Jazz 98, Timberwolves 85: Running through the finish line
I hate running. It’s my least favorite exercise endeavor. Give me an elliptical machine. Give me the stairmaster. Give me real stairs. Give me a hill to traverse. But running in a straight line, running around a park, or running on a treadmill is something I just can’t find a way to enjoy. Put running in a sporting event like basketball, baseball, or football and I’m on board. Just the process of running to run though is annoying.
This can be true for professional basketball players too. Prior to the game against the Utah Jazz Friday night, Sam Mitchell was talking to the media, and he was surprisingly jovial. Following his mini-rant after Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers before storming out of the room and not taking any questions, this was a surprise to many. Mitchell seemed to have let that frustration go and was ready to coach a new game after legitimately answering some questions heading into the next match-up.
It’s easy to see bad teams give up at the end of the season, either by playing poorly as a whole or playing as individuals to try to boost their own stats. But Mitchell gave a long, great answer prior to the game about being professionals and trying to finish through the race instead of just getting to the end of the race.
“My whole thing with our guys is it’s your character,” Mitchell said before the game. “When you step on the floor, nobody is sitting there saying, ‘Oh this team is in the playoffs; this team is not.’ When you walk on the floor, it’s not about who you are, how much money you make, or your status. It’s about competing. The circumstances should never dictate how you compete. If you’re going to be a pro, pros compete whenever that horn goes off.
“That’s what we’re trying to teach our guys right now. Don’t worry about the circumstances. It’s more a test of your character during this time. Everybody’s going to find out more about you now than in any time. If you’re in the playoffs and things are going well, it’s easy. It’s easy to play hard then. But when you’re not in the playoffs and you’ve got seven games to go, you’re playing a lot of minutes and you’re 20 years old, this is the time to develop mental toughness and character.
“That’s the thing that I like about what they’ve done. We’ve played hard and beaten some really good teams down the stretch. We’ve been in some close games down the stretch against some really good teams. I just want to see that continue. It’s very important to run through the line. When we run in practice for conditioning, we always put a piece of tape down that we want you to touch. And it’s amazing to me how hard it is when you’re running those sprints to take that one extra step to touch that line.
“And it’s hard to do it. I’ve been a player and there are times – I don’t know what it is in your mind by stopping a foot short that you’re saving yourself – but you’re not. You’re cheating yourself. If you don’t play through the finish, you’ve cheated yourself and you haven’t given yourself a chance to be as good as you can be.”
Anybody who has done any kind of training for any sport can relate to that last part about touching the line when you’re supposed to be running sprints. It seems like naturally, we search for shortcuts in endeavors like that because we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing enough. The reality is just like what Sam says: you’re just cheating yourself. The end of the season is that line the players have to touch on their sprints. There is no real reason not to get there other than you’re fine with cheating yourself.
His problem the other night following the Clippers debacle wasn’t the loss. It’s not like they haven’t lost before, even by a big number. It was the way they lost. You didn’t see the attention to detail, the ball movement, and the requisite effort to hang with a playoff team. While the loss in Salt Lake City Friday not wasn’t a much different outcome, the two losses were night and day.
For the most part, the Wolves did what they wanted to do. They got good shots. They moved the ball. They set good screens. They rolled hard to the basket. Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica had nice offensive games, but struggled on the defensive side. Pairing Belly with Greg Smith ended up being a disaster for protecting the rim, but you still saw the Wolves fighting.
Karl-Anthony Towns struggled in the first half. In the third quarter, he finally solved the Rudy Gobert problem by rattling off 12 straight points. The Wolves came out with energy. The Wolves came out with execution. They played through their star. But it just wasn’t enough. Sam seemed happy with the effort. He was proud of Belly for the way he attacked. He liked the shots the Wolves took. They just didn’t fall at a high enough rate for the win. It’s hard to argue with that.
We saw the Wolves struggle with increasing the pace of the game, which even the Golden State Warriors struggle to do against Utah, and we saw the team not get to the free throw line. They took a lot of 3-pointers (3-point rate of 29.1%; they’re at 19.8% for the season). But when you can dictate your own tempo, you play right into the other team’s hands.
“At times, they were going just as fast as us,” Andrew Wiggins said following the game, “but they know when to slow it down. They have good pace of the game. They run their stuff all the way through.”
The Wolves have been playing at a pace of about 98 or 99 possessions per game since the full turn to the youth around February 1st. This game had about 87 or 88 possessions in this game, according to NBA.com. That’s just not a comfortable pace for the Wolves, and it exposed weaknesses defending late in the shot clock.
While we saw a struggle for the second straight game, it was a more acceptable struggle.
“They’re in the midst of a playoff run,” Mitchell said about playing the Jazz. “They’re trying to make the playoffs. I was in that situation in Toronto. It’s not about whether you’re one through four [playoff seeding]; it’s just getting there when you’re a young team. You want to get a taste of playing in the playoffs. And for our team, we try to use these games as we’re playing teams that are fighting for something. It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere even though we’re not going to make the playoffs. This is how it’s going to be on the road if you play a playoff game.
“The unfortunate thing is all of our young guys have never experienced that, so until we get that opportunity, we’ve got to use these games to draw on that, to learn from it, and to soak up this experience to learn from it because this is how it’s going to be when you’re fighting for the playoffs or in the playoffs.”
Hopefully the Wolves’ young players are taking advantage of this stretch of playing teams fighting for a playoff spot in the West. This roster will go through it soon enough. You just have to keep running and keep running hard.