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.