The week after Christmas is normally reserved for bargain shoppers, but as much product as there is going out the door, there’s also a significant amount coming back in. Ashley got a sweater, but she wanted a purse. Adam got an iPod, but he wanted a laptop. So it was only appropriate that the powers that be scheduled the Timberwolves and Grizzlies first matchup of the season this week to remind us of the NBA’s strict no-return policy. On trades or tickets.
In what was billed as the ‘I told you so’ game, O.J. Mayo took the floor to a noticeable round of applause during introductions and did nothing to quell the foreboding feeling that Wolves’ management may have traded away the Rookie of the Year for the second consecutive season. Of course those who expected Mayo to exact an extreme measure of revenge on the opposition left somewhat disappointed as the rook played a magnificently subdued game.
Though his defense left something to be desired in the early stages, O.J. moved with the poise of a veteran offensively, letting the game come to him. This is particularly commendable when considering that after 30 games, he’s probably established himself as the best player on his team–and that team is the Memphis Grizzlies. He didn’t chase the ball and he didn’t force up a shot when there was an extra pass available, but still effortlessly displayed his full arsenal: cutting into passing lanes for steals and breakaway dunks, slashing baseline with impressive body control for reverse layups, and repeatedly stabbing through the defense for midrange jumpers. For Minnesotans draped in the visiting blue and gold, it was a bittersweet moment as they could only wonder how the Wolves luck may have changed If He Did It for them.
But on a night where the death of another dream could have been mourned, the home faithful witnessed a small resurrection in Kevin Love. When asked postgame if any draft night flashbacks lit a fire under his prized pick, Kevin McHale scoffed as expected. “I tell you what, if that’s what it takes to motivate you, you shouldn’t be in the NBA. You need a new job. You need to be an accountant for…what’s one of those firms that went under? No. You’re an NBA player. Stepping on the floor and having the privilege of standing in that jump ball circle or sitting on the bench, knowing you’re going to play should be all the motivation you need.”
Though it is the expected answer, it’s also the right one. And though it is the right one, more is to be expected since Love hasn’t been expected to play all that much lately. Stuck behind Craig Smith, Brian Cardinal and even Mark Madsen in recent rotations, Love has struggled mightily the past month, shooting 38 percent from the floor and has still only made a single 3-pointer in a dozen attempts this season. His highly touted outlet and interior passing has resulted in one assist per game. Pre-draft concerns about his size and strength proved legitimate as Love’s rebounding savvy hasn’t helped him convert those boards into putbacks. And every ruthless rejection has taken a little bit of air out of the ball and Kevin.
So setting foot on an NBA court should be motivation in itself, but suiting up to prove your worth against the player your own fans would rather have must be more motivation whether Love will admit it or not. He played with a noticeable calm and exhibited better decision making, converting those offensive boards and possessions into points from the line where he scored 5 of the Wolves’ 8 total points in a second quarter to be forgotten. Whether his play to that point warranted the decision or not, McHale put his full confidence in the rookie, playing Love the entire 4th quarter and even running the offense through him for 20-footers, reverse layins and jump hooks. Shots that would have made them wince weeks ago were encouraged by a raucous crowd. Finishing with 17 and 7, Love may not be the messiah Mayo is, but 12,000 people exited the building believing in him a lot more than they did upon entry.
I’d love to wax poetic about Al Jefferson, but his dominance is nothing new at this point. Though he pivoted through countless uncalled fouls, his primary defender was Marc Gasol who I am at an absolute loss of words for. Marc Gasol makes Pau Gasol look like Alonzo Mourning. I honestly have never seen a softer player of his size. He gave Al no resistance at all, continually backing away from Jefferson with shuffled and panicked steps until surrendering prime position under the basket. Even though he went 16-25, I’m almost surprised Jefferson missed a shot at all.
Which brings me to one of my biggest pet peeves. Tied at 89 with 27.6 seconds left, the Wolves come out of a timeout looking to drain as much time as possible before scoring a winning basket. Kevin Ollie proceeds to dribble the shot clock down to 10 seconds before making a move, resulting in a botched play that offered no clear look as the game went into overtime. It was a variation of the same scenario that played out before the end of the first half. It’s a variation of the same play that every other team in the League runs at the end of a game, and it almost never works. You know why? Because none of these teams have Michael Jordan. It was Jordan and his indomitable will, who patiently waited at the top of the key for the inevitable. It was Jordan and his boundless talent, who could shake any defender and adjust to any defense on the fly without a second to waste. Teams have been unsuccessfully mimicking the strategy ever since.
Problem is, not only do these teams not have a Jordan, they often try to milk the clock to run a play rather than take a shot as Jordan did. This leaves absolutely no room for error and the slightest adjustment by the defense–be it a double team or a hard show–throws players’ timing off when they can least afford it. The success rate for these plays have to be abysmal, but we keep seeing them night after night. It is undoubtedly the worst play in basketball. Perhaps it’s also due to the Jordan Syndrome that more (or better) plays aren’t run for post players in those waining seconds. Jefferson was unstoppable in this contest and though McHale says the final play was drawn for his star, he never got a shot off. If the 14 seconds weren’t wasted, maybe he would have. But Al took full advantage of the extra five, going 3-3 from the field and the line, matching Memphis’ 9 overtime points for the victory.