Despite a monster first quarter and overall terrific play from Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves did just about everything they could to kick this one away down the stretch. The ending of the game followed the pattern of the game overall. Minnesota pushed out to a 16 point lead over the Boston Celtics early, then watched it slide all the way to a 1 point deficit over the next three minutes. They again pushed, getting the lead back up to 12 with 2:32 remaining in the first half, then entered the break up just 6.
Then a 12-point lead halfway into the third dwindled to a 4-point lead just before the quarter ended and their 14-point lead with 3:14 remaining in the game ended up being just barely enough to beat Boston 124-122. It was, in summary, one of those Rorschach test games, where you can either see a team that deserved to lose barely eking it out or a team built up enough steam multiple times to fight off a staunch challenge. Which side of that divide you fall on is up to you.
But let’s focus on the beauty here: Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens’ after timeout (ATO) plays down the stretch. Overall, what Stevens has done in Boston is nothing short of amazing. Given a roster without any standout individual talent, Stevens has them in the mix for homecourt advantage in the playoffs and punching well above their weight. Looking down the rosters, you’d have to give it to Minnesota based strictly on raw ability, but coaching matters, and Sam Mitchell clearly got outcoached.
With the Wolves up 116-106 and 2:47 remaining, Stevens calls this out of a timeout:
Avery Bradley commits the offensive foul, but that shouldn’t take away from how smart the play itself was. The play begins with Jonas Jerebko running out to fake a screen for Isaiah Thomas at the top of the arc. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder is curling into the paint, dragging his man, Towns, along with him. Since Gorgui Dieng bit a little on Jerebko’s decoy screen and hesitated in case he has to trap Thomas, Towns is distracted by the possibility of Jerebko rolling to the hoop. He loses Crowder and Bradley — a guard, mind you — steps out to set the screen on him to give Crowder a little extra room to shoot the 3-pointer.
Now, Bradley was overly aggressive in setting that screen, given that Towns was probably distracted enough not to bother Crowder’s shot even if Bradley were just getting in the way and not actively impeding his progress. But the play itself combines so many great elements: misdirection, secondary action (including Jerebko eventually setting a screen for Marcus Smart on the far side), forcing Towns into making a decision, then something unorthodox (screen set by a guard for the guy being guarded by a big). It’s a great reminder that a play doesn’t have to set up a home run shot so much as force the defense into a bunch of slightly uncomfortable situations.
More straightforward, but no less offputting to the Wolves, was this play, with Minnesota now up 120-114:
Here, Thomas is in the backcourt, presumably a safety valve, right? The Celtics execute a flurry of crosses that drag their men all over the court but primarily opens up the middle of the floor. At the beginning of the play, it looks like Zach LaVine is trying to tell everyone to switch, but it doesn’t exactly work out. Towns stays with Crowder and then LaVine overpursues to get back to Bradley, who’s been picked up by Shabazz Muhammad. In the midst of all that, Jerebko is left free to run toward center court where he sets a screen on Rubio.
The screen slows Rubio up enough that Thomas blows past him and heads for the paint on full blast. Towns steps in, which leaves Crowder wide open in the corner. Towns ends up in no man’s land as he takes a step back toward Crowder (having been burned by him before, as we saw) and Thomas finishes around LaVine’s last-minute contest.
Lastly, comes this play, with 36 seconds remaining and Minnesota clinging to a 122-114 lead.
Beginning again with Thomas in the backcourt, Bradley sets a screen on Towns, who switches with LaVine, leaving LaVine on Crowder. Then Jerebko sets a screen on Towns and Towns switches again. Crowder then steps back out and sets a third screen on Towns. The net result here is that the “switch everything” idea that most teams go to in tight games down the stretch here has forced Towns to switch several times on one play and eventually confuses Towns and LaVine, who both end up on Jerebko for just long enough that Crowder can pop out from setting the screen and bury a 3-pointer.
And finally, there’s this, which comes with Minnesota barely on top 123-119:
What’s nice here is the rhythm of it. Bradley runs off a downscreen by Jerebko, which is actually pretty similar to the play the Wolves begin nearly every game with — Wiggins curling off a downscreen for a midrange look. Bradley stops like he’s going to get the pass, but meanwhile Thomas sets a screen for Jerebko in the paint, literally using Rubio’s larger body against him because Rubio is fronting — basically, Rubio sets the screen on Wiggins.
While all that is happening, Bradley watches, then times his next move to the instant Jerebko catches the ball. He cuts behind Crowder’s screen, ditching LaVine. Muhammad has turned his attention to the ball and Jerebko and Bradley finds a nice little open spot on the wing. The nicest touch is Jerebko even following up the pass with a screen on Rubio. The saddest touch is Muhammad turning around to look for Crowder cutting.
Each of these beautiful miniatures is a testament to Stevens’ abilities not only as a tactician but in getting his team on the same page. And this is not some veteran team. The Celtics’ average age is 24.4, according to RealGM. That’s tied with the Utah Jazz for youngest in the NBA and a good bit younger than the Wolves’ average age of 27.6. And sure, a lot of that is due to guys like Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett, but weren’t these guys supposed to be imparting a kind of gravitas and wisdom beyond their years to the young guys?
Sam Mitchell likes to carp on how unfundamentally sound young players are nowadays with their AAU coaches and one-and-done college careers. But Avery Bradley was a one-and-done. Marcus Smart played just two years at Oklahoma State. And yes, Isaiah Thomas played three years of college ball, but he’s ridiculously undersized, plus had to repeat his junior year because of academic problems. And all those guys played AAU ball.
Now, this is not to say that Mitchell should be where Stevens is now with this team. This is Stevens’ third year with the Celtics, whereas Mitchell had to step up under bad circumstances with no guarantee of employment beyond this season. But where Stevens has the Celtics right now as a unit speaks powerfully to what the Timberwolves should be looking at as they look toward the future. It might be tempting to bring in a veteran coach with a proven track record to marshal a young Timberwolves team, and doing so could definitely make the team better in the short term and even get them to the playoffs.
But surely if you’re looking at the long-term, what you want is a Gregg Popovich, a Jerry Sloan, maybe even an Erik Spoelstra — in short, a coach who can establish a culture that a team can buy into for the long haul, who can grow with the team and also weather the storm alongside the players.
When Flip Saunders drafted Zach LaVine, he talked about hitting home runs, about getting guys who might be a little riskier but who could pay off big with the right environment and development. That mentality for the Wolves needs to extend beyond the court and onto the bench as they consider who is going to hold the clipboard.