The great Steve McPherson of the blog A Wolf Among Wolves (and Grantland and Hardwood Paroxysm and a bunch of other places — seriously, if you’re not a fan of his work by now, you’re doing it wrong) graciously joins us to answer we these questions three in advance of today’s ‘Bockers-Puppies tilt. Enjoy!
1. Like Richard Nixon once asked at 4am of the Kent State Protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, how’s your team doing this year?
We’re only two games in, but the Wolves are on pace for the late and sadly missed Tim Allen‘s mythical 82-0 season. That first win against the Orlando Magic was closer to a loss than coach Rick Adelman was really comfortable with, and afterward he lamented how the team — especially the starters — went slack in the third and much of the fourth, allowing the Magic back in a game the Wolves led by 17 points before the Wolves forced overtime and won it.
But there’s something to the idea that such a result is the best of all possible ones from a learning standpoint. Had the Wolves won or lost a blowout or lost a close game, it might have been damaging to the psyche of a team that’s still full of flinches from a season where seemingly everything went wrong. Example: Even though the Wolves masterfully handled the Thunder in their second game, limiting Kevin Durant to 13 points on 36% shooting (including 20% from 3), at least a few people grumbled the next day when it was discovered that Ronny Turiaf’s hard fall courtesy of Nick Collison had broken his elbow. “Thus it begins,” was the refrain. The entire fanbase has PTSD, more or less.
So as giddy as everyone got during that game against the Thunder, there’s still a lot of trepidation, an awareness that this is a long road. That’s probably good, actually, but let me also say that seeing the entire machine humming on all cylinders against OKC was a truly beautiful thing. It really showed that if the execution and focus is there and they stay healthy this can be a tremendously deadly offensive team that can engage enough on defense to win a lot of games.
2. You woke up this morning only to shockingly discover that you’ve been named head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. After briefly dancing a jig, you realize you’ve got a game today. What’s your plan to beat the Knicks? What are your team’s strengths vis-a-vis New York/your weaknesses?
Given Mike Woodson’s apparent and somewhat disturbing fondness for trying to beat teams at their own game rather than playing to the Knicks’ strengths, I would just try to get a lineup out there that forces the Knicks away from their two point guard, Melo-at-the-4 lineups. That would have been harder last season for the Wolves — who ran double point guard lineups a lot of the time — but it should be a little easier this season. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin should create matchup problems for Felton/Prigioni lineups. And if Woodson insists on putting Bargnani out there against Kevin Love, he’s in for a rude awakening. They’re both big men who like to shoot, but Love actually makes his shots, plus rebounds the ever-loving stuffing out of the ball. If the Knicks have to rely on Chandler for all their rebounding while facing Love and Nikola Pekovic — who are straight killers on the offensive glass — it’s going to be truly ugly.
Honestly, the Knicks’ best option is to push Melo at the 4 as much as possible because Love will struggle to contain him or — if Corey Brewer is on Melo on the defensive end — will struggle with whomever the Knicks put at the 3. If both teams go small and just try to shoot their opponent out of the building, this will be a fun, fun game. But if the Wolves want to win, they’d be better advised to feature Pek and Love getting the ball on the move closer to the hoop.
3. For those who don’t get to see the Wolves on the regular, and may not know much about the team aside from Ricky Rubio’s dreamy puppy-dog eyes, Kevin Love’s brilliance and Nikola Pekovic’s odd habit of eating a still-beating wild boar’s heart before tip off because he needs to consume the beast’s life force, who should we be on the lookout for? Who has surprised so far this season/who has disappointed?
Anyone who loves basketball would be well-advised to keep an eye out for Dante Cunningham coming off the bench for the Wolves. You might know him as a so-called “energy guy,” which is partly true because he’s tremendous on the offensive and defensive boards, but that “energy” tag also implies a certain lack of skill, or at least an overcompensation for a lack of skill with a surplus of frenetic movement. But Cunningham’s energy comes from funneling what he has into very specific areas. He knows exactly where he’s effective, and that’s on the pick-and-pop around the elbow, where he’s nearly automatic on midrange jumpers. You can’t build an entire offense around it — as we saw last year — but his soft touch from that range is reliable and steady. It’s just what you want out of a bench guy, and it’s just good basketball.
Also, I can’t credit all of Durant’s awful night on Friday to Brewer — Durant may have been destined for a slump no matter what — but it was a lot of fun to watch Brewer get so far up into one of the league’s premier scorers that Durant practically had to submit a receipt to his health insurance for a colonoscopy. Brewer will take every inch afforded him by the refs in guarding a good scorer, which is either infuriating or supremely enjoyable, depending on your perspective. He’s equally as fun on the offensive side of the ball, but more because he flies with such reckless abandon. His forays to the basket appear to be governed by ragdoll physics more commonly associated with video games than the staid rules of motion the real world observes. Every fastbreak is an adventure when Brewer is involved.