This was the quintessential Timberwolves game, so long as the timeframe for consideration includes only January 24th through the present – in other words, since we last saw 39-year-old Kevin Garnett appear in a game. Ever since he’s been confined to wearing smart-looking suits on the bench, his team no longer knows how to play any defense, but my God, can they fill it up on the other end. Back when Garnett still played, they actually defended alright for stretches, but that feels like a distant memory. When the Wolves scored only 10 points in quarter one on Saturday night (and gave up just 18), it felt very, very odd, and when they dropped 40 against the Suns on Monday (while giving up 37), it felt pretty much right. That’s just sort of what they are now.
Here are some numbers, but don’t get two wrapped up in them: since KG last appeared, the Wolves have played 29 games, won 11 of them, are scoring 109.1 points per 100 possessions (5th in the league over that stretch), posting a 52.0% effective field goal percentage (8th), and 63.2% of their buckets are assisted (the 3rd-highest ratio in the NBA). Outside shot-taking is up (15.5 per game before, 16.6 per game since) and so is shot-making (32.7% to 34.0%). Encouraging, right?
Well, the Wolves are also giving up 111.3 points per 100 possessions (2nd-worst in the league, only to the purple and gold crap farm in L.A.), allow the third-most shots in the league at the rim (and are third-worst at opponent field goal percentage in that area), and have blown three different 15-plus point leads before recovering to eek out victories (two against Memphis, and this one against Phoenix).
This game had all of that and then some – great offense, atrocious defense, a blown lead, some highlight plays, lots and lots of free throws, and a Wolves win. In short, it was a fun show four the fans. Best to break it down quarter by quarter:
- I was born 11 years after the ABA folded, and video of that era is pretty scarce, but from what I’ve read, it was a lot like last night’s Wolves-Suns first quarter: defense, schmefense, but oooooooh cool:
- The two teams combined to shoot 58.3% from the field and 50% from three, hit 12 free throws (in 13 tries), and score 77 points.
- Karl-Anthony Towns had 18 points and 6 rebounds, and on the other side, Brandon Knight sank four threes while tallying 16 points of his own.
- The Wolves took seven threes in the first quarter alone, which is more than they took in an entire game earlier this season.
- Andrew Wiggins took four free throws in the first quarter, and made all four.
- Super boring second quarter, to be honest. No interesting number things at all.
- I guess Brandon Knight scored 11 more, bringing his halftime total to 27.
- The second quarter really belonged to Shabazz Muhammad, who scored 8 points and grabbed 3 rebounds. KAT slowed down a bit after his hot first quarter; apparently he was poked in the eye and it threw him off a bit.
- Andrew Wiggins took two free throws in the second quarter, and missed them both.
- Once Tayshaun Prince came in for Zach LaVine midway through the quarter, the Wolves went on a nice a little run, extending their lead to as much as 20.
- An aside: Prince has taken 5.5 shots per-36 minutes this season, the lowest total in the NBA. Some other guys in that general vicinity: Omer Asik, Bismack Biyombo, Nick Collison, Tyson Chandler – mostly stone-handed centers. His per-game averages, in nearly 20 minutes a night: 3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 0.5 steals.
- Gorgui Dieng was particularly good for the Wolves in this quarter, scoring 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
- So, once Minnesota got out to that aforementioned 20 point lead, Ricky subbed out, and a lineup of Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, Tayshaun Prince, Nemanja Bjelica, and Dieng quickly allowed the Suns to score five unanswered points. The lead was down to 15 by the time the horn sounded to end the third.
- Andrew Wiggins took eleven… ELEVEN… free throws in the third quarter, and made ten of them.
- Ricky came back in around the 8:00 mark, Wiggins and Dieng followed shortly after, and the Wolves suddenly had all their starters (and their best lineup) back on the floor. Those five proceeded to go 3-for-5 from the floor with FIVE turnovers over the next 5 minutes of the game.
- Ricky had 3 three of those five turnovers, including two on back-to-back possessions with a Ronnie Price go-ahead dunk sandwiched in between.
- But he totally redeemed himself with a huge late-game steal, which led to a Zach LaVine slam at the other end, as well as a three from the right wing, which hasn’t been his sweet spot (he prefers the left), but he buried it anyway. When the game mattered most, Ricky came through, because as we’ve seen a lot lately, he’s the team’s most important player right now.
- By now you may be wondering why I decided to put those absurd dancing numbers in this post. They’re silly, right? Overboard? I’ll tell you – I’m a little worried that the Wolves’ gaudy offensive output since the All-Star break is all show – dancing numbers that make it hard to decipher whether or not progress is actually being made. Andy at Punch-Drunk Wolves had an awesome column about this the other day, in a roundabout way – he discussed how poor rebounding feeds transition buckets which feeds poor defense, and how Minnesota is caught in a weird cycle which encourages offense while their D suffers immensely. The point is, it’s tough to decipher if any *real* progress is being made. But it’s easy to fool people into thinking individuals have improved when you can point to offensive stats… Look! See! Ricky’s scoring at a career-best rate! Zach is hitting 47% of his threes! Andrew is racking up more assists and hitting nearly 50% of his field goals! Karl has the highest rookie PER since David Freaking Robinson! Oh, and the team has won 10 of 23 since early February, and 5 of their past 10! Progress, so much progress!
- Yes, it’s great that Zach LaVine looks more comfortable off the ball, Ricky’s jumper has fallen steadily for over a month now, Andrew Wiggins has upped his efficiency, and Towns is having one of the best offensive rookie seasons in history – but has the team actually gotten much better over the past couple of months? Specifically, can this coaching staff teach defense without KG on the floor? Because all of the core players’ “progress” has come at the expense of defensive competency – and in that respect, the high-scoring Suns game was the new Wolves in a nutshell.