to play the remainder of the game without their best scoring threat.
Kobe Bryant asserted himself early and late in the half, finishing with 22 points on 9 of 15 from the field. Derrick Williams actually played pretty good defense on Kobe to start the game, but the help defense from the Wolves’ bigs was inconsistent, and eventually Bryant got his points. Ricky Rubio piled up six assists in the opening nine minutes (5 points on 2 of 4 shooting, 4 rebounds, 9 assists in the half), and J.J. Barea (5 of 9 for 13 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists) kept the visitors afloat when Rubio headed to the bench.
The third quarter started with an intriguing back-and-forth between Rubio and Bryant, with Rubio converting on two consecutive layups with Bryant guarding him (with help from Chris Johnson brush screens each time). Bryant accepted the challenge and kept shooting from deeper and deeper before capping the sequence with a long three-pointer with a hand in his face.
After the Lakers briefly expanded their lead, the Wolves went on an 8-0 run and cut the lead to 68-61 with a chance to cut it even further before Dante Cunningham missed a fastbreak layup at the end of a poorly spaced run-out with Williams and Luke Ridnour. The seven point deficit that remained was as close as the Wolves would get for the remainder of the game.
Without Pekovic in the lineup, the Wolves were forced to continue playing the zone defense that so flummoxed the Lakers a few weeks ago in Minneapolis. This time, however, the Lakers began to knock down their shots. Jodie Meeks will only miss so many open three-pointers, and the Wolves used up that quota early in the game, dodging bullets left and right. In the third quarter, they did not stand a chance in slowing down the Lakers’ long range attack.
Heading into the fourth frame, the Lakers led 91-75. They quickly pushed the lead even higher, and the Wolves only provided some brief and fleeting resistance. Both teams took the pedal off the gas midway through the quarter, and the final result was a large Lakers’ victory by the score of 116-94.
Some quick thoughts….
– Without Andrei Kirilenko, the Wolves predictably struggled in two of AK’s strongest areas of play: help defense and getting to the free throw line. Early in the game, the Wolves did not help Williams on Bryant’s drives to the basket. Late in the game, a lack of length allowed the Lakers to jack up countless uncontested three-point shots. In addition, the Wolves only attempted two free throws in the first half. With the game no longer in doubt, the Wolves’ got their attempts up to 15 for the game, but the lack of free throws in the first half hurt quite a bit.
– Rubio’s line was great: 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting, 8 rebounds, 13 assists, 1 steal, and 4 turnovers in 33 minutes. He actually did a fairly good job guarding Nash, forcing him into a 4 of 12 shooting night with 10 points and 7 assists in just 25 minutes. Also: TNT’s NBA Inside Tracks provided some grand Rubi0isms. “Alexey, change this face. Be happy, enjoy it” was easily the best, in addition to imploring Derrick Williams to hustle back on defense, even after missing shots on the offensive end.
– Barea absolutely kept the Wolves afloat early in the game (as he has many times as an offensive spark off the bench), but his style of play does not fit with Rick Adelman’s ideal vision for his team’s offense. Here’s hoping that Barea, and not Ridnour, is the odd man out this off-season when the front office goes about their expected moves to balance the roster. As a spot-shooting, offensive-minded combo guard off the bench, Ridnour is an ideal fit for a playoff team. He has been over-extended and asked to do too much for an oft-injured and short-handed Wolves squad over the past three seasons and has not gotten enough credit for his steady play.
– Hey! Chris-Johnson-is-the-best crowd! There’s a reason why this guy has not stuck with multiple NBA franchises. He’s got a world of athletic talent, obviously. He shows more consistent promise and effort than Anthony Randolph ever did, with equal athleticism. But his big problem is the same as Randolph’s was/is: size. He does not have the thickness or build to guard anyone down low, much less Dwight Howard. It’s fun to watch him play hard and throw down oops, but he’s nothing more than a fringy bench big man.
– The Wolves will be in Portland to take on the Trail Blazers on Saturday night in Portland at 9:00 CST. The game will be broadcast nationally on NBATV. Next time Pekovic is in Portland….eh, never mind. That conversation is for another day….
On Kenny Smith’s opinion of Rubio….
The TNT halftime show consisted entirely of a discussion of the virtues and deficiencies of our very own Ricky. Dennis Scott and Shaquille O’Neal sang Rubio’s praises, which is exactly how you might expect a former sharpshooter and a former center to view a dazzling, pass-first guard.
Kenny Smith, generally a pass-first combo guard himself in his day, was much more critical of Rubio. (There is more here…consider Russell Westbrook’s not-so-impressed view of Rubio. Other guards are not as impressed with Rubio as players that play other positions. A story for another day, to be sure, but there is more there.) He was initially fair in his criticism of the Spaniard, citing his inability to score and his poor shooting efficiency. When Scott and O’Neal countered by discussing how perfectly-placed Rubio’s passes are (hitting Chris Johnson in the hands going up for a dunk, hitting shooters in their shooting pockets, etc.), Smith’s criticism became a little baseless.
Smith’s argument for why Rubio is not a top-tier point guard (he isn’t yet, by the way) was that any point guard in the class of Gary Payton or Kyrie Irving could “decide” to have 15 assists in any given game, but they chose to score the basketball instead. Rubio cannot “decide” to score a bunch of points, so therefore he is not in their class.
Of course, this proves Scott and O’Neal’s points perfectly. Rubio is not yet able to score at will, and he all too often misses even open shots. But he still compiles assist numbers equal or greater to his counterparts. In other words, opposing teams dare him to shoot, and clearly concede open jump shots from anywhere on the floor, and Rubio still averages 9 assists per 36 minutes. Factor in his battered and lackluster supporting cast, and what Rubio has been doing in his recovery from ACL surgery is that much more impressive.
Rubio is absolutely not a top-five point guard in the NBA as it stands today. Assuming he improves his jump shot even marginally each year, he should have no trouble reaching that subjective bench mark. He is 22 years old. Take some time and consider Nash and Jason Kidd’s shooting numbers early in their careers. Rubio actually shot 34% from deep last year before his knee injury, and has always been a good free throw shooter. The tools are there. The legs are not. Rubio has the ability to be a top point guard in the league, and it is only a matter of time.
EDIT: Kenny Smith just said on the post-game that Rubio “can’t take over a game with steals or his defense”. Errm…this is not correct. Go ahead and look up who was leading the league in steals last year before Rubio’s ACL tear. Seriously, go ahead, I’ll wait….it was Rubio, wasn’t it? That’s what I thought. Also: he provides significantly more defensive value than offensive value. And it isn’t close. Can someone explain why his defense is still so underrated?