Timberwolves vs. Warriors: Running It Back on Minnesota’s Game of the Year
About a year ago, I had a chance to sit down and talk with statistician and Yale professor Edward Tufte. If you haven’t checked out Tufte’s incredible books on information design, do so now — they are not to be missed in this day and age, when so much information is being presented to us and often so poorly. At one point, almost as an aside, I mentioned my love for rewatching games. Since at least 2005 — when I rewatched all of the Boston Red Sox comeback in the ALCS against the New York Yankees — I’ve had a thing for watching games again. To my mind (and I said as much to Tufte), when you know the outcome, it frees you up a bit from worrying whether or not one thing or another is going to happen. You know the broad strokes, so it frees you up to focus on the little things.
Tufte didn’t exactly scold me, but it was clear that he didn’t have much interest in that approach to sports. Basically, he felt like I was opening myself up to confirmation bias with this approach. It is, in essence, a rather poor way to look at the game from an analytical perspective that seeks to predict or understand the game statistically. This, I absolutely agree with. What rewatching is, to me, is detective work about a particular event. Just as the way any single crime was committed can’t tell you about crime generally, you shouldn’t take the way any single game shook out to be about the game overall.
In short, re-watching a game can’t tell you how the game should be played, but it can help you watch the game better, which is really what I’m after.
We were deep into a historic regular season for the Golden State Warriors and another low stakes — if pleasantly good — stretch run for the Minnesota Timberwolves when the two teams met on Tuesday, April 5 in Oakland. The Wolves were 25-52, losers of three straight; the Warriors were 69-9, looking for a win that would vault them past the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers and the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls and put them just two games shy of the Bulls’ 1995-96 record. Four nights previously they had lost their first home game of the season to the Boston Celtics.
Knowing what we know now — that the Warriors would eventually blow a 3-1 lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals — it’s tempting to look at the losses to the Celtics (who lost in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks) and the Wolves (who didn’t come close to the playoffs) as the first hint that there were cracks in the armor of the Golden State juggernaut, but that’s overly simplistic. This was, after all, a team that would rally from being down 1-3 to the Oklahoma City Thunder to advance to the Finals. Instead, let’s focus on a few specific circumstances for this particular game.
Andrew Bogut was not well. Injured ribs had kept him out of their April 1 lost to the Celtics and April 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, and partway through the game, commentator Chris Webber noted that Bogut lost his lunch into a bucket on the sidelines, plus spent much of his time on the bench with an ice pack on the back of his neck and looking like death warmed over. But Bogut actually played 32 minutes, scored 10 points and had 15 rebounds, plus a team high +16.
More problematic for the Warriors was the return of Andre Iguodala, who had been out since March 11 with a sprained ankle. He was a -12 off the bench in just under 19 minutes. Although Steph Curry eventually scored 21 points, he didn’t make a field goal until the 3-minute mark of the third quarter, but he had 15 assists. In the early going, the offense revolved around Harrison Barnes, who was 7-for-9 with 18 points in the first half. Yes, the Harrison Barnes who became a symbol of both the Warriors ultimate failure to secure another title and the gormlessness of the Dallas Mavericks, who are now paying an inconsistent fourth option like a go-to star.
In short, despite holding leads of nine, nine and eight points at the end of each quarter before the fourth, this was not the Warriors machine to which we’d grown accustomed. How much credit should the Wolves get for throwing them off their game? After re-watching, I don’t think too much. Certainly they played solid defense, which was a part of Klay Thompson shooting 4-for-11, but Curry missed a lot of shots he normally makes — even if they’re not great shots. Together, the Splash Brothers went 8-for-25. Not very splashy.
The Wolves’ perimeter players weren’t very splashy to begin with either. The team’s first 10 points were scored by Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, and by the time Zach LaVine finally got one to fall, the Warriors were up 25-10 and the first quarter was three-quarters over. So this wasn’t the young Wolves’ starting lineup showing they can hang with the best when the best are a bit off. Instead, over the last two minutes, every basket was scored by either Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica or Shabazz Muhammad, cutting the deficit to 28-19 at the end of the first.
Muhammad — it would later turn out — would not be exactly the hero of the game, but he would be the lodestone for the team with his physical play. He ended the night with 35, the game’s leading scorer, and he did it largely at the line, attempting 17 free throws and hitting 15. For comparison’s sake, the entire Golden State team took 8 (including zero in the second half), the rest of the Wolves took 19. It’s also worth noting that the Wolves played nearly the whole overtime with a lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Muhammad and Towns, effectively matching up with the Warriors smallball approach.
In a lot of ways, this game encapsulated what’s so intriguing about Muhammad as an NBA player. Can he be the best player on a great or even decent team? No, distinctly no. But given that each game of an NBA season is its own particular confluence of circumstances — injuries, schedule, significance of matchup, home, away, etc. — Muhammad is exactly the kind of player who can make mincemeat of another team’s half-focused play because he loves to get out in transition, finish at the hoop, and back down smaller players.
Throughout the game, the Warriors were playing like they expected the game to be handed to them. That might feel like an indictment, like it augurs the way they collapsed in the Finals, but on this particular night, it just meant it was a particularly good time for the bench players to see what was going on and punch them in the teeth. They were led by Muhammad, but Jones (+19) and Bjelica (+15) both had solid games as well.
The Wolves’ last lead before overtime was at 8-7 with 8:36 remaining in the first; they only finally tied it with 6:39 remaining in the fourth and then again with 20 seconds left to send it to overtime. If there was one thing that was the real catalyst for sending the game to overtime, it was a blocking call on Curry with 1:09 left in the game that was ultimately switched after review to an offensive foul on Towns. Looking at the replay, it’s a total judgment call. Curry is outside the restricted area, but it does appear that the top half of his body is moving into Towns as Towns does his best to go around the contact. To me, there isn’t sufficient visual evidence to overturn this call — I remember a lot of hue and cry at the bar where I was watching this game with some Timberwolves fans.
But fouls are weird this way. The Wolves are down three at this point. Towns missed the shot, so he’d be headed to the line with a chance at two, at which point Golden State gets the ball back down one and having had a chance to collect themselves during the review process. At this point, they were the epitome of “playing not to lose,” but the Wolves hadn’t grabbed the reins either.
But after the call is overturned, Minnesota essentially makes three effort plays to tie it up and send it to overtime: a poor pass by Draymond Green is picked off by Wiggins, Wiggins gets it to Muhammad who’s fouled going to the hoop by Iguodala, and Wiggins forces the issue in the lane with a spin move to get the layup and the tie. On the Warriors side, Green had the lazy pass and then he turns it over with a travel.
Can we say definitively that having that blocking foul overturned — despite initially looking like a strike against the Wolves — was what cranked their motor up enough to force overtime, plus keep them in the driver’s seat during an extra period where the Warriors looked simply like they’d run out of gas? I wouldn’t say we can definitively say that, but I think we have to admit we don’t know. Emotion plays its part, even if we can’t quantify it yet. The things we’re getting better at quantifying can help us with probabilities and patterns, and there are even steps being taken to measure physiological responses to the game like heart rate, but while we may eventually understand mechanically exactly why a game played out one way or another, there’s a part of me that hopes there will always be an undiscovered country within the players themselves that drives the game forward.
This was one of the only games last year that I got to watch with a bunch of fans, in a bar, having a couple beers. I watch most games either by myself or sitting in the media section, with other people who have more or less clinical views of the teams we’re watching. I went into this game expecting a loss, and as the Wolves struggled early, I let my attention wander: I talked to people, mostly about things other than basketball, although I think we talked about how we thought the Warriors were going to win it all. By the time I realized the Wolves were fighting their way to a tie down the stretch, they were already in the middle of it, and everyone started to get carried away with it.
Re-watching it, I feel like I can see more clearly how it happened — how important Muhammad was not just with his own play, but how the tenor of his physical play affected the whole team, and how out of sorts the Warriors really were at some base level — but it ultimately pales in comparison to watching it with a poorer understanding in real time. There were maybe a dozen of us, cheering in a half-empty bar on a Tuesday night in Northeast Minneapolis. We probably looked a little nuts.