Timberwolves 93, Nuggets 109: The Force Is Having Trouble Getting Out of Bed


A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, there was the original Star Wars trilogy, and a little later, there were the Minnesota Timberwolves of the mid-90s to early 2000s, led by Kevin Garnett. Neither was perfect. Star Wars was ridden with adventure movie clichés and saddled with some odd character choices (Princess Leia’s entire planet is blown to smithereens and she’s over it in about a day?) and uneven performances (Luke Skywalker’s supposed to be grating, right?). The Wolves led by Garnett 1.0 never completely lived up to their promise and crumbled almost immediately after getting ever so close in the 2004 Western Conference Finals.

But they were exciting and at times inspirational, working their way into our young, pulpy hearts at a time when we needed so badly to believe. There were charismatic scoundrels who hid their hearts of gold under a layer of grit (Han Solo and Kevin Garnett). There were toe-headed farmboys who would rise to positions of power (Luke Skywalker and Fred Hoiberg). There were ruthless bounty hunters (Boba Fett and Latrell Sprewell). There was adventure and heartbreak and moments of triumph. And there were outlandish, bug-eyed aliens (Sam Cassell).

All good things, though, must come to end. “More!” the fans clamored, and so came The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. And to the Timberwolves came Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Mike Miller, Sebastian Telfair, Darko Milicic and Jonny Flynn. Oh these were dark times. No real main character, no plot, just an empty origin story no one could really get invested in. Sure, the last section of it — with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love — was the darkest and best of this era, but it still sputtered and fell short, the product of a megalomaniac with too much power and no real idea how to work even the most basic craft elements of his job (George Lucas and David Kahn, raving about how high Flynn’s midichlorian count was).

Now, with a new Star Wars movie set to release this week and a Wolves roster chock full of potential, we’re into unknown territory. All we’ve gotten from either so far are trailers, bright flashes of what could be coupled with a gnawing feeling in the pit of our stomachs that either could turn out to be a disappointment, or even a disaster. But at least a few old favorites are back!


One way or another, we’re going to find out about The Force Awakens in a few days. For the Timberwolves, it’s going to take much longer.

Last night (STAR WARS NIGHT, if you couldn’t tell), was a pretty unmitigated disaster in terms of the game itself and from the perspective of the Wolves. Catching the Nuggets at home on the second night of a back-to-back, Minnesota came out listless and stayed that way. The Wolves’ biggest lead was 3, and that came when they were 3-0 on an Andrew Wiggins 3-pointer to start the game. Two lead changes later, the Nuggets went up and stayed up for the rest of the game, eventually getting out ahead by 17 points.

The defense was — as it has been for a while — just not there. After starting the season surprisingly strong on that end of the court, the Wolves are 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions over the last seven games prior to last night’s tilt. Moving Kevin Martin into the starting lineup was supposed to jumpstart an offense that had struggled with Andrew Wiggins and Tayshaun Prince on the wings, but not only have they not picked up the offense, the defense has faltered, and Sam Mitchell said as much.

“We’re not scoring,” he said. “We’re not defending. We’re going to have to do something. We’re going to make some adjustments and tweak the lineup a little bit and we’re not the highest scoring team anyway, so we just may have to err on the side of caution of trying to defend people and keep the game as tight as possible and try to win it at the end.”

Their signal difficulty in this stretch that has seen them lose seven of their last eight games has been not winning 50/50 balls. Although their defensive rebounding and related numbers over the season look decent (8th in defensive rebounds per game, 9th in defensive rebound percentage, 12th in opponent second-chance points), when you’re actually watching the game it just seems like they’re getting outworked for those boards constantly. According to Mitchell, there may be a little malaise setting in after their impressive start.

“I think we’ve got some young guys feeling sorry for themselves,” he said. “And we’ve got some guys that don’t understand really what this league is about.”

I’m normally quick to discount this kind of get-off-my-lawn-you-whippersnappers kind of explanation, but whatever the reason, it does seem manifestly clear that the team is lacking cohesion and urgency right now. How to fight back against that is going to be this team’s most immediate concern going forward.

Within the Star Wars universe, the enemy is invariably some kind of totalitarian power bent on crushing a plucky rebellion, but in the real world where the movies are made, the enemies are a little harder to pin down. When Lucas made the first trilogy, he struggled against adversity to realize his vision, but along the way he had to compromise. The end result was more collaborative, a conglomerate vision that was the result of input from other writers, directors and producers. It was stronger because of that.

The prequels saw Lucas’ power overwhelm the process. The shots are often either boring or cluttered, the CGI takes over spaces and makes them feel antiseptic rather than lived in, the dialogue does more telling than showing and the characters’ actions are unmoored from any emotional interior. The prequels might have been exactly what Lucas wanted, but they were weaker for it.

Maybe a lineup change can shake the Wolves out of their doldrums. They’re not legitimately fighting for a playoff spot, so experimentation should be welcomed and encouraged. Adversity is a catalyst, collaboration a necessary part of any path out of it. Help you, it can.

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6 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    Bravo, Steve.

    It just seems like teams have figured out their offense and are spreading them out on defense. Now, it’s time for adjustments; we’ll see how stubborn Sam is. They can’t keep guarding pick-and-rolls the way they have been, for it turns a 4-out spread offense into the cheat code the opponent can unlock at any time to rack up points.

    Last night encapsulated the problem with LaVine. People can look at the box score and see his shooting but miss how terrible he was at initiating the offense and how all of his points came after a more team-oriented approach failed. Muhammad and Bjelica look like they’re about a month away from yelling at him on the court.

  2. sportsbygreg says:

    Steve and gjk, both of you guys hit in on the nail. It’s this team just doesn’t have any heart, the young excuse is getting old-and it’s enough veterans on the team that’s suppose to be rubbing off (it’s not). There are just no down and dirty dogs on this team. And the guy who is suppose to be the future star just doesn’t seem to have the consistent drive and mental make-up, no where near any leadership qualities. So we can forget about finding a way to stop the bleeding on his own and win one basically by himself. (Yeah, I know he’s only 20 but he’s played enough…and this is a basically a young league). 1 rebound and 1 rebound in 34 minutes, and that happens all the time. He’s just looking more and more like a guy I would not spend my last few dollars on to go see play because he just doesn’t bring it every night. I know I may be one of the few of you guys who thinks LaVine is a future superstar. Not only do I believe that (even though he makes mistakes), after really paying attention I honestly think he has the most upside on the team after Towns. But, again, he is NOT a point gaurd, he’s a starting 2 who can move to the 1 on occasion. But as a team they just need some heady players with heart who carry a dog mentality. And Sam has to play the RIGHT people the right minutes and figure out the x’s and o’s part.

  3. pyrrol says:

    Beat again within days by a well below .500 Denver team? Foye 5 of 6 from three point? Denver shot 56% and 55% from three (hitting 10)? Really? You can’t make this stuff up.

    I agree with Steve, we are so flat, and we played bad and deserve to lose. Yet, you’ll be hard pressed to find a struggling team that gets their troubles shoved down their throats as aggressively as it happens to the Wolves as soon as problems surface. (This season, perhaps only Philly can claim more of this sort of suffering, but their lack of talent is much more glaring than the Wolves.) And just for good measure, yet again, we see a massively unlikely offensive explosion from an underachieving ex-wolf. Unbelievable.

    When a team, a young team with energy to burn, looks like this on the court it is confusing. It makes fans want to find answers yesterday, but the mystery is complex and hard to put a finger on. I don’t have the answers, only sadness—this team should be better than they are now, they should be fun to watch. I will offer one simple factor which plays into it and this franchise has a huge issue with–coaching. Young guys get frustrated easily and this is a very tough league this year. Mostly they can handle it. But when your efforts fall apart from within, from poor guidance, it feels like sabotage and that’s a whole other, harder thing to brush off. gjk is exactly correct–teams have us figured on offense and we aren’t using Rubio right. We don’t adjust to this, so our offense doesn’t develop or get better. On defense, we are better this season, but basic adjustments that we sorely need to make are left ignored. (Whenever these problems rear their ugly head, Peterson goes off on a thing about Rubio and screens–while Rubio is less good at bursting through screens than stronger guards, that’s not really the problem, but JP’s complaints signal frustration from systematic defensive breakdown.)

    Sam is so conservative. It’s almost like he does little things just to get the media off his back. As gkj points out, LaVine hurts us in ways that don’t show up in a box, and it was only in the second half, after we were way behind that Sam decided maybe it was best to always have either Rubio or Miller with LaVine. Too little too late. I do not blame LaVine. He’s playing out of position. I’m sick of talking about it, but it is a real problem, and it isn’t Zach’s fault. He’s worked hard to improve his general game and has a lot to offer as a scorer.

    If Sam is that immature and hard to deal with toward the media, what is it like to play under him? I imagine very frustrating. I think it is starting to beat the spirit of some of the players down and perhaps create rifts between the guys that frankly shouldn’t be there. I’m going to be blunt here, and I don’t mean to offend. I just don’t think Sam is head coaching material. We should be looking for a real coach asap–this was a tough situation, be we needn’t be beholden to it for any set length of time. Any time a better coach is available we should try to land him. Sam just doesn’t seem that bright. He’s probably a great guy, and I’m not saying he’s stupid. But just being of average intelligence isn’t enough for being and NBA coach. The way he speaks sounds slightly dense and unprofessional, both in tone and content. His ‘honesty’ is limited to complaining about the limitations of a young team (throwing players under the bus for their age instead of taking responsibility yourself). He is red flag defensive with the media–playing a bully card. You compare this with how other coaches carry themselves (Doc Rivers, Popovich, even guys like Stotts and Malone) and it is clear that Mitchell just isn’t very professional. Hopefully the team doesn’t get totally obliterated by coaching (as might be happening now) all season. And hopefully, at seasons’ end we go with a new coaching slate.

  4. sportsbygreg says:

    That was a superb write up and analyzation. And I agree with literally every single point you the entire article. Trust me, I’m not the one to agree just to agree.

  5. sportsbygreg says:

    And you say Sam gone by the end of the season…how about the end of the night.

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