Let’s lay some groundwork for last night’s loss in Orlando, because the distance imparted by television makes it easy to begin to think of every game as the same thing done over and over again, the players as action figures whose accumulated statistics mean Player X will make or miss Shot Y based on his 3-point percentage. Last night was the second game of a road back-to-back, a point emphasized a few times during the broadcast by Jim Petersen and Dave Benz by bringing up the fact that the Wolves hadn’t swept the Florida road trip through Miami and Orlando since 2003.
It was also their third game in four nights, their fifth game in seven nights, their seventh game in 10 nights, stretching back to their dramatic win over the Hawks in Atlanta. That’s a lot of basketball and — to their credit — they didn’t play listlessly or without effort so much as sloppily and a little unfocused. In spite of that, they jumped out to a 14-point lead at the half, mostly because Orlando could not hit anything. The Magic took 53 shots that first half and connected on just 17 of them, while the Wolves took 45 and hit 22. Orlando was even worse from the foul line, where they went 2-for-6. The first half, though, also held a harbinger of Minnesota’s struggles in the second: The Magic brought down 14 offensive rebounds to the Wolves’ 7.
The third quarter began to turn the tide, with the Magic shooting 57.1% to the Wolves’ 50%, outscoring them 33 to 24. A lot of that was thanks to Evan Fournier and his 11 points on 3-for-4 shooting (including 2-for-2 from the arc). Fournier’s making a strong case for Most Improved Player in the season’s early going. Now, that award is well-known among the more analytically inclined for not necessarily going to players whose actual play improved, but whose minutes have simply gone up.
It’s true that Fournier’s playing more minutes (38.6 per game versus 28.6 last year), but he is actually doing everything just a bit better, even based on per-36 stats. His field goal percentage has gone from 44% to 46.5%, his 3-point percentage has gone from 37.8% to 39.2% and his free throw percentage has gone from 72.8% to 80%, all while taking more shots per 36 minutes. He’s also scoring 18.2 points per 36 this year against 15.1 last year, plus rebounding and stealing more while everything else has stayed level. Maybe most notably, his offensive and defensive ratings have flipped flop, from 105 and 111 last year to 112 and 104. A 14-point swing in overall efficiency the right way is nothing to sneeze at.
Elfrid Payton also had a huge game. A career 41.6% shooter who’s struggled this year and only shot 36.8% so far, Payton shot 47.8% in this game, and that includes a woeful first half for him. In the second he was 6-for-9 plus added 3 assists and 4 steals. It’s safe to say that if Payton had had even an average game that the Wolves could have hoped to withstand Fournier’s great one and pull this one out.
By midway through the fourth, the Magic had drawn even and then began to push the lead out, eventually getting it to 7 points with 4:11 to go. I know it’s tough to forget about a 14-point lead on the road, but again, the circumstances from this game and the fact that the Wolves are, overall, still very much in learning how-to-play-together mode, I think it behooves us to pick up the game from here and focus on what went right and wrong for Minnesota to force an overtime where they would eventually fall short.
Bjelica fouling out with 9:10 remaining in the fourth really hurt the Wolves, and I believe this cannot be overstated. Bjelica is averaging 7.7 minutes per game in the fourth quarter, second only to Andrew Wiggins’ 8.5. With Kevin Garnett sitting last night and only averaging 3.8 minutes per game in the fourth quarter, Mitchell was forced to juggle minutes between Gorgui Dieng (who hasn’t been great so far this year) and Tayshaun Prince (an at-best smallball four who doesn’t really stretch the floor). On the broadcast, Jim Petersen wondered aloud at the possibility of getting Shabazz Muhammad minutes at the four, and I wondered the same, but an argument can definitely be made for Prince’s experience and defensive acumen — not as an individual defender, necessarily, but in terms of holding the whole defensive fabric together.
Whatever the solution was going to be, it was going to be ad hoc and it was likely going to hurt them because of rebounding. Again, the Wolves were getting killed on the defensive glass, where they gave up 20 offensive rebounds to the Magic, ultimately yielding 20 second chance points. Prince — whom Mitchell settled on down the stretch and in OT — has a defensive rebounding rate (percentage of available defensive rebounds grabbed) of 9.2% while Bjelica’s is 20.8%. That’s a huge difference to give up in a game where a team is struggling to rebound in the first place.
The smallball play also took a little while to settle in with the Wolves, as evidenced by Wiggins settling for a midrange jumper when he was isolated against Andrew Nicholson with only a minute to go. Once that was out of Wiggins’ system, though, he started going hard at the mismatch on the offensive end, going aggressively to the hoop and drawing fouls on the next two possessions. This is a thing you see a lot with the Wolves right now: doing the wrong thing first, then correcting it. It’s actually encouraging, and eventually you’ll see the first part of that go away.
The most encouraging thing to see, though, is the way that Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have attacked the basket on both the offensive and defensive ends when the game got tight. It’s happened in a bunch of games this year, and they’ve even won some of those. They’ve shown a real willingness to scrap and mix it up, to use their physicality and grace to both try to get the bucket and get to the line. For a long time, the Wolves as a team have excelled at getting to the line — all the way back to the Love era teams.
But there’s an important difference here and you can still see it when it comes to Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio. For better or worse, both of those guys seem more invested in hunting the whistle than the shot itself — for Martin it’s close, like 55/45, but for Rubio it’s like 80/20. For Martin, it’s effective, if ugly; for Rubio, less so. Personally, I think this was part of the root problem when it came to the offense of the Love era teams. They were very effective and efficient during most of any given game. But when it came down to the last few minutes, they put the onus on officials to make calls, rather than taking matters into their own hands. Maybe it’s old-fashioned moralizing, but I just like seeing Wiggins and Towns forcing the issue themselves, getting to the rim and looking at the whistle as a bonus, not a birthright.
Okay: Y’all can come back on my lawn, now. And we can cut to the chase: These two young, developing teams were pretty evenly matched in the end, and both of them played sloppy and inspired at times. Fournier hit two ridiculous 3-pointers in overtime, one of them a game winner. On the very last possession of the game, Zach LaVine caught the inbounds pass and got a little too excited to catch it cleanly, forcing him into a bad look. Call it nerves or youthful inexperience, but I honestly don’t think a LaVine 3-pointer off a clean catch is a terrible playcall right there. The Wolves had a chance to win this game and probably learned a lot about how they will in the future, and that’s good.
And by the way, Public Service Announcement: Don’t ever Google Evan Fournier’s last name.