Never worked so long and hard to
Cement a failure”
Something kept people away from Target Center on Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was the ungodly cold, or the disappointment in another Timberwolves season slipping by without hope for a playoff berth. Perhaps someone who wanted to be there welcomed a brand new baby boy the other day, so he couldn’t make it.
Or, of course, the sparse crowd could be blamed on the fact no one wanted to chase the Minnesota Vikings’ wicked, bitter, nausea-inducing cocktail of a bad beat by paying to watch a team that’s 4 for their last 22. The Wolves weren’t about to lift their spirits; only… well, spirits could do the trick, and those are awfully expensive at the arena. By one estimate, there were around 6,000 people in the building at tip off, while at least dozens more almost certainly had the game on as background noise while staring off into middle distance and tearing their Blair Walsh jerseys thread by thread.
What flashed in front of all of them was another Minnesota loss. Karl-Anthony Towns got into early foul trouble and was limited to just 25 minutes – his early issues were caused primarily by Zaza Pachulia, and between he and Dirk, the Mavericks’ frontcourt feasted, putting up a combined 16 and 7 in the opening frame alone. In the second, Dirk continued to dominate, putting up 7 points in just over 6 minutes of action, with Chandler Parsons chipping in 9 as well. Minnesota was buoyed in that period by some spectacularly high-usage play by Kevin Martin who was either going to get a bucket (3-for-5), get to the line (3-for-3) or turn it over (did that twice). Despite getting outshot, outrebounded and turning the ball over more than their counterparts, the Wolves managed to keep it within six at the break.
Still to come
The worst part and you know it
There’s a numbness in your heart and it’s growing”
— Keith Leventhal (@KeithLeventhal) January 11, 2016
The second half started out fine. The Wolves’ defense was, to be quite frank, spectacular. Here’s how Dallas’ first nine possessions of the second half went:
- Shot clock violation (Turnover)
- Dirk 21-foot jumper
Four missed shots, four turnovers, and one midrange jumper from one of the best shooters ever? Yeah, the Wolves could live with that. When Rick Carlisle called timeout with 6:41 to go in the third quarter, Minnesota was up 51-50.
And then, of course, everything went the opposite way. From that moment until the end of the third quarter, the Wolves went 1-for-10 from the field and committed 4 turnovers. The Mavericks, on the other hand, hit 8-of-11 shots and turned the ball over just once. When the final period began, Minnesota was down 68-55.
To their credit, the Wolves didn’t fold, specifically Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica, who rode the pine for much of the game but played all 12 minutes of the final period. Those three combined to score 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting (including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc) while Ricky Rubio orchestrated everything (good grief, a little bit of spacing helps him out so much), but ultimately it wasn’t enough. Dirk Nowitzki scored 8 points in the final frame and Dallas held on.
There was one possession right at the end that crystallized many of the Wolves’ offensive problems, summed up here by the great Britt Robson:
Towns open 3, turns it down. Bjelly open 3, turns it down. Rubio kind of open 3, clanks. All same possession
— brittrobson (@brittrobson) January 11, 2016
Shortly after that play (not that it mattered, because the result was 99% assured) the Wolves inbounded with 8.7 seconds to go, down by 6. They needed a quick three, a foul, two missed free throws, and another three at the buzzer, just to have a shot – in other words, a miracle to tie, but not something entirely outside the realm of possibility. Sam Mitchell had a timeout to use, and crazier things have happened. Anyway, the ball was inbounded to Bjelica beyond the three point line (cool), where he pump faked (wait, why, there’s really no time for…), drove to the basket (why why why???), and dished to a cutting Karl-Anthony Towns for an easy layup (WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT?!?). Then Ricky fouled on Dallas’ inbounds pass to extend the game, even though it was now really, really, really over.
The question is – why? Why did that happen? Why drive, there? Bjelica seems programmed to create for others rather than shoot, a somewhat noble quality, but the situation required jacking up a quick shot and praying that it went in. Do you think (given Bjelica’s actions on that play, as well as the sequence Britt described above) everyone on the roster has a giant friggin’ complex about pulling the trigger from beyond the arc, so much so that they won’t even do it when it’s absolutely necessary?
And furthermore, is there any hope of change the rest of the season? The one silver lining lately has been a bump in Shabazz Muhammad’s playing time. From the start of the season through December 28th, he averaged 17 minutes per game, tallying 8 points and 3 rebounds per contest on 47% shooting from the field and 32% shooting from beyond the arc. Over the 7 games since, Bazzy is averaging 25 minutes per game, tallying 14 points and 3 boards while getting to the line nearly 5 times per contest, all while hitting 54% of his shots and 47% from three.
A list of things I could lay the blame on
Could give me a way out”
Mitchell, it seems, has reluctantly turned Shabazz loose a bit; will he do the same with the rest of the roster? Loosen the reins? Activate his best three point shooter (Damjan Rudez, inactive for the 9th time in the past 10 games) and commit to minutes for Nemanja Bjelica instead of messing around with the likes of Adreian Payne and such long stints for Tayshaun Prince? Try seeing what a little bit of spacing can do for those Wiggins and Towns postups and curl cuts he’s so fond of?
No, probably not. Mitchell’s oft-repeated refrain in postgame press conferences has been that he “likes” the shots the Wolves get, along with a vague statement about the team being “bad at making shots” or “not having many good shooters.” It’s worn a little thin through two and a half months; will he be repeating the same phrase in March? April? Will his players still be buying in to play solid defense, as they are now? Or is all of this headed towards another despondent final quarter of the season?
Instead of a dramatic ending to their campaign, like the ones the Vikings suffered, the Wolves are slowly atrophying. Sparse crowds, long losing streaks – these things build and build, self-feeding monsters. There’s no one moment to point to, no depository of heart-breaking Vines showing fans collapsing to the floor or screaming expletives when the Wolves attempt just 4 threes in a half or blow a defensive possession in transition. There are just eye rolls and heavy sides, and for fans, attending games becomes watching on TV, which becomes only reading recaps, and reading recaps becomes checking online for the final score and nothing else, and passive interest in top draft targets and blasé concern about whether Karl-Anthony Towns wins Rookie of the Year.
Compare that to the heartbreak Vikings fans suffered today. Which would you rather endure? The heart-wrenching defeat when it matters, or dulled and indifferent failure? The Wolves aren’t a respite for anyone at the moment. They’re a wearisome pastime.