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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Last night, we welcomed back two ghosts from our collective past to the Target Center. One was a lanky teen from the South who rose to national prominence in the ‘90s, made millions and gained glory for one fleeting moment, but whose career more recently has been dogged by accusations of fake toughness and declining talent. The other is Vanilla Ice.

For all its sad pageantry—the smoke machine, the tiny stage, the pandering of wearing a Kevin Love jersey—there was something sort of comforting in Vanilla Ice’s performance at halftime. It’s hard to believe, after all, that all the people who packed in at the stairwells to gawk at Mr. Ice had been down with him since day one. If you were anywhere in teenage range when “Ice Ice Baby” was destroying the charts, you probably hated it publicly and yet knew all the words. It’s an undeniable slice of guilty pop pleasure on so many levels. For example, it rips off a far better song (Queen’s “Under Pressure”) in a totally simpleminded yet manically genius way. I mean, listen to him try to defend the sample as original work back in 1990 (starts at 1:40):

“The only part that sounds like ‘Under Pressure’ is the hook.” That’s all you have! That song is only hook! And furthermore, it’s not even the bassline that’s most bothersome: the essential quality of both “Under Pressure” and “Ice Ice Baby” is generated by the interaction between that bassline and those two piano chords. The insistence and steadiness of that two-note bassline stands in tension with the fragility of the chords and that’s pretty much the whole ballgame. But whatever: I still know all the words.

Part of your brain reviles Ice for his crass commercialism, his continuing scrabbling attempts to stay relevant, whether that means going all Cypress Hill, or going all kind of Marilyn Manson/Limp Bizkit, or going all Juggalo wrestler, or going all let’s-renovate-a-house-on-the-DIY-network, or even going back and embracing the pop image he once notoriously destroyed on MTV.

But another part of you just wants to stop, collaborate and listen. Last night, there was an acceptance of Vanilla Ice and all the rich contradictions he engenders. The reception was more mixed for the other ghost of popular conscious past (at least in Minnesota) from last night, Kevin Garnett. The matchup between Garnett and Love—the battle of the Kevins—was something people feasted on in the days leading up to the game. But it was never really a contest, with Love looking gassed and playing out of position at the 5, a position that Garnett has had a chance to embrace in Boston. The Wolves’ Kevin was held to something like half the numbers we’ve come to expect (22 and 11) while every Celtic starter not named Rajon Rondo had double digits in scoring. Oh and Rondo had 17 assists (more than the entire Timberwolves team) in the Celtics’ 100-79 win.

It wasn’t Garnett’s first return to the Target Center, but the lingering questions about Garnett’s exit from Minnesota, his distaste for the franchise, and his upcoming free agency all gave this particular reunion a certain piquancy. This wasn’t the first time seeing your ex after the breakup, nor even the second or third, but maybe that chance meeting at a class reunion—the one that’s sort of sneakily the most important, where you maybe get over the whole thing.

I mean, sure, he’s kind of crazy.

And yes, he’s kind of an asshole.

But he was our crazy asshole, and while he was on the Timberwolves, we were good together. His trademark intensity made him play like anything less than his best was a felony and this hand-wringing about how much he got paid and who he wanted to have signed and how he left is futile. But every time he comes to town, it gets dredged up again. Will it ever stop? I don’t know.

For now, we have Kevin Love, who in spite of historic numbers (he’s currently leading the league in points, rebounds, and 3-pointers made in March—something no one’s ever done over a month), still feels underappreciated. Maybe Wolves fans still feel a little burned by Garnett, by giving him that big contract. Maybe there are other reasons. But Love is ours now and he’s one of the top ten players in the league. Can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give Love one more chance?

Steve McPherson

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My daughter Maggie is a month old and so far I’ve read her the first three books of The Odyssey. And she doesn’t seem to care very much. Not that I blame her, because things haven’t really started to get good yet. Antinous is being a total douche, young Telemachus has just arrived in Pylos looking for word of his father Odysseus, and King Nestor is acting like a witness on Law & Order (“No, I didn’t see anything unusual when we left Troy. Except …”). But it’s not really for her benefit as much as mine. Homer’s archetypal story of return feels good in your face; it leaves a rich, hearty taste in your mouth when read aloud. Kind of like running, it can feel awkward at first, but once you’ve put in some time on it, the feel it gives you—the rhythm, the forward pull of it, the compulsion to keep going—is unique.

So maybe all that reading was why, when I tuned into last night’s Timberwolves game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, I found myself thinking that Kevin Love was looking a little less like a caveman in the thicker beard he’d grown this season. With his hair long enough to start curling and his beard tamed a bit, he seemed a bit more heroic. “Kevin Love looking pretty Agamemnon-ish,” I tweeted.

The brother of wronged Menelaus, leader of the Achaean forces that laid siege to Troy: it seemed reasonable enough. Although maybe I was just thinking of Brian Cox playing the role in Troy. But as the game unfolded, as Love’s points climbed towards 30, then 40, and then further, even without the help of Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, another comparison came to mind.

Here, after all, was a man who’d been on the road a long time, who hadn’t seen home in two weeks and had, in that time, faced down opponents in exotic locales like Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and San Antonio. He and his men had escaped by the skin of their teeth from the Cyclops in Phoenix, clashed with Warriors in the Land of the Dead (aka East Oakland). He had known success and failure both, and along the way he’d lost comrades in arms, taken down by the cruel gods. When he won, it wasn’t because he was the strongest or fastest, but because of his wiley cunning, his innate sense of where a rebound would land, his ability to fake his way into the lane and draw fouls, his deadeye shooting from distance.

Forget Agamemnon. Kevin Love was going straight Odysseus in Oklahoma City.

Here he was, facing his final test before finally reaching home, against perhaps his greatest foe, the presumed first seed of the Western Conference. The Wolves have been beaten down physically, lacking not only Rubio, but also Pekovic and Michael Beasley. For much of the fourth quarter and both overtimes, they were running a unit consisting of Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, Anthony Tolliver, and Wayne Ellington. Barea certainly had himself a game (and the first Timberwolves triple double since Kevin Garnett did it in 2007) but that supporting cast hardly looked like world-destroyers. But as Love steered his team into the fourth quarter down six, skirting Kevin Durant on one side and Russell Westbrook on the other, it was like he was striding the decks, enjoining the team to step it up:

“Friends, we’re hardly strangers at meeting danger—
and this danger is no worse than what we faced
when Cyclops penned us up in his vaulted cave
with crushing force! But even from there my courage,
my presence of mind and tactics saved us all,
and we will live to remember this someday,
I have no doubt. Up now, follow my orders,
all of us work as one!”

The severely undersized Timberwolves chipped into the lead over the course of the quarter, somehow managing to send the Thunder to the line only 20 times the whole game and keeping it close until they tied it with 20 seconds left. Love had 39 points, had done everything he could to keep it close, but the Thunder had Kevin Durant, a basketball demon with “twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down / and six long-swaying necks, a hideous head on each, / each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset, / packed tight—and armed to the hilt with black death!” And with the game on the line, he did Kevin Durant things:

But down 3 with 3.9 seconds left, the Wolves inbounded the ball to Love. Closely guarded, he nonetheless turned and did some Love things:

That basket tied his season high at 42 and then with a pair of free throws in the first overtime he tied Kevin Garnett’s franchise-high 47 and surpassed it with 48. The game teetered back and forth through the first overtime, ending deadlocked again, but the game slipped away in the second overtime.

Zeus the son of Cronus mounted a thunderhead
above our hollow ship and the deep went black beneath it.
Nor did the craft scud on much longer. All of a sudden
killer-squalls attacked us, screaming out of the west,
a murderous blast shearing the two forestays off,
so the mast toppled backward, its running tackle spilling
into the bilge. The mast itself went crashing into the stern,
it struck the helmsman’s head and crushed his skull to pulp
and down from his deck the man flipped like a diver—
his hardy life spirit left his bones behind.


Then, then in the same breath Zeus hit the craft
with a lightning-bolt and thunder. Round she spun,
reeling under the impact, filled with reeking brimstone,
shipmates pitching out of her, bobbing round like seahawks
swept along by the whitecaps past the trim black hull—
and the god cut short their journey home forever.

With two more free throws after this turning point, Love got all the way up to 51 points, just the third 50-point game of the season. But it ultimately wasn’t enough to stave off defeat at the hands of Westbrook, who had a career high 45, and Durant, who had a career high 17 rebounds to go with 40 points. By the end of the 149-140 contest—likely one of the best games in the NBA this season—the Wolves, and Love in particular, looked absolutely gassed and who wouldn’t be after a two-week slog that’s no doubt felt like twenty years?

When the Wolves face Denver on Sunday it will finally be on home turf, back in good old Ithaca. Sure, Telemachus will still be out following ACL surgery, but Love will still be Love, the man of twists and turns, and he’ll be ready to string up his bow and drive the Nuggets from Target Center.

Steve McPherson

So this happened last night in the Timberwolves’ 115-99 loss to the Sacramento Kings:

There are plenty of reasons why teammates can get testy when they’re losing, and many of them have been outlined in fine fashion by Ben Polk over at A Wolf Among Wolves. There were turnovers and defensive lapses. There was laziness. I understand that the Wolves are missing Rubio’s assists, but it’s becoming clear that he brings so much more than that. Most concretely, he brings perimeter defensive and ball hawking instincts. Yes, he gambles and loses, but he also has the length to make it worth it and had (and hopefully has again) the lateral quickness to often compensate for those gambles. But he also brought a joyousness to the game that the Wolves are sorely lacking.

But this particular fracas actually grew from some very demonstrably bad play on the offensive end by J.J. Barea. Last night, Howlin’ T-Wolf opined that Barea is the most frustrating player on the roster, which I wasn’t immediately buying. Sure, Barea is maddening, but he at least plays to his strengths, I said, given that he’s a little guy who penetrates and creates havoc. Milicic and Johnson are more frustrating because they won’t even play their games—Milicic is a giant who refuses to expend the small amount of energy it would take to turn a soft finger roll into an emphatic dunk and Johnson continues to believe he’s a spot-up 3-point threat. But after watching the sequence of plays that led to that near donnybrook between Love and Barea, I’m inclined to agree with him.

The Timberwolves weren’t playing very well already, but it really seems to begin with this sequence:

Love sets a slip screen for Barea and then rolls wide open to the hoop, calling for the ball. He gets great post position which he then has to give up because Barea doesn’t get him the ball. Instead, the ball is swung to a not very wide open Ellington who bricks the three. Love fails to get back on defense (which is totally on him) and this leads to some beautiful ball rotation and an open 3 by Marcus Thornton.

By way of response, Barea charges back down the court and takes a heat-check 3 with 16 seconds left on the shot clock and Love is left to try and outrebound four-fifths of the Kings’ players. He fails:

This next play is where I think the testiness starts to bubble to the surface:

After the missed shot by the Kings, Barea grabs the rebound and I think you can see Love say something to Barea as he turns upcourt. You can also see that Barea doesn’t acknowledge whatever Love is saying, but instead charges into the lane, never looking for anyone to pass to, and putting up a heavily contest layup with 19 seconds on the shot clock. Love is once again the only Timberwolf who tried for the offensive rebound.

This is where Love really loses it:

Barea brings the ball up again and Love sets the screen for a curling Ellington. Love has decent if not great post position and calls for the ball but instead Ellington takes a screen from Derrick Williams. At this point, Love is completely open at the 3-point line for a spot-up jumper, but instead, Ellington takes the much harder pull-up 3 and airballs it. Love throws his arms up and then just stands there.

Now, this is not to say that Love doesn’t share his part of the blame. He often fails to get back on defense, and that’s on him. But Barea was just playing a particularly shitty brand of basketball right here, and it’s clear from his play and also Ellington’s just how much this team misses Rubio. One of the things that consistently impressed me about Rubio was the way he would bring the ball up the court, hand held aloft to call a play and in total control. He just exuded the feeling that he knew what he was doing. Barea, on the other hand, seems determined in this sequence to play “hero ball” of the worst kind. He jacks up a three and then doesn’t even call a play, just barrels into the paint and throws up a terrible layup. He deserved whatever tongue-lashing Love gave him, and probably more.

Steve McPherson

I’m not going to pretend that David Kahn has an easy job as GM of the Timberwolves. Never mind the fact that it’s pretty clear handing over the GM reins to a popular vote on Canis Hoopus would result in a more successful roster than the one the Wolves have currently. What I mean is that it’s not easy to actually be that guy who runs stuff, with people on one side telling you one thing and people on the other telling you the opposite and you sitting there having to make all those decisions. This year, for once, Kahn made the decision to stand pat at the trade deadline, rather than making the deal you know he so badly wanted to pull off.

This is part of what I mean by it being a tricky balancing act to be a GM: it sometimes seems like they can only screw up. When a team fails, it’s often blamed on the team’s architect, the GM. But when they succeed, they’re conveniently forgotten, as Kahn was in the light of the Timberwolves success this season. I’m not giving Kahn a pass, though: the guy’s been wrong more than he’s been right and I genuinely think he doesn’t know squat about actual basketball. Witness the way he’s been quick to say he knew all along that Ricky Rubio would be something special and then go back and look how he talked the exact same way about Jonny Flynn. You know that one about the broken clock, right?

But so Kahn has shown a predilection for trade deadline deals the last few years and there was every reason, with a lot of buzz about Beasley being moved, to expect him to do something again this year. His first deadline deal was getting Darko Milicic from the Knicks for Brian Cardinal and his second was shipping Corey Brewer off to the Knicks the next year for Anthony Randolph as part of the Carmelo deal (which I’m pretty sure actually involved every player in the league being traded for himself).

Looking at those deals—even with Milicic and Randolph both wallowing on the bench—the overriding reaction has to be, “Meh.” Milicic was supposed to be the soft-handed center, the key component that would make Rambis’ triangle unlumpy, the manna from heaven but instead he’s been just kind of okay. You know, an all right enough center who occasionally plays like a number two pick and mostly plays like number two. His lack of fire is dooming him just like it doomed the Neanderthals. (Actually, I think the Neanderthals did have fire, but it was such a good line I couldn’t let it go.) I expect him to play out the string, threaten again to go back home to Europe to play, and then be signed or traded to yet another team that will think he’s gotta be good for something. I’m looking at you, Bobcats.

And then there’s Randolph, who’s continued to show flashes of why teams keep thinking they can make something of him. Paired with Rubio, it looked like he might actually pull it together. But now he’s been stuck on the bench for weeks and it looks like the dream of the long-limbed, athletic big who can shoot the midrange jumper is dead once again. Randolph isn’t manifestly useless, especially in short spurts, but he—like Darko—is just all right.

And that’s what’s been particularly damning about Kahn’s deadline deals and why it’s good that he didn’t do anything this year. The deals for Milicic and Randolph weren’t really good or bad; it’s not like Corey Brewer is blowing up for Denver or that Brian Cardinal is killing it in Dallas. The real problem with them is that they were just hand-waving. Kahn could make those deals and then talk big about what they meant but they really meant nothing. They were smoke without fire.

I’d be curious to know how close the Wolves were to sending out Ridnour had Rubio not gone down with that ACL tear. Had they been able to pick up Jamal Crawford from the Blazers and only given up Michael Beasley, that would have been great. If they had given up Ridnour with Rubio healthy, that would have been all right, too. But if Rubio’s injury scared management away from any deals, that’s not a bad thing either. Beasley’s contract is up at the end of the year and along with the other expiring deals the Timberwolves have, they should have $18 – $20 million in space to work with and there are going to be players who fill their needs (O.J. Mayo for one, but also possibly Crawford if he opts out). So why give up something now when you can get it for a better deal later?

The way the season is going, the Wolves will contend for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. If they get it, they’re certain to be crushed into a fine powder by the Thunder, but it will be a good experience for the team. If they miss that spot, well, that’s not so bad. With smart moves in the offseason, there’s every reason to think the Wolves will be better next year than they were this year. And for once, it might be because Kahn didn’t do something. Sometimes you need to sit on your hands instead of waving them about.

Steve McPherson