2015-16 Season, Game Analysis

Timberwolves 132, Wizards 129 2OT: Step into the world


Yo i’m strictly about skills and dope lyrical coastin
Relying on talent, not marketing and promotion
If a dope lyrical flow is a must
You gots to go with a name you can quickly trust
I’m not sayin i’m number one, uhh i’m sorry, i lied
I’m number one, two, three, four and five — KRS-One

Back in the summer, I was in Los Angeles with some friends. We were discussing basketball, as we are wont to do, and we were talking about what the Utah Jazz could be in the 2015-16 season. My friend Charlie was convinced their ceiling was the 4 or 5-seed in the West. Remember, this was the Western Conference before we knew the New Orleans Pelicans were a bunch of zombie extras in The Walking Dead. This was the West before we knew the Houston Rockets were incapable of feeling.

This was the loaded Western Conference and he was talking up the Jazz (before the Dante Exum injury, and the various injuries that knocked them down a couple of pegs through this season). I told him he was crazy. I told him there wasn’t a real chance. We argued playfully and we basically agreed to disagree. But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help but constantly put the Jazz up as the standard I wanted the Minnesota Timberwolves to be this season. Not as a team capable of being argued about for the 4 or 5-seed in the West, but as the team we saw at the end of last season.

Charlie’s point and prognostication were built on a couple of things. 1) He liked the depth the Jazz had put together. 2) He was big on the development strategy of the Jazz organization. And 3) The finish Utah had last season showed some pretty attainable potential. That was a real growing moment for such a young, inexperienced club. They had jettisoned Enes Kanter, it opened up a spot for Rudy Gobert, and the team found an identity it could buy into.

While the schedule may have cooked some of the results for the Jazz, they were still the team nobody wanted to face in the final stretch after the All-Star break. They couldn’t fix their season, but they could ruin yours. Charlie wasn’t wrong about them either. We were wrong about the West’s depth this season and he didn’t foresee the Jazz’s injuries, but he ended up being pretty accurate regarding how high they could theoretically place out West.

That’s the team I’ve wanted the Wolves to be all season long, ever since we were looking at a preseason over/under of 26.5 wins. I had low expectations for the Wolves in the win column, but I had lofty and attainable expectations for the final stretch of the season.

Go be the team that ruins it for someone else. Friday night, that’s what they did to the Washington Wizards. With a victory, the Wizards would’ve pulled to .500 at 36-36 and would’ve stayed 2.5 games out of the 8-seed in the East with 10 games to go. Instead, the Wolves all but ended their season. It was a fragile campaign by the Wizards, and one that probably ended long ago due to their inconsistencies with Randy Wittman running a new style of play he wasn’t comfortable coaching. But it was the Wolves who provided the death knell when the second overtime buzzer rang out.

It’s easy to overstate games like this for a team that’s now 24-48. We look more into it than we would any other team because we are invested in this particular bunch. It means more to us, which means we find more meaning in it. It doesn’t mean there aren’t real things to consider in how the Wolves are approaching the end of the season while keeping in mind none of this could matter seven months from now. I have a lot of angles I want to hit here, so I’ll just break them each down into their own section:

Karl-Anthony Towns can’t do any wrong even when he messes up. Also, he never messes up.

I keep using the same material over and over, but whenever I’m asked during a radio spot to talk about Karl-Anthony Towns, I end up saying the same thing. “I try to find things wrong about his game. I guess you could say he’s not a great outlet passer. That’s all I got though.” It gets a chuckle from the radio guys on the other end of the call, but really what else can you do about this kid’s game except giggle to yourself and shake your head. At CBSSports.com, it’s starting to become a joke that when we do our Elite 100 rankings in September, I’m going to have a serious debate about putting Towns or Steph No. 1.

I’m not quite at the place with Towns doing anything on the court that I felt like our basketball culture got to with Blake Griffin dunking or Ricky Rubio fancy passing. But the phenomenal things Towns does night in and night out aren’t becoming boring, but they are becoming more and more routine. The two plays that stood out for me:

On a broken play in which Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng tried to get a two-man game going on the left side of the floor, Ricky ended up with the ball and he was trying to navigate the middle of the floor while keeping an eye on the rookie in the corner. After getting the spacing he wanted between the help defenders and their assignments, Rubio skipped a pass to Towns in the right corner. As calmly as any shooter possibly could do, Towns pump-faked John Wall, who did a fly-by contest. Then he did a Steph Curry-esque sidestep to his left as he took a dribble, and tied the game up at 124.

This is so casual that it’s insane. I know we keep saying it and reminding everybody, but he’s a 20-year old center. And he’s sidestepping a 3-pointer in the corner to tie the game in double overtime. This is something that will eventually be normal, but we’ll continue to be giddy for a while.

It was the second play that stood out, which sealed the game. Wolves were up three with 11.6 seconds left. The Wizards ran some screen action, which switched Towns onto Bradley Beal and got Beal the ball near half court. Normally, we’d see something like this from Beal. He’d shake a big and he’d get off a clean look. Maybe it goes and maybe it doesn’t. But he’s getting that shot off. That didn’t happen with Towns tracking him.

Beal flat-out ran out of ideas against Towns on that possession. He couldn’t shake him. He couldn’t even find a sliver of daylight. The best thing Towns could’ve done outside of forcing a turnover was getting Beal to give up on the idea of shooting and just pass it off. Not create for someone else but pass it away because he didn’t have a chance of doing anything with it. There aren’t a lot of bigs who can do that, but Towns is already one of them.

After Jared Dudley’s desperation attempt fell short and Towns corralled the miss as the buzzer sounded, KAT walked over to the bench, screaming and gesticulating toward his coaches and teammates. Sam Mitchell walked up to him and seemed to grab him, shaking him by the shoulders and jersey. It was a celebration, as pure as elation can be. It was a moment of pride for Mitchell in the young prodigy taking on the task of defending out of his positional element and sticking to the fundamentals of defense to accomplish the task at hand. It was something to celebrate, even if it has no bearing on the Wolves’ success this season.

This kid is unreal.

The Wolves forget to go to Zach LaVine some more until they needed Zach LaVine some more.

Over the last 26 games, Zach LaVine hasn’t just been a good scorer or an accurate shooter. He’s been a damn flamethrower burning down defenders in his wake. During this time, he’s averaging 18.2 points on 51.1% from the field and 45.7% on 3-point field goals. He’s not just getting by hitting a 3-pointer or so every game. He’s shooting 45.7% on five 3-point attempts per game. Like I said, he’s a flamethrower right now.


That didn’t stop during this game. Zach finished with 25 points on 10-of-17 from the field and 5-of-9 from deep. But the two biggest shots came in the first overtime to tie the game. The Wolves needed 3-pointers to extend this game and LaVine was ready. What’s impressive to me about his readiness is the shots were only his third and fourth attempts of the game since the second quarter. It was in that second quarter in which LaVine was killing the Wizards. He went 5-of-6 for 12 points and had 16 at the half.

Frustratingly, and I believe Jim Petersen astutely mentioned this in the fourth quarter of the broadcast, the Wolves stopped going to LaVine in the second half. He took one shot in the third. One shot with 4:35 left in the fourth. And hadn’t taken a shot in the first overtime until the Wolves were down four with 23 ticks left. He stayed ready. He stayed locked into the game. His hands stayed hot.

That first 3-pointer was some variation of the infamous Elevator Doors set the Golden State Warriors made so famous. Wolves sent LaVine into a screening action for Andrew Wiggins on the baseline, but it’s just a decoy to get the Wizards thinking about Wiggins. Then Zach navigates the double screen from Gorgui and KAT. He ended up going around the screens, but it worked just the same because they closed on Bradley Beal, who went right up the middle.

Washington still sniffed it out decently to recover, and it wasn’t great execution by the Wolves. But LaVine calmly adjusted, took a dribble to his right, and knocked down the first 3-pointer. Then after a couple of Beal free throws, Sam Mitchell opted against calling a timeout (which is a decision I love here) and let the Wolves find LaVine again.

LaVine ran off a Dieng screen to get the ball at the top from Ricky. LaVine then quickly got the ball to Gorgui for a hand-off action. Dieng took Beal out of the play with a screen and that meant LaVine just had to get to his spot to rise and fire before Marcin Gortat could snuff it out. That’s exactly what he did.

Zach has been so good over the last few weeks. There was a point earlier in the season in which it seemed like Sam was being too overbearing on him, and he was by all accounts I’ve heard. It didn’t break LaVine though. He’s learned from the teachings and he’s letting the hard work and cultivated talent take him away from the breaking point and into some pretty incredible scoring. There’s still plenty to work on, but he’s doing exactly what Mitchell is asking him to do.

Gorgui Dieng was the clutch, stretchy big we knew he should be.

G-G-G-G-G UNIT! Gorgui Dieng hit three big shots in this game, but none was bigger than the tying 3-pointer with about 20 seconds left in the fourth. After a free throw by Nene and no timeout from Sam (I seriously love letting the guys play with a plan, not overthinking it, and not letting the opposing defense review and set up), Rubio got Wiggins the ball. Andrew ran a pick-and-pop with Towns, but instead of tossing it back to KAT and having the potential of John Wall disrupting the play, Wiggins showed an impressive playmaking moment.

Instead, he probed the defense a bit more, got Gortat to suck more into the middle of the floor, and then hit Dieng with the pass to the corner. We’ve all see the Vines of Gorgui working on his corner 3-point shots. I remember watching him work with Jack Sikma, Bill Bayno, and company back in 2014 when Rick Adelman was still the coach. It was something odd to see but still fairly smooth. It’s gotten to the point now though that his teammates don’t even think about whether or not Dieng should get a clutch attempt like that. They just trust.

If Wiggins tosses it back to the top there, you give the help defense the chance to make the play. The easier pass is the tougher decision because it’s Gorgui. When he made the pass, I thought to myself, “What a great decision.” Then I saw it was Gorgui in the corner and my shoulders slumped a bit. Then he knocked down the jumper and I was immediately back to feeling like it was a great decision. That wasn’t all for Dieng either. He hit a big shot in the lane and a big midrange jumper in the second overtime.

I’m more impressed with his improvement over the last year or so than anybody else’s. He’s worked his ass off to go from someone I wasn’t sure should be playing to someone I’m glad is taking clutch jumpers.

The bench saved before they gave.

This wasn’t the most consistent effort from the bench, but their stint in the second quarter was phenomenal. The lineup of Tyus Jones-Shabazz Muhammad-Tayshaun Prince-Nemanja Bjelica-Greg Smith was really good in the second. Jones was setting up his teammates beautifully. Bjelica looked like he was comfortable on the court for the first time in months. Smith was getting a couple of buckets. The unit went on a 17-6 run at one point in the second quarter to recapture the lead. This was the type of effort you need from your second unit.

Either be a plus or be neutral. But you can’t be a negative. That wasn’t the case in the second half. They finished out the third quarter with a plus/minus of minus-4 and then were a minus-2 in the first couple minutes of the fourth. Sam started moving some starters back in and the four-minute stretch of the game for that unit probably should’ve been closer to three minutes. However, the starters needed their rest and the bench earned another shot with their first half play.

You’d love to see Muhammad be more active and more of a factor, but he doesn’t seem comfortable in his role lately. If Bjelica plays like this, he’s the guy we thought he was back in November. If Tyus plays like this, he can be one of the best backup point guards in the NBA and a borderline starter for some teams. It’s progress and regression at the same time, but overall, it was a good sign.

This will upset you but I like what Sam Mitchell has done lately.

The defense is a mess. The rotations are still a bit sketchy at times, but he’s also working with a much shorter bench than he had at his disposal a couple months ago. And I’m still not a huge fan of some of the offensive sets. But you can’t say that the Wolves haven’t had a breakthrough as of late, and I’m not sure how you recognize that without giving credit to Mitchell. Personal feelings always should get kicked aside for the analysis. The analysis of this team right now is they have unlocked some offensive potential over the last two months.

Since February 1st, there are three teams in the NBA with a better offense than the Wolves: the Warriors, Thunder, and Cavaliers. The Wolves are tied with the Raptors for offensive rating during this time. Everybody else is worse. That’s pretty remarkable considering they’re playing a 20-year old and two guys who just turned 21 heavy minutes. The Wolves have the second best true shooting percentage during this stretch, only the Warriors are better (by one full percent).

Wolves are 10-13 over this stretch of games. They still aren’t taking enough 3-pointers for my liking, but they’re moving the ball well, overcoming a lot of turnovers, and getting to the free throw line. Sam deserves credit for this breakthrough. How much? I’m not sure. Assistants staff works their ass off to develop these guys as well and the players have put in the physical and mental work to improve. You don’t have to think Sam should be the coach after this season but I think it’s disingenuous to pretend he hasn’t helped.

His team ruined the season for the Wizards. That’s what I want to see.

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6 thoughts on “Timberwolves 132, Wizards 129 2OT: Step into the world

  1. Check out the screen Nene sets on Lavine in the video of Towns’ defence on Beal. I know they never call that stuff in those situations, but that’s pretty hilarious.

  2. Coming of age game. This team’s nucleus is the most promising in the franchise’s history. The sky is the limit from now on.

  3. Hey Zach, you’re giving Tyus quite the compliment in this write-up, but do you think that “might” will pan out or do you think bringing in a more proven backup in FA this season makes more sense? I personally like the idea of bringing in Lin if he opts out of his deal. I see the flashes with Tyus but I don’t trust him with how big of goals this team should have. Can’t see him getting minutes on a playoff/championship NBA team. Doesn’t mean we can’t give him another year since we aren’t going to win next year, but at some point we need to switch gears and start trying to win.

  4. I’m not sure we should give too much credit to Mitchell. We have a solid core that is maturing as a unit, something that probably should have happened regardless of the coach. The best thing that can be said about Mitchell is that he finally came to his senses and started Lavine at SG.

    1. “The best thing that can be said about Mitchell is that he finally came to his senses and started Lavine at SG.”

      I’ve read some form of this statement countless times. What is usually implied (or occasionally just stated) with that statement is “We all knew he was a SG and Mitchell just couldn’t see it. Now that he’s in at the 2, that proves we were right all along and Sam was wrong.”

      Well, no. Everyone within the Wolves organization KNEW Lavine was and would be a 2 guard. From Milt and Flip on down to the most junior assistant. The idea from the start was that playing the 1 would eventually make Lavine a better 2. Anyone who has played point guard at even the high school level understands that time at the position inherently gives you a better understanding of how the offense (and the players who run it) works. No other position on the court can convey such a macro-understanding of positioning, tendencies of your teammates and the general geometry of the game. ANY player at any position can benefit from some time at the point. Pair that knowledge with a season that was predicated on developing talent on not winning.

      There’s plenty of things I can criticize Mitchell for, but his approach with Lavine is not one of them and to be frank, I get very, very tired of basketball “experts” claiming that Mitchell “finally came to his senses” and moved Lavine to SG. It was ALWAYS the plan to move him to SG after he had developed some skills as a ball handler and distributor.

      1. Playing someone out of position to improve their play at their actual position is idiotic (and not done by good coaching staffs).

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