Timberwolves gear up for 20-game rush to the finish

So, How About Those Timberwolves?

By the time the Timberwolves won their 1st 21 games, beating the L.A. Lakers 118-111 on December 21, they had lost only 6 times and they were tied with the Boston Celtics, whom they beat 114-109 in OT on November 6, for the best record in the NBA. This, you may recall, was quite a shock. The Timberwolves atop the NBA? The Timberwolves? And, what’s more, this team that had the reputation of not playing defense (you could ask Jimmy Butler about that) was leading the NBA in defense! Shocking!

But, No, I Mean, How About More Recently?

But, then, by the time the Timberwolves won a 2nd set of 21 games, beating Memphis 110-101 on February 28, they had lost another 12 games, twice as many as during their 1st set of 21. What had come so easily now was a grind. Not only that but there finally came a couple of those games that really killed the Wolves a year ago, “bad losses” at home to teams with losing records. They avoided such an occurrance for more than half the season–42 games–but then they lost to the visiting Charlotte Hornets (now 15-46) 128-125 on January 22. This was the infamous game in which Karl Towns scored 62 points and got slapped down by coach Chris Finch. It was a “disgusting” exhibition of basketball, Finch said, and it was obvious what he meant. Tony Kornheiser said on Pardon the Interruption the next day, also obviously talking to the man who scored 62 points, “I hope you’re happy. You got your 62, and you lost to a team that has lost 18 of 20 and came in 9-31. I hope you’re happy.” Oh, and the next time out, the Hornets lost to the 4-39 Pistons.

And, if that seemed like a low point, well, just 5 nights later the Wolves lost, again at home, 113-112 to the 9-36 San Antonio Spurs, who shot 55% from the field. The next time out, the Spurs lost at home to the 8-37 Wizards. So these were beyond bad losses. They were baaaaaaaad losses to terrible teams in the middle of stretches of really baaaaaaaad basketball. That left the Wolves at 32-14 or just 11-8 since their high water mark.

Fortunately, there haven’t been any more games in which the Wolves were quite that bad and now the Wolves are 43-19, 11-8 through the Spurs game and then 11-5 since then. But, they’ve lost at home to the Magic, the Bucks, the Kings (for the 2nd time) and the Clippers and to the Bulls on the road, all games you might expect the (still) #1 team in the west to win.

And, yet, there they are, “still the one.” As of Tuesday morning March 5, they’re 43-19, one-half game ahead of the Thunder and the Nuggets, both 42-19. They’re all now well behind the Celtics who are 48-12 with 11 straight wins. So what are the Wolves’ prospects for the 20-game dash and grind to the finish line (OK, for the Wolves it’s gonna be more of a grind, not so much of a dash), that is to say the 1st finish line which is the regular season. Then comes the 2nd and 3rd and potential 4th and 5th finish line of the playoffs.

So, What’s Gonna Happen These Final 2o Games?

Well, the schedule is tough enough. Well, 10 home games, 10 0n the road. Can’t complain about that. But, 12 games against teams with winning records, 8 against teams with losing record. 8 of the 10 road games are against teams with winning records and 4 of those 8 are coming up in the next week–Thursday at Indiana, Friday at Cleveland, Sunday at the Lakers and Tuesday at the Clippers, whom the Wolves could not close out at home 2 nights ago. A litle 0-4 stretch right now could end their chances for #1 in the west right there, especially in light of the fact that they also have 2 road games at Denver and 3 of their last 6 games are at Phoenix, at the Lakers and at Denver. On the other hand 6 of their last 9 are at home, including what should be gimmies against Houston, Toronto, Washington, the Bulls and Atlanta. But, the fact is that the stars are aligned for a 9-11 finish, taking into account how the Wolves have been playing in this 22-13 stretch since December 21. That would make for a final record of 52-30 which, you will have to allow is damn good. Just not as good as 21-6, and not good enough for a #1 seed in the west.

No, the last 5 full 82-game seasons, 52-30 would have gotten a #2, a #4-4 tie, a #5, a #3 and a #4 seed. This year a #3 or #4 seems most likely. That would get the Wolves a 1st round matchup with the Suns or the Pelicans, not as favorable as the #8 Mavs. On the other hand, the #7 Kings have been a hand full for the Wolves this year and last. So, the playoffs are gonna be no walk in the park, but we’re getting a head of ourselves thinking about the playoffs. Oh, the Wolves will be there and they are more than likely to have a 1st round home court advantage, but a 2nd round home court advantage is starting to look less likely based on the upcoming schedule.

And, By the Way, What’s the Game Plan?

But, of course it’s not just about the schedule. It’s about how the Wolves play. They showed in November that they can play with anybody. And they’ve showed in some of those more recent games that they can still play down to their opponents. What’s it gonna be?

Well, the Wolves are still #1 in the NBA in defense, giving up the fewest points (107 per game) and having the highest defensive rating, though I’m not sure the defensive rating is anything other than the points given up. You can’t argue with the following, however–the Wolves’ opponents are shooting 44.5% from the field, worst in the NBA, or in other words the Wolves D is the best in the league at making their opponents miss shots (55.5% of them). Their opponents score 46 points in the paint on average, the 2nd least in the NBA, and they score 13 points on 2nd chances, the 6th least. They contest 29 of their opponents 2-point shots each night, 7th best in the NBA. On the other hand, they contest just 14.5 3-pointers each night, which ranks dead last in the NBA. The bottom line is they funnel people in towards the rim and they defend the rim. They’re 6th in blocked shots and they’re 3rd in defensive rebounds. But, of course, they’re vulnerable to a hot 3-point shooting team.

They’re also vulnerable to quick teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, as you saw in what was for me one of their most memorable games, a 129-106 loss on December 26. OKC just put the pedal to the metal and ran away from the Wolves possession after possession after possession, and the Wolves were virtually helpless to try and stop them. The Thunder beat the Wolves down the court repeatedly, so there was nobody back there to defend the rim. The fact is the Wolves are not a quick team, and they’re not just average. They’re a little slow. I mean, one of the reasons they only give up 107 ppg is that they’re slow. Every time they need 24 seconds to get their offense set up and to get off a shot, their defensive numbers improve. The Wolves shoot the ball 85 times a night and, again, that is dead last in the NBA! They’re 24th with 32 3-point attempts. I mean 85 shots is almost 2 per minute but, in the NBA, that’s slow. They’re slow. As a result, they also recover only 5 loose balls each night, which is #24 out of 30 NBA teams.

Of course, they make up for all of that with reasonable efficiency. They shoot 49% from the field, #8 in the NBA. They make 39%
of their 3s, #2. They make 41% of their long 2s, which is #8. They get a good percentage of their defensive rebound opportunities. The fly in their efficiency ointment is their turnovers, however–15 a night, which is #23, and their 8% turnover rate is #29 because those 15 turnovers are coming in a less than the average number of possessions.

Well, that and the fact that they take so many shots late in the shot clock. Making 41% of your long 2s may be #8 in the NBA but it’s worse than their overall 49%. But when the shot clock is running down, well, you end up with a long 2, the one shot that almost nobody defends. Often it seems that the Wolves have difficulty scoring in the clutch and I think that’s why. When the other team is really focused on defense, they can force the Wolves to run the clock and end up with that long 2. The Wolves are in fact 16-12 in “clutch”games, that is, close games. They shoot 43%-30%-75% in clutch situations versus 49%-39%-78% overall. So, indeed, they’re not getting as good of shots and they’re not making as many shots in clutch situations as they make in the normal flow of the game. Their +/- in clutch situations is a negative number, and yet somehow they’re 16-12 in those games. So, they’re grinding them out.

So the Wolves are gonna be vulnerable to a good 3-point shooting team, and they’re gonna be vulnerable to a really quick, aggressive defense that turns people over. And that quick, aggressive defense is gonna force them into taking long 2s. The Wolves take the 3rd most long 2s in the NBA. You thought trading Andrew Wiggins away was gonna fix that, right? But, no, it takes the Wolves a little too long to get into their offense, and that’s the result. 3-point defense, turnovers and clutch shooting: Those are the things that could kill the Wolves. But defending the rim, forcing the opponent into a low shooting percentage, keeping them from scoring in the paint, blocking a few shots, getting the defensive boards–and, then, shooting 49%–those are all things that can spell playoff success. Or not.

The Bottom Line/The Future

The Wolves are no better than 50/50 in the 1st round because the opponent is likely to be the Phoenix Suns (60/40 Suns), New Orleans Pelicans (55/45 Wolves), Sacramento Kings (52/48 Wolves). Hey, it’s the west. A 2nd round win against Denver (67/33 Denver) or Oklahoma City (75/25 OKC) is unlikely. And having given up their future for Rudy Gobert, it’s not at all clear how the Wolves are ever going to really address their weaknesses and compete with the best in the west, other than waiting for Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant to get old. The Wolves have the #30 and #34 draft picks, where some of the guys who might be available remind some of the pundits of, er, Shake Milton. I wonder what you can get for 3 Shake Miltons?