The Wolves cruised to a quick 3-0 start this season before falling short to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night. The three-point shooting woes from a year ago returned as Kevin Martin was the only Wolves’ player to make one from long distance — he was an impressive 5-8, but the rest of the team was 0-20. In the Twitterverse, that means #infinitesorrow is still in play.
In fact, nobody seemed to be clicking offensively outside of Martin. Love was 0-7 from downtown, Ricky was 0-7 from the field and Pek was 3-12. Derrick Williams and Corey Brewer combined to score 26 points, but most of that damage was done in the last five minutes of the game.
In the first three games, the Wolves averaged a league-high 37.3 points in the first quarter. On Monday night, the Cavaliers’ stifling defense held them to 23 in the opening period. Yet somehow the Wolves found themselves with the opportunity to win, down by one with the ball and the last possession, thanks to a 17-2 run to end the game.
On the last play, J.J. Barea got the ball to Kevin Love, though it was an extremely sloppy execution, who attempted the same left slot 3-pointer — with 1.9 seconds remaining — that he’s already nailed twice this season in two clutch situations.
Against Orlando, Love sent the game to overtime with it. In New York, he put the game on ice with it. At the Q, he hit the back rim and just missed. But he took the same shot in each situation and came out 2 for 3. In the words of Kevin Martin, during his postgame interview, “Heck yeah, we’ll take that shot every time…The best power forward in the league with a great look to win the game.”
Collectively, the Wolves played poorly against Cleveland and looked lethargic for three and a half quarters. The energy, hustle and offensive execution that defined wins against the Knicks and the Thunder didn’t show up until the final minutes, but 3-1 is still an excellent start to the season and for now everything appears rather bright.
Let’s take a look at some early season storylines in preparation for tonight’s game against the Golden State Warriors.
Love dominates early on.
Kevin Love has been outstanding thus far, parlaying a brilliant first week of a play into his first career Western Conference Player of the Week award. Winning, of course, was the key ingredient missing in the past — that is, if you are asking yourself how this is the first time he’s won the award.
Love currently sits third in points per game (26.5) and second in rebounds (14.3) and appears to have improved as both a facilitator and defender early on. There’s no question he wants to put last year behind him, and his numbers, along with the overall success of the team, is certainly helping that cause.
Here is a quick look at Kevin Love’s shot charts from his previous two seasons, and what it looks like this year too (yes, I know it’s extremely early):
As you can see in the charts above, Love has shown a propensity to score from the slots and in the middle of the paint — often times layups created by offensive rebounds — though one of his greatest strengths is getting to the free throw line, which you cannot see above.
Love has continued to score this season in ways we have grown accustomed to, but he’s demonstrated an improved touch around the rim and is currently getting to the free throw line at a career best rate (averaging 10.0 free-throw attempts per game this season, as compared to 6.0 attempts throughout his career).
As I touched on before, Love has already hit some big shots from his favorite spot this season — the left slot 3-pointer. Now, it will be interesting to watch how he adjusts to defenses that begin to pick up on it.
Love had a pretty solid look when he attempted his game winning 3-pointer against Cleveland, but the play didn’t really fool anyone. Tristan Thompson was able to contest his shot fairly well, whereas Orlando and New York struggled to even get a hand in his face. That was the difference.
I’m particularly interested in seeing how the Wolves respond next time they need a bucket in the closing seconds. Love is the guy you want taking the last shot, but as defenses grow more respectful of his late-game heroics it may be harder to get him quality looks when the game is in on the line. On the bright side, it should help open up an even better shot for, let’s say, Kevin Martin (or Chase Budinger when he returns).
Ricky Rubio continues to struggle with his jumper
Ricky Rubio is currently third in the NBA in assists per game (9.0) and first in steals (4.0) but he’s shooting a paltry 29.3% from the field this season. Though he has looked more aggressive in getting his own shot it simply hasn’t changed the outcome; not yet at least. If Rubio is to take the next step as a player, and push the Wolves to uncharted heights, his shooting and overall offensive efficiency absolutely must improve.
Below are Ricky Rubio’s shot charts from last season and early this season:
Perhaps the quickest fix to Rubio’s early shooting struggles is to stop shooting so much (10.3 attempts per game) and focus solely on getting to the rim, but that’s fairly unrealistic when the defense is packing the paint and basically begging him to shoot from the perimeter. The key in Rubio’s development ultimately rests on his jump shot, so asking him to pass up wide-open looks may very well halt his growth and ultimately put a cap on his potential. At this time, we must continue to be patient with him. That means allowing him to take open shots and work through the tribulations.
Unfortunately, the answer to his problems won’t come from a simple snap of the fingers. Rubio needs to identify his hot spots — not as easy as it may sound – and get to them more often. That means the left corner three, or just inside of it, a mid-range jumper from the free-throw line, or a shot right at the rim (where he has shown improvement early on this season), but even his hot spots represent small sample sizes and shouldn’t be relied upon.
Through four games Rubio’s passing and defense has looked dynamite, but his jump shot continues to plague him and it still remains a giant question mark. Therefore, it should be something to monitor closely as the season progresses. If Rubio scores efficiently the Wolves become that much tougher to beat.
Defense. We’re talking about defense!
Through four games the Wolves’ rank 6th in defensive efficiency (94.7) which is pretty alarming if you paid any attention to pre-season commentary on the team. Losing Kirilenko was supposed to be a monumental hit to the teams defense, and sure it may still prove to be, but thus far the defense has been a huge bright spot. Corey Brewer has been a mad man out there — the same goes for Rubio — and the Wolves’ defensive rotations have been stellar early on.
The Wolves are first in steals per game (11.5) due in large part to the aforementioned Rubio and Brewer — the pesky tandem has combined for 26 steals already. The defensive effort has been a thing of beauty and probably the most surprising storyline thus far. If it continues, the Wolves could be more dangerous than the national media originally thought.
Run, Wolves, Run.
The Wolves have been downright lethal in transition, outscoring their opponents in fast break points each game this season. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- 18 to 11 vs. Orlando
- 17 to 2 vs. Oklahoma City
- 23 to 14 vs. New York
- 30 to 8 vs. Cleveland
The Wolves currently rank 6th in pace factor at 102.2 (the number of possessions a team uses per game) and aim to stay among the top 10 all season long. As I noted here, Corey Brewer is a big factor in this. That, and Kevin Love’s jaw dropping outlet passes. Oh, and the top six teams in pace did go to the playoffs last year.
Injuries? Please, I’m begging you, no more.
Ronny Turiaf went down with a radical head fracture in his right elbow during Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although a timetable is still unclear it sounds like Turiaf could miss 6-to-8 weeks, which forces rookie Gorgui Dieng to step up. Dieng played only three minutes against the Cavaliers on Monday night and did his best Pekovic-as-a-rookie impersonation — he had three fouls and a turnover.
If Dieng can’t contribute in Turiaf’s stead, expect the Wolves to implore a small ball lineup with either Derrick Williams or Dante Cunningham at power forward and Kevin Love at center. The Wolves bench is already shallow with Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf out, so the team must cross their fingers and pray for good luck. Another injury may prove to be devastating.