It was coming the whole night in a game that fit the classic mold of one where the Timberwolves looked good, but never managed to definitively put the hammer down on the other team. They comprehensively winterized the Phoenix Suns over the weekend and then watched yet another 17-point lead slip out of their hands against the New Orleans Pelicans (they’re now 4-6 in games where they’ve had at least a 17-point lead), and so they arrived in Dallas to play the crotchety upstart Mavericks, who were nevertheless depleted without their go-to Trump impersonator, Dirk Nowitzki.
But Dallas still held a considerable advantage in the backcourt, where both Deron Williams and Wes Matthews are burlier, more physical guards than any the Wolves can throw out there, from Ricky Rubio to Andrew Wiggins to Zach LaVine to Kevin Martin. But in spite of that physical advantage on the perimeter, the Mavs simply struggled shooting, especially from 3-point range through three quarters, going 2-for-17 (.118) during that time.
But the Wolves looked good (much more on that shortly) through three-and-a-half quarters, ultimately falling in overtime after holding a 10-point lead for the reasons we’ve become accustomed to: a blend of inexperience, youthful indiscretion and an offense that hummed early on but got stale in the crunch. It should also be noted that Rick Carlisle is an absolutely terrific coach who’s kept Dallas competitive with a core far past its sell-by date. Any game coming down to execution in the stretch is going to be Advantage Carlisle.
So in the last 5:14 of regulation and the 5-minute overtime, the Timberwolves scored 10 points while the Mavs scored 22. There was a lot of forcing the issue and pressing and plus Rubio fell off a cliff (0-2 with 0 points, 1 assist, 1 rebound and 3 turnovers during that time).
But looking at the first seven-eighths of regulation, this is a clear process-over-results game. Keeping your foot on the gas and putting away another team after you get up double digits on them is honestly one of the last things that comes together for a team. You see good, veteran teams struggle with this as well. It’s probably easier for young, inexperienced teams to mount adrenaline-fueled comebacks than to maintain a strong but not blowout-level margin against good competition. The Wolves through most of this game played with focus and energy, and did so with decisive movement, good spacing and excellent anticipation. When their execution was stymied, they either regrouped and recovered or fell back on their natural talents. In just about every area of the game they ran through the finish line, rather than just stopping at it.
So let’s focus now on some of that fun stuff, starting with a few tasty highlights before digging into Karl-Anthony Towns’ career night (12-for-19 for 27 points with 17 rebounds, 6 blocks and 3 assists).
Ah, the Rubio-Pekovic two-man game. How I’ve missed you. This all starts with some confusion on the part of Dallas’ defense. Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia get crossed up as Rubio floats out to the wing so that Parsons is on Pekovic and Pachulia is on Tayshaun Prince. Deron Williams ices Rubio, sending him baseline and toward help, which is Pachulia. Parsons has recovered to Prince and stays home on him on the perimeter, which gives Pekovic a free run to the rim. You can see here how good Pek is as a roller, making himself a big willing target and slowing up a little to seal Charlie Villanueva from getting around him. Rubio passes through the seam of the trap and catches Pek in stride, giving him an easy finish. This is some beautiful, simple basketball.
Tayshaun Prince had this fun throwback block in third quarter against Wes Matthews. It’s always fun to see an old guy get up for a play, and here the 35-year-old Prince hit the jets just a bit to create an echo of perhaps his most famous play, his block on Reggie Miller in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals.
Sure, the stakes aren’t quite as high and he didn’t have to go quite as far as fast or land so hard, but I’ll bet it felt cool.
Shabazz Muhammad didn’t have a great night overall (6-for-16, including 2-for-7 from long distance, for 14 points to go with 7 rebounds but an overall -17), but given an understanding of what he has to work on to see more minutes — passing, defense, moving without the ball — it’s great to see plays like the above. Stuck on an island after J.J. Barea swiped away Zach LaVine’s layup attempt, Muhammad provides enough resistance to get Parsons to give it up, but also recovers well enough to not only block Barea’s shot but save it back to LaVine as he’s falling out of bounds. Again, energy and hustle have never been Muhammad’s problem, but rather just how to apply it in efficient ways. Here, he sticks with the defensive play and then gives up his body to save the ball.
On the offensive side of the ball, we can see Muhammad here giving it up to Wiggins for a layup plus the foul instead of trying to finish it himself, which we’ve seen him try to do plenty. It’s a nice pass, plus he’s clearly pumped about Wiggins’ finish. You can even see Wiggins’ attaboy for Muhammad at the end of the clip, and that’s also nice to see. (Sadly, this was basically the last good play of the game, putting the Wolves up 10 before the aforementioned meltdown began.)
Now let’s dig into the wonder that was Karl-Anthony Towns last night.
A lot of good things happen in this possession from a wide-angle lens perspective. There’s ball movement, switching sides of the floor, and every Timberwolves player touches the ball. But nothing really develops. Martin doesn’t shake Parsons, Williams and Pachulia effectively wall off Rubio from hitting Pek as he did earlier on, Villanueva closes out well on Towns, and Matthews and Villanueva effectively stall out Wiggins’ baseline drive. Towns gets the ball back with 2.5 seconds left on the shot clock and he’s forced to throw up a bad shot. But it goes in on a sharp bank. That’s the magic of KAT.
Here, a straightforward horns set gets broken up when Williams gets a finger on Rubio’s pass, forcing Towns to reset at the top of the arc. Pekovic works himself into position down low and Prince gets him the ball before clearing out. What’s happening up by the opposite elbow is Matthews and Williams passing responsibility for Towns back and forth. As Towns runs behind Williams, Williams indicates that Parsons should pick him up, but Towns slips between Williams and Parsons and Pek finds him for the easy layup. It’s a good example of how you actually can make spacing work in much tighter spaces, and I’m sure Sam Mitchell loved this. It’s also a reason I really like the Pekovic-Towns tandem. Pek knows how to use his size and threat level to open up seams and spaces around the paint and this is Towns taking advantage of that.
This one is pure footwork beauty from Towns, although it’s worth noting how he carefully times the start of his move to coincide with Prince cutting away from the basket and drawing Parsons attention. Williams has to dive down on Towns to double, but he’s already too deep, bringing the ball over Williams’ head and then spinning back in Williams’ direction to finish with the left hand.
Hustle? We’ve also got hustle. Towns corrals Rubio’s circus shot and saves it, but then gets right back into the play. Rubio rewards him by hitting him on the move toward the basket where he slides around the still recovering Pachulia and gets up for the dunk. It’s also worth noting the good spacing on Rubio’s initial layup: Prince, Wiggins and Nemanja Bjelica are all spaced out around the arc, providing tantalizing targets. Sure, Prince isn’t going to take that shot, but at least it’s there.
It’s moments like these that make you realize what Towns is capable of and how terrifying he’s going to be once he’s developed for another couple years. You wouldn’t necessarily expect Wes Matthews to stop Towns, even though he’s a good defender, but you would at least expect a big man to barrel into him. But instead, Towns steps nimbly around him and finishes with his elbow at the rim. Just bananapants.
More slick footwork from Towns, plus a move he probably learned from Andrew Wiggins. The speed with which he can execute this stuff is impressive, sometimes even outpacing his own understanding of when to unleash it. When everything is meshing like it was last night, though, it’s a thing of beauty.
So remember how we’ve already seen him display nimble footwork in the post, the ability to get around defenders and finish at the rim with authority and hustle for 50/50 balls? Here’s Towns shooting a straightaway 3-pointer! This is also a good play for Wiggins, who gets isolated on the left wing and then surveys the defense. He’s enough of a threat to get around Matthews that Pachulia shades toward the basket. Muhammad presents a decent 3-point threat on the other side of the floor, so Williams and Devin Harris have to respect that, leaving Towns open at the top of the arc and he makes the Mavs pay.
So yes, the Wolves faded down the stretch. It’s easy to get caught up in that and the narrative it presents, especially since in many ways this game looked at broadly resembles so many others the Wolves have lost after leading by double digits. But on the level of individual plays, the game provided a tantalizing glimpse of what the Wolves will look like when both Towns and Wiggins are hitting at something like their full power.