Bucks 98, Timberwolves 84: It's been a fortnight of losses… sort of
Remember that weird game against the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this season?
The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Western Conference powerhouse with some gritty effort and a lot of luck. I don’t want to diminish from what the Wolves did to the Blazers that night, but Portland shot just 17-of-51 (33.3%) on uncontested shots that night. They shoot 43.8% this season on uncontested jumpers, so you could say that was a bit below their normal production. And because of it, the young, scrappy Wolves walked away with a victory that night. There are two significant things about that game:
1) It was the Wolves’ last victory.
2) It was exactly a month ago today.
Since that night, the Wolves have lost 14 games in a row in a season in which losses piling up can and should be a good thing. During this time, you’re seeing player growth from guys like Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and Gorgui Dieng. You’re throwing Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine into the deep end of the pool and seeing how well they can tread water. And the process of developing is more important than seeing results within the final score of the game. That doesn’t mean wanting wins over losses is a bad thing, but it’s the proper perspective for such a season that was killed early with Ricky Rubio’s ankle injury.
With that said, 14 losses in a row and a full month without a win is a long time to go without a victory. The team is currently on the sixth biggest losing streak in franchise history. They haven’t lost this many games in a row since the franchise record setting 18-game losing streak that spanned from the 2010-11 season to the 2011-12 season. The Wolves lost 15 straight games to end the 10-11 season and the first three games of the lockout-truncated 11-12 season before snapping the streak. The team’s 15 losses at the end of 10-11 were a complete disaster.
The net rating for that 15-game streak was minus-14.6 points per 100 possessions. They were one point per 100 possessions worse on offense and 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense than what this current Wolves team has done during the 14-game losing streak. That streak was created out of a horrible product on the court; this current streak is more created out of key injuries to the few calming veteran presences available on this roster. I’m not sure it makes fans feel better to think of it this way, but we got a brief glimpse into a much more competitive team the first month and a half into the season, especially when Rubio and Martin were available.
Right now, the team can’t defend (worst in the NBA) and their offense is especially bland. Without Mo Williams to take some point guard duties against an aggressive Milwaukee Bucks’ defense, they just couldn’t take care of the basketball. Turnovers are preventable in high volume, but they’re always going to be a part of the game. I can deal with aggressive turnovers, but reckless turnovers are the real killer. They turn out to be even worse when you don’t work hard to get back on defense after coughing up the ball. That’s what it looked like against the Bucks too. The turnovers happened and few players seemed intent on hustling back.
There could be a “what’s the point” element to an overmatched team that is in the fog of a 14-game losing streak. We forget these guys are human and losing so often and getting blown out so much can really take a toll mentally. You want the players to break through that routine and find ways to jolt themselves out of the bad situation. At times, they’ve done that and it’s still resulted in a loss (recent defeats to the hands of the Suns, Kings, Jazz, Nuggets, etc.). Games like the Bucks, Warriors, Cavs, Celtics, etc. have been the opposite. Although this loss to the Bucks wasn’t quite as bad as the others in terms of fighting.
The Wolves actually won two of the quarters in Friday’s game. They lost a quarter and tied another quarter. They were competitive, aside from the 34-16 second quarter they surrendered. Giving up 28 points on 20 turnovers was just too self-destructive. The Bucks were also sloppy with the ball (23 turnovers, giving up 27 points), but that merely helped the Wolves from getting embarrassed. The other difference in the night was the plus-18 the Bucks were from behind the 3-point line.
Biggest positive to take away from the game though was the continued play of Andrew Wiggins. Someone asked me on Twitter what the reasons were for his improved play as of late. I probably need to examine it deeper but it just looks like he’s finding smarter ways to attack the defense. When he knows which spot to get to and feels comfortable shooting from that spot, he has a lot of success. You can check out the highlights from the infamous DawkinsMTA:
There’s just a lot of savvy body control in the way he’s attacking. He hasn’t been much of a playmaker for others this season, but he set a career-high with five assists. His season numbers are just going up and up. He’s leading all rookies in scoring with 14.4 per game after his sixth straight 20-point game and his eighth in nine games. During this nine-game stretch, he’s averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. He’s not just chucking bad shots to get a bunch of points either.
Wiggins is shooting 49.7% from the field and 41.4% from 3-point range over his last nine games. Add in the stellar defense he plays for a rookie night in and night out and I’m not sure how much better you could feel about him as a 19-year old player right now. He’s been phenomenal and he’s actually a joy to watch on a team that doesn’t offer up a lot of joy for people looking at their games (unless you’re rooting for the Wolves’ opponent).
The streak could be getting a lot worse too. Saturday night, the Wolves host the San Antonio Spurs. Then they head on the road for a four-game trip against the Pacers, Suns, Nuggets, and Hornets, which is a brutal bit of traveling for a four-game road trip. They’re very much in danger of setting the franchise record for consecutive losses with at least 19. It’s good for the future of the Wolves but it’s definitely making the present of the Wolves a little taxing.