Timberwolves win streak reaches 6

Even those of you who are only casual followers of the Minnesota Timberwolves are probably aware that the Wolves are in the midst (hopefully in the midst and not at the end) of a period of excellent basketball. 6 straight wins including a win over the then unbeaten defending NBA champion Nuggets, an OT win over the mighty Celtics and a road win against the Golden State Warriors. They’re now 7-2 and #3 in the west, a position that past versions of the Wolves could only dream about. Of course, it’s early….

But you must also be aware that the Timberwolves are also in the midst of a totally astounding makeover that only now, over these past 6 games, suddenly seems to be working. Two years ago the Wolves led the NBA in 3-point shooting, scored about 115 points per game and won 46 games, good for #7 in the west. Last year the Wolves again scored about 115 points per game, and they also gave up about 115 points per game. In fact, they were outscored by a point or 2 per game and won 42 games, good for #8. In both cases, they went off on the road in the playoffs and failed again to win a playoff series.

Now, the Wolves scoring has dropped to about 113 points per game (16th in the NBA) with their 3-point shooting dropping all the way down to 11 makes per game (24th in the NBA). But their overall shooting percentage is 49%, good for #3 in all of the NBA. They have remade themselves from a very good 3-point shooting team to a very good 2-point shooting team. They are still not a good 1-point shooting team, however, 18th in FTM and 24th in FT%.

But more importantly they have remade themselves from a famously bad defensive team (just ask Jimmy Butler) to a very good defensive team. They are giving up just 102 ppg, 13 less than last year, good for #1 in the NBA. #1 in the NBA! The Timberwolves! On defense! #1 in the NBA! Their opponents are shooting 42%, also 1st in the NBA! If the Wolves can outshoot their opponents 49% to 42% the rest of the way, well, anybody would take their chances with that! And they are giving up 43 points per game in the paint, #2 lowest in the league. With Rudy Gobert and Karl Towns down low, their opponents are having a very tough time scoring down there. (The Wolves are #8 in blocked shots.) And, then, as coach Finch said in a press conference after the Sunday night win at Golden State, the chase defense of Jaden McDaniels, Mike Conley and Kyle Anderson is the next frontier, and with McDaniels and Anderson both at 6-9, they have the length to cause trouble out there.

A reporter asked Finch how he deals with the challenge of improving while you’re winning, and coach seemed almost to acknowledge that that’s a good question. It’s easy to become complacent when you’re beating Denver and Boston and Golden State. But he referred to the 1st half against Golden State. The Wolves were leading by 3 but they had been outrebounded, they had turned it over a bunch, and they often tried to make tough plays in a crowd instead of making the easy and obvious play elsewhere. He intimated that these are ongoing issues and said, “There’s plenty of room for improvement right there.” (The Wolves are 23rd in offensive rebounding, 23rd in turnovers, and #22 with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.57. So, yeah.)

The one question that caused coach Finch to pause a little was about “late-game offense.” When the Wolves get ahead the start trying to run the clock a little bit, it seems, they milk it a little bit too much and settle for a bomb. “Yeah, we’ve seen it go dry” in those situations. When things get stagnant, coach said, they try to get the ball back into Mike Conley’s hands and “he’s going to make the right decision and he’s not going to turn it over.” So coach thinks they’ll get better in those situations. They way they’re playing now, they’ll have more chances to practice that late-game offense.

Individually, after 9 games, you’ve got:

Ant Edwards 28 ppg-6 reb-5 ast, shooting 49 and 36%, playing at an all-star level

Karl Towns 19 ppg-9 reb-2 ast, shooting 45 and 35%, his weakest offensive numbers since his rookie year, but if you look carefully you’re gonna see Karl busting his ass on defense like never before

Rudy Gobert 12 ppg-13 reb-2 blks, shooting 55%, not a Defensive Player of the Year level anymore, but very solid on the defensive end

Mike Conley 10 ppg-3 reb-5 asts, shooting 50 and 42%, and gives the Wolves their best playmaking and floor generalship in many many years

Jaden McDaniels 11 ppg-3 reb, shooting 56 and 44%, coach Finch noted that as the chief defense guy, they don’t expect that he’s gonna come back and hit the defensive board

Naz Reid 13 ppg-4 reb, shooting 52 and 42%, often the best player on the floor, especially on the offensive end

Kyle Anderson is so mobile that you forget he’s 6-9, a key in the chase defense, and also averages 5 assists per game

The Wolves depth remains unsteady beyond these 7 guys. The 2 acquisitions–Shake Milton and Troy Brown–are not getting a lot of minutes and are accumulating stats way below their career numbers. So maybe there’s some upside there as they learn the system. On the other hand, Mike Conley learned the system in about 3 days.

If the playoffs started today, the Wolves would get the Golden State Warriors and the home court advantage. They would of course be underdogs. But that’s the western division. Hey, congrats, you finished 3rd! And, so now, you get to play the Warriors. Again, they beat the Warriors 116-110 in California Sunday night. Now, in one of those strange NBA back-to-backs, they play the Warriors in California against tomorrow (Tuesday) night. Another win would seem to be completely unlikely under those circumstances, but wins over Denver and Boston seemed completely unlikely, and Sunday’s win over the Warriors was also unexpected. So, who knows? For more than 30 years, Timberwolves fans dreamed of such things, but they were just a dream and almost never really happened. Now, we can dream about such things with the thought that, hey, maybe they can really happen! So, yes, my optimism for the Wolves has returned.