ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: The Timberwolves never had much of a chance to finish better than their 31-51 record, thanks to a rash of injuries to the team’s top players. Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger and Nikola Pekovic all missed substantial time due to injury, rendering the season an unforced failure in the process.

Signature highlight from last season: Rough year in Minnesota, so how about we spread the wealth a little? Here are the top 10 plays as determined by the NBA, and notice there’s a lot of Ricky Rubio, a little Derrick Williams, and not much else — indicative of the kind of season it was.

Key player changes: The biggest improvement in Minnesota will come from its healthy star players, but there were a few free agent additions that the team hopes will complement the talent it already has in place on the roster.

  • IN: Corey Brewer, coming off of a huge season in Denver, was signed as a free agent to complete his second tour of duty with the Timberwolves. Minnesota also decided that Kevin Martin was worth four years and more than $27 million, and they signed veteran Ronny Turiaf to a small two-year deal to add another big man to the frontcourt rotation. Shabazz Muhammad is a rookie who was selected with the 14th overall pick in this summer’s draft.
  • OUT: Andrei Kirilenko signed with the Nets in free agency. Greg Stiemsma was signed by the Pelicans in free agency. Luke Ridnour was traded to the Bucks.

Keys to the Timberwolves’ season:

1) Stay Healthy: The Timberwolves have done an excellent job of assembling talent through the draft, signing existing quality players to long-term deals, and adding role players in free agency. Now, if they can only stay healthy.

Give us anywhere close to 82 games from the combination of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and the rest of the team’s role players, and along with a tenured and proven head coach in Rick Adelman guiding the ship, it’s tough to envision Minnesota finishing out of the postseason once again. The talent is there; it simply needs to materialize on the court for more than twenty-something games in a single season.

2) Don’t slip defensively: As troubled as the Timberwolves were a season ago with their high volume of injuries, they managed to finish 14th in defensive efficiency. The offense was brutal, of course, but that’s to be expected when your star players are sidelined. Defense is about individual effort and team scheme more than anything else, and if Minnesota can replicate last year’s defensive output with this year’s talent, substantial improvement should not only be expected, it should be evident very early in the season.

3) Can the offense catch up? Theoretically, having a full complement of talented players would fix any team’s offensive woes. In Minnesota’s case, that would mean a necessary improvement in a category where the team ranked near the bottom of the league (25th) last season.

Three-point shooting has become a critical component of successful NBA teams in recent years, and the Timberwolves ranked dead last in that category by shooting 30.5 percent from beyond the arc as a team last season. The presence of Love and the return of Brewer should help in that area, and it better if Minnesota wants to increase its offensive efficiency — a statistic that (normally, unless you’re the Bulls) directly translates into wins and losses.

Why you should watch: It’s easy to follow the favorites, but it’s more fun to join the journey of a good team on the rise. Rubio and Love are two of the more fun players in the game to watch, and they’re going to be in the mix for a playoff spot all season long.

Prediction: Minnesota has too much going for them (when healthy) not to make the playoffs. The mere presence of Love and Rubio, along with the additions of Martin and Brewer should be enough to show dramatic improvement offensively. That should in turn result in enough wins — in the 45-48 range — to secure the Timberwolves a postseason spot.

LeBron James: Reporter warned me about question on Gregg Popovich’s wife before live TV interview

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In her on-court interview with LeBron James following the Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over the Pacers last night, TNT sideline reporter Allie LaForce asked him about the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife.

LeBron appeared emotional as he gathered his thoughts.

That prompted some to criticize LaForce for ambushing LeBron on a sensitive subject on live TV. But that’s not what happened.

Uninterrupted:

LeBron:

I’m not on social media right now, but I was made aware through some friends through texts that a question was asked to me postgame, and a lot of people feel I was blindsided. That is absolutely false. Allie LaForce told me that she was going to ask the question and if it was OK.

And once I started talking about it, once we were on air, actually my emotions kind of took over. And that was just my emotions coming straight from my heart about the late Erin Popovich.

It’s unfortunate. It’s a tragic loss. My thoughts, my prayers, once again goes out to the Popovich family, to Gregg, to the Spurs family, to the whole Spurs fan base.

And also guys, please get off Allie LaForce’ back, because she followed the proper protocol and she warned me. So, get off her back, man. She’s very professional, and she does a great job at her work.

Like I said, thoughts and prayers to the heavens above. We all know the man above never makes mistakes, even when we question it. But it’s a sad, tragic time right now for the NBA family, and we’re all praying and hoping for the best.

It would have been surprising if LaForce hadn’t done that. Somewhere between nearly nobody and absolutely nobody in her position is trying to embarrass players.

PBT Extra: If Portland is going to turn series around it starts with Damian Lillard

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This was the year the Trail Blazers were going to break through. They were defending better as a team. There was some depth on offense. And Damian Lillard was playing at a level that will get him on many voters’ MVP ballots.

Instead, they are down 0-2 to Anthony Davis and New Orleans, having dropped both games at home to open the series. Portland is on the verge of being bounced in the first round for the third time in four years.

If Portland is going to turn this series around, it starts with Lillard, something I discuss in this latest PBT Extra. C.J. McCollum needs to get more buckets, Jusuf Nurkic needs to contribute more on both ends, but for Portland it all begins and ends with Lillard and it’s on him to start the turnaround.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.