So much for welcome returns. Greeted by a Target Center crowd of 20,340, Kevin Love returned to the starting lineup only to have arguably his worst performance of the season as the Minnesota Timberwolves blew a late fourth-quarter lead, falling to the Houston Rockets by a score of 87-84.
After missing Sunday’s matchup against the New York Knicks due to a scratched eye, K-Love struggled mightily on both ends of the floor and shot a miserable 3-14 FG including 0-7 from beyond the arc. Throw in 5 turnovers and poor pick-and-roll defense and you’ve got yourself a James Harden-led comeback, stunning a Target Center crowd and snapping the Timberwolves’ 5-game home win streak.
While I could ramble on and on about how poorly Love played tonight, I would simply like to highlight a few disturbing themes that were evident in his play. Although he shot very poorly from the field, I am not in any way angry about his shot selection because the shots he was missing are shots that we have grown accustomed to seeing K-Love bury time and time again. It very well may be the case that his wrist is causing discomfort in his shot, and in that case it is very understandable for his relatively poor shooting percentages this season. However, one thing that is independent of any external factors that may be currently influencing Love’s game is his effort and intensity on defense, which he has very inconsistently displayed this season. On multiple occasions following a missed shot, instead of sprinting back on defense, Love jogged and attempted to slow down the opposing ball handler, creating easy 3 on 2 transition opportunities for the Rockets (who happen to be one of the best in the NBA in transition). Too often we have witnessed Love choosing to whine and chirp at the officials, allowing the player he is matched up against to run seams down the court for easy lay ups. When has challenging an official after a no-call contributed to favorable officiating in the future?
I will point out that in the first quarter, Love did a very good job of directing the offense and finding teammates on backdoor cuts – something I wish he would do much more often. But after Love continued to misfire on shot attempts, his lack of confidence on offense became extremely evident to all those watching the game; by the fourth quarter he was blatantly passive, almost unwilling to shoot. I was very happy to see him attempt a step-back three late in the fourth quarter, despite once again missing. I never want to see the day where Love is not confident enough to take charge late in games, but the fact that he got burned weak side on two consecutive pick-and-rolls – securing the win for Houston – makes me wonder about Love’s overall intensity on the defensive end.
The Timberwolves inability to manage the game in the fourth quarter led to their late-game demise, and JJ Barea was a main culprit. Despite playing a very good game through the first three quarters, Barea fell into his detrimental zone of over-dribbling on offense and finding himself in traps in the opposing defense, resulting in turnovers. With the Timberwolves down 1 point with less than a minute remaining, Barea almost immediately coughed the ball up after taking the ball up the court, leading to a James Harden layup which secured the Rockets victory. Barea added 18 points (7-14 FG), 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 4 turnovers in 28 minutes.
The man Barea was backing up, Luke Ridnour, had a night to forget. In 19 minutes of play, Ridnour shot just 3-10 from the field, with most of his misses coming from wide-open, spotted-up attempts. Luke is now shooting below NBA league average from three-point range at 32.9%.
Andrei Kirilenko made his 500th career start tonight, a very impressive milestone that very few NBA players have accomplished. AK-47 had a quiet but efficient night, finishing with 8 points (2-6 FG), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist, 1 block and 2 turnovers in 29 minutes of action. His Russian teammate Alexey Shved was arguably the Timberwolves greatest asset on offense, as he was once again effective on the pick-and-roll. Shved continues to prove that he is one of the league’s top rookies, and finished the night with a line of 16 points (7-15 FG), 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 turnover in 30 minutes.
The Timberpups out-rebounded (50-47), out-stole (10-7) and out-blocked (4-2) the Rockets while committing 2 less turnovers and 7 less personal fouls. However, the Pups shot a miserable 38% from the field and were ice-cold tonight.
Ricky Rubio, as anticipated, was given an increased work load and played a season-high 21 minutes tonight. Despite being a game-low -9 on the floor, I thought that Rubio played well and looked slightly more explosive on his cuts than he had in his earlier performances this season. In the second half, Head Coach Rick Adelman had Rubio matched up on rising superstar James Harden, and Rubio did a very nice job on a tough cover. In limited action, Tricky Ricky finished with 8 points (2-5 FG), 2 assists, 1 steal and zero turnovers.
Nikola Pekovic left the game after the first half due to illness, and his first-half performance presumably spoke to how he was feeling. Faced against an excellent low-post defender in Omer Asik, Pek posted only 2 points on 1-7 shooting while pulling down 7 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Three Stars of the Game
- James Harden – Man, how far James Harden has come. Yeah, he may have been the 6-man of the year last season and was heavily recognized as one of the top young shooting guards in the league, but the level that Harden is reaching is true superstardom – and he even appears to be developing veteran maturity at the age of 23. Through the first three periods, Harden focused on directing traffic and setting up teammates for buckets, acting more as a facilitator than scorer, scoring only when presented with high-percentage opportunities to do so. And just as Chris Paul tends to save his scoring for the fourth quarter, Harden led a fourth-quarter charge and got to the rim so effectively that made it seem like he had been saving his energy for the final plays. No player was better when given an open spot-up opportunity, and Harden added to his sensational 2012-13 campaign with a line of 30 points (11-22 FG), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block and 3 turnovers in 38 minutes played.
- Omer Asik - After being a part of one of the best second units in the NBA spending the past two seasons in Chicago, Asik has come into his own in Houston and has become one of the top centers in the Western Conference. Asik completely shut down Pekovic, while recording 9 points (4-6 FG), 17 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block and only 1 turnover in 35 minutes. Houston’s high-priced free agent addition has been a core component to the Rockets’ success and provides production to a frontcourt that was in desperate need for consistency spanning the past few seasons.
- Dante Cunningham – DC Hustle was at it again tonight, providing steals, blocks, rebounding and effective cutting. To put it simply, Cunningham was all over the court and was the only Pup that I can say played a tremendous game. The dividends that the trade for Cunningham continues to pay must be keeping Timberwolves management sufficiently satisfied, given the much different state of affairs surrounding Wayne Ellington in Memphis. Dante earned every single minute that he played tonight, and finished with 8 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, 2 blocks and no turnovers in 37 minutes.
The Pups are set to host the Phoenix Suns on Saturday beginning at 7PM CT. Oh yeah, and Mike Beasley is coming back to town!