With 4:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, last night’s game was looking like a good road win for a Timberwolves team sorely in need of some positive reinforcement after dropping eight straight. Up to that point, Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins had been the standouts, combining to score 49 points on 19-for-34 shooting, including 5-for-6 for Muhammad from 3-point range. Roughly a month ago, I wrote about how no two of Zach Lavine, Wiggins and Muhammad seemed to be able to have a good game at the same time, but this game showed how Wiggins and Muhammad could feed off each other’s games — sometimes literally in the case of an early alley-oop from the former to the latter.
Wiggins also did this:
I’m not overly concerned about Wiggins’ on-court aggressiveness overall, especially when I see plays like that. Muhammad was a ball of fire on the court when he saw it last year, but he didn’t understand where or when to apply that fire. I think Wiggins just has a more analytical approach and needs to understand the where and when first before he shows that aggressiveness.
He also continues to impress in subtle ways on defense. For example, in the first quarter, after another Wolves defender blew by Gordon Hayward on a pump fake, Wiggins managed to split his defensive attention well enough between Hayward on the wing and Enes Kanter along the baseline to force up a bad shot. The Jazz got the rebound and the second chance points, but the initial work by Wiggins was exemplary, and it’s the kind of thing we’ve seen before when he’s broken up a 3-on-1 fastbreak or jumped out to trap the ballhandler.
The rest of the Wolves had been merely okay — including the bench, which seemed barely able to hold serve while the starters were out — but after a push to start the fourth quarter that got the lead up to ten, it looked like Minnesota would pull this out.
And the wheels came off completely.
It more or less evaporated in less than two minutes: A Hayward 3-pointer led to a turnover off a bad handoff by Gorgui Dieng, which led to a Hayward slam dunk. A muddled offensive possession for the Wolves ended in a 29’ 3-point attempt by Dieng, of all people, and a Trey Burke jumper was followed by a turnover by Muhammad that led to a Kanter layup. And the lead was gone.
It was almost like the Wolves had flipped a switch labeled “Don’t fuck this up” and sparks had come flying out of the control panel. Neither team had shot particularly well in the first half, with the Jazz shooting 40.5% and the Wolves 34.8%, but both teams surged in the third. With Utah on a SEGABABA following a loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Wolves jumped on them at the start of the fourth.
It’s hard, though, for young teams to hold a lead. They just don’t know how to simmer, you know? Here were two young teams, one of which has Gordon Hayward and the other of which is missing Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. It just seems like mentally it’s way easier for a young team to play hard and desperate when they’re down than to slow the game down and manufacture reliable points in the half-court. When the Wolves tried to do this, safe passes became sloppy passes because they slowed everything down without staying crisp. Hayward, for his part, notched 11 points in those last 4:22 of the game and came up with two steals as well.
It’s easy to say the Wolves didn’t execute down the stretch, but it’s also not clear exactly what they were supposed to execute. Who can they go to for sure points in that situation? Thad Young has struggled mightily, but even if that weren’t the case, you really want to rely on your smallball power forward to generate points in the clutch? Young’s ideal role is as a scavenger, a coyote, not an apex predator. Maybe more than anyone else on the team, I think his season up to this point would have looked way different with a healthy Rubio, Martin and Pek. I also think if he were one of the injured guys and any one of them were the only healthy veteran, they would have looked equally terrible (maybe not Rubio).
In the end, this was yet another learning situation, painful as that may be for fans. The Timberwolves aren’t going to learn how to manage late-game situations with a lead without being in late-game situations with a lead, so best to chalk it up to experience and hope the Wolves are growing enough to help next year’s rookie or rookies have an easier time of it.
- A last note about 3-point shooting here: Of rookies averaging at least 18 minutes per game, Andrew Wiggins has the second highest 3-point percentage at 39.5% behind Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic. Yet he’s attempting only 1.4 per game to Mirotic’s 2.8. All the way down the line, worse 3-point shooters are attempting more 3-pointers than Wiggins. Philadelphia’s rookie standout, K.J. McDaniels, is attempting 3.1 per game and only connecting on 29.7%. Even Zach Lavine is attempting 1.8 per game and only making 25% of them. Saunders has said he doesn’t have shooters, but with Muhammad going 5-for-6 last night and Wiggins hitting consistently even with limited looks a third of the way into the season, that’s not a valid excuse anymore.