2015-16 Season

Thunder 101, Timberwolves 96: Both Sides of Nostalgia

Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, left, and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook battle for the rebound in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

 Tonight, there was plenty to come away with that could have, and probably should have, put fans in a bad mood leaving the Target Center…

The Wolves held a “Throwback Night”, where the in-arena hosts (and some fans) dressed in 90s attire, while the sounds of Snow (no, not the Red Hot Chili Peppers song from 2006, the artist behind the absurd ALICKA BOOM BOOM DOWN!! song from 1992), Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls and many others filled the arena. The Wolves showed old Target Center fan shots, and other 90s-centric nostalgia. Or, you know, stuff from back then that you’d rather not remember. See: link above.

The one glaring, brutally obvious thing missing from throwback night? THE THROWBACK UNIS.

The most frustrating part of this may have been that an ad had come out earlier in the week, featuring all the current Wolves photoshopped in the retro uniforms. And they looked great!


But, of course, most of the frustration with the Wolves has come not from their branding decisions, but rather from their performance on the floor. The Wolves have lost 11 of their last 12 games, and still have 2 games to go against likely Western Conference playoff teams coming next.

In this stretch, their shots haven’t fallen, and the ball hasn’t moved well with Ricky Rubio out of the game. Tonight, the Wolves fell because they let the Thunder do what the Thunder do best. They let Russell Westbrook dominate the game’s first three quarters, then let a cool, consistent Kevin Durant close it out when the Wolves made a late run.

The Wolves got down big early, and despite a run that got the game within 3 late, they made it too difficult on themselves to make a proper comeback by getting down so big so early.

In Minnesota’s defense, the Thunder have used this approach against much better teams, and seen the same levels of success. But the fact that it happened now, as the Wolves came close but fell short makes it even tougher to swallow.

Andrew Wiggins’ free throw shooting woes got magnified a bit tonight as well, when a chance to make 3 free throws to bring the game within 2 points late resulted in hitting just the final pair on the trip. With 8 seconds to go, down 3, with Kevin Durant shooting free throws, the game was more or less lost at that point.

Karl-Anthony Towns, for good reason, didn’t play much in the 4th. Most of his makes came off putbacks, while he never found his postgame or jumper against Steven Adams and Enes Kanter.

As losses pile up in consecutive order, it can be hard to find the fun in watching, and sticking with, a losing team through that stretch. But tonight was easier.

Tonight, there was plenty to come away with that could have, and probably should have, put fans in a good mood leaving the Target Center…

While there were no throwback uniforms on “Throwback Night”, I did enjoy some of the festivities. It was fun to reminisce on horrible (and good) 90s culture and music, seeing certain media members do the Macarena, and remembering what fashion used to look like.

My favorite part was when they brought back the KG 4th quarter hype video. I could only get a snippet on video. It brought me back to going to games with my dad as a kid.


But it wasn’t just the fun nostalgic moments that had Wolves fans excited. Tonight’s game, especially in the 4th quarter, was a lot of fun.

The deficit grew to as much as 18, but the Wolves never let the number get out of hand by the end of each quarter. By the 4th, they were down 14.

When they made a run early in that quarter, it was mostly against the Thunder’s reserves. When Billy Donovan brought in KD and Russ, most thought they’d put it away. But to the Wolves’ credit, they played excellent defense on the drive, and managed to keep clawing away. Keep in mind, tonight’s 4th quarter comeback lineup was LaVine-Wiggins-Muhammad-Bjelica-Dieng. Before tonight, this group had only played 20 minutes together.

The Wolves saw a couple of slumps end tonight, or at least postpone themselves. Zach LaVine had has best game in weeks, and hit some big shots in the fourth quarter. He was catching and shooting on plays, instead of his usual catch-and-dribble for a while-and-pass of the past month. He shot 7-12 to end with 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists.

Nemanja Bjelica only took 2 shots tonight, but he made both of them, one of them coming in a key spot in the 4th. He was a +10 tonight, playing the glass well and even coming up with 3 steals.

Both of these guys needed a good night, and both of them got them.

Shabazz Muhammad had a great night and matched the energy of most of the Thunder players (hard to argue anyone can match Russell Westbrook’s energy, though. The man is a 6’4 jackrabbit with insane basketball skills).

Andrew Wiggins struggled to hit from the line late in the game, but his second half was mostly a success. Starting 2-8 in the first half, he cleaned it up and shot 6-11 in the second, and made some important plays down the stretch.

Most importantly, this was all happening with a lineup that doesn’t normally see crunchtime. Not most of them, anyway. This was all happening with Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns, rightfully, on the bench.

The losing is tough, but it seems as though the Wolves are as sick of it as anyone else. Of all the losses in this tough stretch, it’s likely that this will be the only one that could be looked back at with any level of nostalgia.

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7 thoughts on “Thunder 101, Timberwolves 96: Both Sides of Nostalgia

  1. The most important thing that’s happened to the Wolves this season has happened in the past couple of days, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been analysis on AWAW about it. The Thunder game score doesn’t matter, but why did the Wolves go with the lineup in the last quarter? The Mavericks game score didn’t matter: Why did LaVine and Wiggins and KAT play so poorly while Bazzy and Dieng and the bench outscored the Mavs 38-28?

    The most important thing was Sam Mitchell’s curious interview for 65 minutes with Britt Robson. The best analyst of pro basketball reporting in our state, Robson had a weird confrontation with Mitchell a few weeks ago, and Mitchell reached out to him to talk about what the coaching staff is doing. The result is a transparent and heart-warming proof that the Wolves do indeed know what they are doing coaching-wise since the recent bad run began. Mitchell began to impress me in early December, when the winning turned to losing, and his public statements were so damning of his players. Were they that bad? At the same time, the howls on amateur sites like AWAW began to call for Mitchell’s head, even though no poster here as suggested a replacement to Mitchell.

    But then this interview comes out like disinfectant and the room smells fresh. Read the interview and you will know why KAT is having trouble low, why the team cannot defend set plays, why Wiggins is slumping, why Baz is improving bit by bit, and how badly mismatched physically the Wolves are against the better NBA teams. You can find the interview on Minnpost. Robson has been quoted on AWAW more and more this season, especially with images of his in-game tweets that AWAW usually receives as timely wisdom, small rays of enlightenment. Robson has been scathing of LaVine for two years, but is grudgingly changing his mind. Robson has also just begun to understand that Flip’s motivation of players and selection of talent might be stellar, but his actual coaching of NBA teams stunk. (I don’t agree that Flip’s personnel choices are better than average; no question he got people inspired. His antiquated systems, still hurting the Wolves on a nightly basis, is plain for anyone to judge.) Robson has also been a huge Wiggins fan even as KAT has become the team’s superstar. Wiggins is not in a slump, is better than he ever has been, and will soon be one of the best players at the 2, unfortunately right when his agent starts agitating for a trade in mid-2017. And most importantly, you’ll come away from the interview with much more respect and encouragement of Mitchell’s very distinct talents in team-building. If you read between the lines of the interview, you’ll see that we all loved Flip, but building teams is not something he was good at. Building players, yes, yes. Not teams. Our players are great (potentially), but don’t really know how to play properly (obviously), so our team will get worse until the players get better ny adding the fundamentals to their games that are currently missing.

    From one of the most bizarrely guarded personalities in the NBA, the words finally spill, clearly, in a macrocosmic explanation of what we are doing as a team. Sam Mitchell, as you’ve been slowly realizing from his post-game statements, is trying to teach some magnificent talents how to play the game as a team.

    I hope the AWAW writers parse that interview and present their conclusions to the frustrated laymen like us who come here to peek behind the scenes of the team’s unraveling. Who cares about each night’s passing acts? Why is the team playing so badly? Explain it to us from the other side of the boxscore: AWAW knew the Cavs would whip us, but could not explain why. Why?

    1. Are you implying that Sam Mitchell is a good head coach?

      What an excuse volcano! I found it particularly telling when he talked about LaVine getting denied the ball because he didn’t know basic cutting. Sam blames has past coaches (and AAU again!). But he’s been coaching LaVine as a head coach near half a season and assistant coaching him for a whole season before that. This also includes a full off season, two summer leagues, two camps, two preseasons… I get that LaVine was under experienced coming in, and he might be an extra slow learner. But there is a two way problem here.

      He talks about LaVine’s habit of dribbling before what should be a catch and shoot because that’s how he gets his rhythm, and how that affects shot selection. Well, if that’s his habit, set up a fake catch and shoot play in practice and have Zach only catch and shoot on it like 50 or 100 times, and keep it up until he catches and shoots in game. Maybe something like this was done, but I doubt it given the results. Guys have to feel comfortable doing basics they need to do in game.

      Sam spends a lot of time talking about individual match-ups and advantages, or in our case the excuse of match-up disadvantages. That’s not how a head coach should be thinking–obsessing over individual match-ups. Make a system that evens the playing field, that makes the game more than one on one, on paper match-ups. It’s also a potential excuse for nearly every shortcoming. In trying to describe how physically overwhelmed we are every night, he used KAT vs. Cleveland as an example, saying Love and Thompson will start banging him (both of them are only 6’8″) and then Mozgov comes off the bench at 7’1″ (large, but someone who KAT has a huge speed and agility advantage over and isn’t that much smaller than). Cleveland is very talented and likely to beat us, but not because KAT is too small. That’s just an excuse that feeds a culture of hopelessness.

      From the outside looking in, it looks right now like Sam is a lazy coach and most of our players are lazy and give up. I don’t think either is true, and the interview with Sam shows some of the hard work he’s doing. He has files on every player–what they need to work on, and what they have worked on. This seems almost like butt covering as much as for constructive reasons, so he can show his bosses proof that he didn’t ignore basics of development. It’s not a half bad idea, because development has been as abject failure this season. We’ve seen regression. We’ve seen points of emphasis with no improvement. On top of that, Sam’s slow, reactive style of coaching results in personnel issues. He refuses to play Wiggins at the 3 to even see what happens (he lacks a lot of shooting guard skills) due to a preconceived notion that he cannot possibly handle it physically. He flirts with the idea of playing LaVine at the 2, but is too scared to go through the rough that comes with such a transition, while at the same time letting many rough transitions define us night in and out. He complains that Wiggins would get over matched physically as a 3, but has Prince (one inch taller listed as 215 lbs) start and play big minutes there. He’s been trying to teach the guys basic defense, but has failed so that he has to start and play Prince and Garnett a lot of minutes to keep our defense from folding. This puts us with 3 guys who don’t score much, a rookie center, and an arguably out of position sophomore who is forced to be our go to scorer as our night in and out starting line up. It is very tough to win with this kind of slow start lineup (lately we don’t get to 100 points, too lazy to count the games). Yet the young guys still don’t understand team defense at all, and we give up big points with most other line-ups. I don’t think this is because our players can’t physically defend or are too dumb to learn basic defense. I have to think the right things aren’t being taught and emphasized.

      The interview did not get into some of the biggest issues–system, philosophy and play calling. Sam says that we don’t have shooters all the time, but teams with similar issues still take and make more threes—they do this because they realize even marginal NBA shooters can make shots, and that shooting is greatly helped when the system makes open looks available and spaces properly, plus when players feel free to take quality three point shots they will make them. This is a problem only we have because we ‘want’ to have it. We believe we can’t make shots, that taking more threes is somehow going to make us even worse (getting less likely). Other NBA teams seem to understand that excuses or no, you need to take a certain amount of threes to mathematically compete. I get that Sam inherited Flip’s offense, and that he didn’t have time to construct a new one. But he’s running Flip’s offense poorly and not adjusting it at all to his own strengths as coach, to our player’s strengths, and to the NBA in general. On defense, we see a break down a play (though potential shines through frequently). We have seen no improvement, and some regression. We see a team that can’t play team defense and in the interview Sam seems to speak more about individual match-ups and flaws than a system team machine of defense which is how NBA defense works.

      We hear a lot of excuses with Sam, a lot of can’ts and wont’s. We don’t hear cans and wills and have tos. We don’t hear’ this is on me.’ We do hear it’s AAU’s fault. That’s not leadership.

      1. I agree with you about running Flip’s system. And I don’t think Sam Mitchell is a winning head coach in the NBA, even with his interesting results in Toronto. Who knows how he would do with a veteran-stacked team? We’ll never see it. And I think Mitchell probably knows that he’s not ever going to be top dog. But we’re talking about right now. You watch all the games, and I doubt that you could disagree with his analysis of each player’s bad habits, regardless of where those habits came from. I would not make Sam Mitchell the head coach of my basketball team if I wanted to win today. But the Wolves can’t win, even if you gave them one of the hotshot NBA coaches right now. And if you ask me to choose between Brad Stevens and Sam Mitchell as a teacher for our team, I will go with Mitchell in an instant, and I bet Stevens would say the same thing. But if you get rid of Mitchell today, who do you bring in and why?

        This is not my long-term choice, but merely an example of thinking about building a team that retains Wiggins on a max contract in two or three seasons: Keep Mitchell as your head coach until the end of this season. Give him a pay raise and make him first assistant for whoever you bring in. Do you stick with Newton or get somebody like Bob Ferry, scandal notwithstanding? Can you really give Newton the keys? How do you know? I would throw money and power to Troy Weaver, Shareef Abdur-Rahim or Jeff Weltman, and make the Wolves their team by the next NBA draft, and let them do the hiring of the coaches. If you went with a Newton or Brian Pauga or Gersson Rojas type, younger and hungrier, make them take on Tom Thibodeau as head coach with Mitchell as his first assistant, sign all front office people for three years (June 2016 to end of playoffs 2019), and make a) playoff basketball and b) retention of both Wiggins and KAT as your mandatory results. But we’re talking about Glen Taylor, as vanilla-flavored a businessman as exists in the NBA. If I was Taylor, and thank goodness I’m not, I’d pledge every cent of the increased revenues of the next three seasons as an auxiliary budget for the new GM so he can bring in one important piece each season, overpaying each time for the kind of player that makes a championship team. The mold for such players being Igoudala or Ibaka or our own Pek in a younger and more mobile version.

        The reality is that Sam Mitchell will make our players better, will then get canned for a win-now disaster like Adelman (and son), and our polished superstars Wiggins and KAT will join the Celtics or the Clippers or another team missing just one piece to get to the Finals. And three years from now we all be writing the exact same B.S. lamentations on the Internet, as we were doing three seasons ago.

  2. I enjoyed the Mitchell interview as well, and yes Britt has been one of the top Wolves reporters for quite some time….until last week’s article telling us Flip Saunders should win NBA Executive of the Year. I honestly had to check to see it wasn’t an April Fools column.

    Only in Minnesota would talk such as this happen concerning a team that is 29-96 in their last 125 games (with no end in sight) and are on their way to yet another trainwreck season and top of the lotto.

    But hey we got the nicest practice facility in the league!

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