Monday, October 25, 2010

Are the Timberwolves for Real I?

The Timberwolves are winning, said Jerry Zgoda in yesterday's Sunday Strib. But can they keep it up? Are the for real, Sid wanted to know.

Well, are they?

David Kahn said last summer that there was no question the Wolves' roster was better than the one he'd inherited. Not so fast, I said.

I mean, Darko over Big Al? Heck, the Wolves went 2-24 down the stretch last year with Milicic starting in the post.

Okay, sure, Kevin Love is bound to be better than Kevin Love was. But, but....

Well, but, nuthin.' Now that the Wolves have finished the pre-season at 6-2--and, specifically, with a miraculous come-from-behind win at Milwaukee--it seems clear that Kahn was right. The Wolves are better at at least 4 spots, and the whole compares to the sum of the parts in ways that Wolves' fans have only dreamed about for 20 years.


Well, one answer is Love, who leads the Wolves with 18 points and 11 boards per game. But at crunch-time in Milwaukee, it seemed always to be the new point man, Luke Ridnour, who was making it happen. The Wolves trailed by 10 early, and Ridnour brought 'em back with a steal and an assist. Then, down by 15 in the 2nd, Ridnour scored 8 over a 2:30 span to get 'em back within 2. Down 10 going into the 4th, Ridnour scored 2 points but added 4 assists over 8 minutes.

The bottom line is, when Wolves games have been decided in the 4th quarter, they've generally gone the other way. Now it was the Wolves coming on strong, out-scoring the Bucks 22-12 through 3:07 of the 4th to tie it up for the 1st time since 72-72. And when they went ahead 109-107 with the 1st points of the OT, it was their 1st lead since 2-0. And after falling behind again, 118-112 with just 2:05 left in OT, the Wolves stormed back with the game's last 7 points. And who but Ridnour won it with 3 FT with 1 tick left on the clock.

But getting back to the question of the day, are the Wolves for real? Well, this was a revenge game for Ridnour, who spent the last 2 years with the Bucks and at the Bradley Center. Can he do this every night? You know, take over the game, be the #1 star? No. He finished the game with 17 points and 7 assists. For the pre-season the numbers are just 10 and 5 and he's shooting just .383. And his back-up, Sebastien Telfair has more assists, 5.2 to 4.8 per game, and less than 1/3 as many turnovers.

Still, the bottom line on Ridnour is he leads the Wolves in minutes with 28, and they're 6-2.

But meanwhile, scoring from the Wolves' vaunted 2 and 3 spots has all but dried up. Michael Beasley scored 21 points twice in the 1st 3 games, then only got into double figures twice the rest of the way with 12 and 10. Martell Webster got hurt. Wesley Johnson's shooting percentage dropped out of the stratosphere--well above 60 percent after 3 games--to a more rookie-like .426. But Wayne Ellington came on, scoring 48 in the last 3 outings.

Still, the bottom line is the Wolves won 15 games last year with Milicic, Love, Brewer, Ellington and coach Rambis. They've still got to show that they've improved when it matters--the regular season. Kevin McHale says they're better, but only enough to lose closer games. They could be a lot more competitive on the court and not win much many more games.

Some have said that the Wolves could play .500 ball. I'm not buyin' that. I said earlier that 30 wins would be a worthy goal. I mean, it ain't 40, but neither is it 15. Ad the keys wold seem to be Ridnour, Telfair and, when he returns from an injury, the incumbent point Jonny Flynn, if he can muscle his way back into the lineup.

And, the Wolves will need that perimeter scoring. They got plenty over the 1st few games but, since then, they've gotten a lot less and they've still won. After Wednesday they're going to need Beasley and Johnson to play like they did in those 1st 3 games or Webster to come back from his imjury faster than anticiped.

Still there's lots of reasons for optimism, and I think 30 games still sounds about right started with the Kings here on Wednesday night.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Wolves are 3-0, The Wolves are 3-0!

Somebody--I don't remember if it was Kahn or Rambis, or maybe it was Sid Hartman, but somebody--said the Timberwolves could play .500 ball this year. I ain't buyin' it. On the other hand, I said they'd more likely win 20, and right now I'm feelin' like that's not enough. I mean, the Wolves are 3-0, the Wolves are 3-0! And even I have already succumbed to an unnatural sense of excitement and optimism.

In case you missed it, the Wolves beat the defending NBA champion LA Lakers (without Kobe Bryant) 111-92 in London, the New York Knicks 106-100 in Paris, and Denver last night at the Target Center 122-108.

Against the Lakers, newcomers Michael Beasley and Martell Webster combined to make 16-of-23 shots for 45 points, and the Wolves hammered the Lakers 56-36 in the 2nd half.

Kevin Love led the way against the Knicks with 17 points and 14 boards, despite 4-of-16 shooting and 5 blocks against. Webster matched Love's 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting, while leading the Wolves on +/- at +20.

The Wolves again pulled away from Denver with a 67-55 2nd half edge. Beasley again led the Wolves in scoring with 21, while Love added 16 and 15 boards.

The pecking order across the 3 games would appear to be:


Darko Milicic started all 3 games and played an average of 22 minutes. Nikola Pekovic is the back-up at 14 minutes, while Kosta Koufos has played in 2 games for an average of 12 minutes. The Milicic-Pekovic rotation appears to be pretty much set because 1) neither has played himself out of the lineup and 2) let's be honest, Kosta Koufos is not going to make this team. Still, all 3 are shooting about 60 percent from the field and in the aggregate they're scoring about 20 points a game with about 12-and-a-half boards.

But their primary function is going to be clogging up the middle and moving the ball. The good news: Milicic and Pekovic have 4 assists per game so far between them, and the Wolves defense appears to be somewhat improved over their disastrous performance in 2009-2010. These 2 guys--and particularly Milicic with 8 blocked shots--deserve the lion's share of the credit if that holds up over time.

Power Forward

Kevin Love is Da Man. He is described on the NBA highlights reel as the guy who helped team USA to the world championship earlier this year. And if he keeps rebounding like he has through these 1st 3 games (12 per game in 26 minutes), he could be the NBA rebounding champ. The back-up is Anthony Tolliver, who's getting 21 minutes, shooting .529, and contributing 9 points, 4 boards and 2 assists.

Then of course there's Michael Beasley. The Wolves are intent on finding out if he can play on the perimeter so far, and so far the answer is, Yes! But he could be the power forward of the future if some folks had their way. A word of caution, in other words, on Da Man. He's shooting .375 and, more to the point, his shot is getting blocked with alarming frequency. Along with rebounding, he could easily lead the NBA in blocks against. Some people draw from this the lesson that his mobility is just too limited for him to excel in the NBA though, let's be honest, so far he appears to be doing it. Stay tuned.

Small Forward

As noted, Michael Beasley is the small forward until he proves that he can't handle it, and so far he has proven no such thing. He's playing 23 minutes, shooting .462, leading the way with 18 points per game, and adding 5 boards, 2 steals, an assist and a block. It would be nice if he had a better instinct for passing the ball, as he's going to be seeing plenty of double-teams at the 3, but that's bridge that he and the Wolves can cross on another day.

His back-up, and the Wolves' possible super-instant-offense type of sub, is Martell Webster. He's coming off the bench to add some timely energy, shooting .529 and trailing Beasley by just 2 points for the team lead. He has hit 6-of-13 3s, so he can extend the D like nobody did for the Wolves the past few years. Webster can also play the 2, so he and Beasley can both be on the floor at the same time, either at the 2 and 3 spots or at the 3 and 4 spots.

Off Guard

It appears there will be a changing of the guard, so to speak. At times last year, Wayne Ellington was the Wolves' best option at the 2. Now he appears to be no more than the 3rd or 4th option behind Webster, rookie Wesley Johnson and Corey Brewer.

I love Corey Brewer, by the way, and I would love for him to be an essential piece of a Wolves renaissance. It looks now like that ain't gonna happen. Brewer started the 1st 2 games but he has scored just 10 points (3 per game) on 2-of-17 (.118) shooting. He's the best defender at that spot, but at .118 no amount of D is going to cut it. So the rookie Johnson started the 3rd game at the 2 spot. Across 3 games Johnson has played an average of 21 minutes, shot the lights out (.650) including 7-of-10 from long range and scored 13 points per game.

Ellington, meanwhile, has gotten 17 minutes per game, shot .368 for 7 points per game, and it's true that he's the best passer of the 4 with 2 assists per game. But with Johnson and Webster shooting .650 and .529 and Ellington at .368, no number of assists can push Ellington to the fore.

Point Guard

Okay, this is tricky. The incumbent, Jonny Flynn, is hurt and so the new old hand, Luke Ridnour, is running the show and running it quite well, thank you. He's played 27 minutes per game, shot an even .500, scored 10 points with 4 boards, 5 assists and 3 steals per game. He has certainly been more efficient and more of a pass-first, score-second type of 1 than Flynn was as a rookie. When Flynn comes back, I think you'll see him settling into a back-up role.

Which means that Sebastien Telfair will be odd man out. I mean, he probably retains a spot on the roster but really just as insurance against injury. So far he's playing 20 minutes per game with a team-high of 6 assists, an amazing 5-and-a-half rebounds and a steal-and-a-half. But he's shooting .200 for 2.5 points per game. The final option, Jason Hart, has played in just 1 of the 3 games and has all zeroes in the stat book.

The Starting 6

So if this is the start of a renaissance, it's stars will be:


The 2nd 5 is:

PF-Tolliver and/or Beasley

Lost in the shuffle, but still on the roster, are Ellington and Telfair.

As a team, they add up to the following through 3 games: They've out-scored the opposition 113-100. That obviously isn't going to continue but a positive edge of even 103-100, and holding the opposition to just 100 points per game, would both represent giant steps forward for the organization. They've done that by out-shooting their opponents .455 to .420, and an amazing .531 to .295 from 3-point land. Those kind of numbers are not going to continue, but perhaps at least they won't be woefully out-performed in these areas as they were last year. And they've made a dozen extra FT, though on only 1 extra attempt total.

But if they can shoot with their opponents, how will they do on possession of the ball? Well, so far the Wolves have 2 more offensive rebounds but also 2 more turnovers than their opponents, so the possessions are pretty much dead even. Of they can keep that up, that's a big turnaround with Love, Beasley, Pekovic (on the offensive glass) and Ridnour those responsible for same.

The Outlook

Who the hell knows? They're not going to out-shoot their opponents from 3-point land .531 to .295 going forward, though they might be able to break even on possessions. But these numbers are just from the pre-season. Kobe played 6 lousy minutes against the Wolves, Amare Stoudamire scored 11 points in 20 minutes for the Knicks,'Melo made just 2-of-9 shots and Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin didn't play for the Nuggets.

But the 3-0 start gives one hope, nevertheless; hope that hadn't existing among Timberwolves fans since a year or two before KG was finally dealt. 40 wins is too many to hope for, but maybe 20's not enough. Let's go with 30. That, and another top draft choice next year, would be progress. And Beasley and Webster and Johnson all have the potential to provide some excitement (read: athleticism) that's been missing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

U.S. Women Roar into World Finals

In the quarters, it was U.S. 106 South Korea 44. In the semis, U.S. 106 Spain 70. And the #2 and #3 seeded Australia and Russia, respectively, were both upset in the quarters, so the U.S. will take on the lightly-regarded Czech Republic in today's final.

But before you start celebrating, just remember that the Czech are the home team for this FIBA world championship, and they parlayed that into a convincing win over the #2 team in the world, the Aussies, 78-69. That's a margin that is 1 point larger than the U.S. enjoyed over Australia in the second round of pool play. And like they say, "it's never an upset when the home team wins."

But the U.S. avoided upsets in its first two games of the medal round.

Against the Koreans, the U.S. ran out to 28-11 and 48-22 leads after the 1st 2 periods, then humiliated their opponents 35-7 in the 3rd period for a ridiculous 83-29 lead. Angel McCoughtrey scored 17 points and also led the Americans with 2 blocks and 2 steals. Maya Moore addfed 15 points, Candice Dupree 12 and 16 rebounds, Swin Cash 11, and Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles 10 each. The team's leading scorer, Diana Taurasi, was held to 7 points but led the way with 4 assists.

Again Spain, the Americans again ran out to an early lead, 29-16 after 1 period. It was 58-34 at the half and 87-53 after 3. Tamika Catchings scored 14, Fowles 13 with 6 rebounds, Taurasi 11 and McCoughtrey 11 with 3 steals.

The Americans secret weapon was, well, no secret, as they out-shot their opponents badly. Against Korea, it was 57 percent versus 31 percent, and against Spain it was 60 percent versus 41. Dupree continued her hot shooting, making 9-of-15 shots over the 2 games for a total so far (8 games) of 38-f0r-51, or a remarkable 74.5 percent.

The Czechs are 6-2, having lost 1 game in each round of pool play, to the Russians 55-52 and then to Spain 77-57. The upset of Australia and an OT win over Belarus followed in the medal round. As mentioned, the Czechs actually outperformed the U.S. against the Aussies, with a margin of victory of 1 point. Against the other common opponent, Belarus, things are a little different, however, as the U.S. beat Belarus 107-61 and the Czechs did so 81-77 in OT.

The Czechs are led by Eva Viteckova, their scorer with 18 ppg, and Hana Horekova, their ball-handler with 4 assists to go along with 12 points.

Today's final will be closer than you think, but the U.S. has had no let-downs at any time during the tournament. Coach Geno Auriemma has kept the women up-beat and up-tempo. And for each woman who might be having a bad day, there are 3 girls on the bench ready, willing and able to fill on. You read it here first. The U.S. wins the gold, 89-78.