NBA Season Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: 15-67, second worst record in the NBA last season, although at the end of the campaign they were playing worse ball than the Nets.

Head Coach: Kurt Rambis enters his second year with this question: How good a coach is he? I’m not sold we’ll get the answer. The Timberwolves brought him in to run the triangle offense then gave him personnel that poorly suits it (strong shooting point guards, for one). Minnesota didn’t totally abandon the traditional triangle, but it was pretty heavily modified last season. Will it be more of the same this season?

Key Departures: Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins

Key Additions: They brought back Darko Milicic for four years at $20 million. I am not as down on the idea of bringing Milicic back as most — he’s a good passing big man who is a decent fit if they’d run the triangle offense — but the price is mind numbing. They were bidding against themselves for his services yet they seemed to keep driving up the price. If this were two years $6 million, it would be a decent risk. At this price it’s a mistake.

The other additions are not as bad: No. 4 overall pick Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley (really a good risk to take, they got him for nothing), Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Tolliver, Sebastian Telfair.

Best case scenario: GM David Kahn’s best case is at the deadline they are able to make a trade that pulls in the superstar player they need to vault Minnesota to the upper echelons of the West.

Most fans best-case scenario is for them to just take a step forward and play some entertaining basketball.

For that to happen: For Kahn’s best case, it will require and act of God. But he is right in this sense — the next step is for this team to get a star player that can really lead them. Debate amongst yourselves if Ricky Rubio is that guy (he’s good but probably not that good). Love, others on this team could be good number twos but there needs to be an Alpha dog. The question is if you think Kahn can get one? Now we’re back to an act of god.

If that is the future, here is the question for this season: What kind of team is this? Kahn keeps saying a running team yet he brought in a coach that runs the triangle (while transition points is one of the core principles of the triangle, it is not a classic running offense). They have not looked like much of a running team in their couple of preseason games.

Until the Timberwolves decide what they are and then build accordingly, they will live in limbo.

If you’re a running team — get Ricky Rubio over here, draft athletes and pure shooters, and go seven-seconds-or-less. Michael Beasley, Martell Webster and Anthony Tolliver could be fits if you go that direction. (And a more fluid, fast paced European style may be the way to go — they have some athletes on the wings and guys like Kevin Love and Darko that can run the pick-and-pop well. But if you’re doing that, why Rambis? Why Luke Ridnour?)

If you’re a triangle team, you need a guy who can create and penetrate from the wing (and please don’t think Beasley is that guy) and get a center who can protect the rim on defense (might want to do that either way). Luke Ridnour and Darko are decent fits here.

Whatever it is choose one path, then from the owner on down to the guy who has to wash the uniforms, be committed to it. Right now you are all over the map.

Whatever direction they go, one thing needs to happen — get Kevin Love the ball more. Did anyone see what happened when you put this guy on Team USA this summer? He was the best rebounder and outlet passer on the squad. He can be a stretch four or bang inside. He makes smart passes. If the Timberwolves are going to run they need his rebounding and outlet passing. If they are going to run the triangle they need to get him the ball at the elbow and run the offense through him. Just give him the ball; you get better when it happens.

I think the Beasley pickup was a good one — for them to reach their goals they need him to break out. That probably won’t happen, but as they gave up just a couple second rounders for him it was a good risk. He has not done well playing the three spot, he is more skilled and efficient near the basket, but that spot is taken up on the Timberwolves. They are asking him to play the three and he is going to have to figure it out — and defend better on the perimeter — for them to take a step forward.

The other thing the Timberwolves will need is rookie Wesley Johnson to take on a bigger role. It would be asking a lot, but then again a lot is asked of you if you are the No. 4 overall pick.

More likely the Timberwolves will: Be better than last year, but not good.

For all the sniping we do at David Kahn around these parts, the fact is the Timberwolves are a deeper team now than they were last season, and that should win them some more games. There has been some talent stockpiled on this roster.

Luke Ridnour will likely take a step back but be a steady hand at the helm. Webster can score and he may well lead this team in that category. Beasley will be inconsistent and frustrate T-Wolves fans, and Wesley Johnson may ultimately be the swingman of the future (or maybe not, lots of questions there and as a rookie he will be inconsistent, too). Kevin Love will be good. Darko will be nice. But it’s hard to see where the cohesion comes from.

Prediction: 24-58. And another high lottery pick. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.