In a game that seemed lost, a goofy lineup of Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Damjan Rudez, and Greg Smith/Gorgui Dieng (Smith fouled out) nearly erased a 27-point Bucks lead and brought the Wolves a wild and crazy comeback victory.
But then they got tired.
They played a ton in the second half and eventually got gassed. They played the final 16 minutes of the game – 19 if you factor in the lineup minus Rudez and plus Adreian Payne.
Instead of bringing in the fresh legs of their best players, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio, Mitchell decided to “ride the hot hand” and roll with the crew that got them back into a situation where a win was attainable.
On one hand, resting the team’s best players on a lost game, on the first night of a back-to-back makes sense. You can add reasoning to Mitchell’s decision when you factor how poorly they played early on.
We don’t know if the lack of subs will matter. To be clear, the Wolves, all things considered, deserved that loss. But it got interesting.
The Bucks led by as many as 27. But with 5:10 to go, Damjan Rudez hit a 3 to get the game within 7. But as the seconds ticked on the next minute or two, it was cleared that the unit that was out there had run its course. Because of the platoon-style lineup Mitchell tends to run (and Wolves have privately expressed issue with), a group of 5 guys was dead tired and a second group was completely fresh. The group that got them back into the game couldn’t finish because they were put out there too long. The group that sat remained seated as their team lost the momentum, because of the coach’s disgust of the first unit.
An unhappy Mitchell took no questions, ripped first unit, walked away
— Kent Youngblood (@BloodStrib) March 5, 2016
This is fair. The Wolves played virtually no defense on the perimeter, something that’s become somewhat of a constant over the past month. Khris Middleton made his first 8 three-pointers, with just about all of them being of the “wide open” variety. Screens weren’t hedged hard enough, defensive recoveries on misses weren’t made properly, and it helped give a very good shooter too many very good looks.
But I still have problems with this. For one, two members of “the first unit” finished the game. One of them, Zach Lavine, was the main scoring catalyst in the second half comeback.
Rubio had a bad game. Wiggins was somewhat quiet, but still relatively productive. But there’s no real reason why Karl-Anthony Towns shouldn’t have re-entered the game. And, while Rubio had an objectively bad game, putting him in for a tired and outmatched rookie seemed like an obvious decision. Even on a bad night, Ricky Rubio should be the point guard for the Timberwolves at the end of any winnable game.
But let’s be clear: Mitchell was right to be upset at the starting unit, the lineup that he puts out to get the team in early position to win. As a whole, they played poorly. They didn’t play with any urgency defensively and weren’t making good decisions offensively. As Jim Petersen often puts it in his broadcasts, the Wolves weren’t valuing every possession enough.
But as the game became winnable, it became a great opportunity for Mitchell to give his unit a second chance to prove themselves. LaVine had gotten the chance to do so in the 3rd, mostly out of injury-depleted and roster change-induced necessity. Even if he really was that angry at his starting crew, they’ve proven themselves enough in past games to deserve a chance at redemption.
And the unit that was out there needed a blow. The Wolves gave up a 27 point lead, so absolutely no excuses for losing a game can be made. They didn’t deserve a victory, and didn’t get one. Coach Mitchell decided to make a statement and sit his best players, who didn’t have a great game. The lack of subs probably didn’t decide the game for the Wolves. But we’ll never know, either.