This time Thibs couldn’t hide his frustration.
His young team (historically-young team) keeps blowing third quarters and it’s beginning to wear on everybody. That includes the fans in the arena, the active followers on social media, the players on the floor, and especially head coach Tom Thibodeau. He was not a happy camper after Tuesday night’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets. He lamented his team’s inability to learn from its own mistakes:
“When you go through something and it doesn’t work, you should learn from it. The second time around it shouldn’t be the same way. That has to change. That has to change. And it has to change fast.”
Thibs was not interested in making the “youth” excuse either:
“Your opponent doesn’t care that you’re young. We’ve got guys who have been in the league for a while now. We’re making mistakes that should never be made, from fouling jump shooters to reckless passes, turnovers, it’s all decision-making. What’s a good shot? What’s a bad shot? Knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass, doing your job. Know what your job is and then go do your job. It’s that simple. It’s that simple.”
Finally, Thibs believes there is a clear link between playing bad offense and playing bad defense:
“The two work together. When you’re sound offensively and there’s movement, and you’re taking good shots, there’s gonna be floor balance getting back and the defense will get set. And when we get to the line, that foul is another chance — it’s a dead-ball situation — to get your defense organized and set. But when you’re turning the ball over and you’re dancing with the ball, the result is gonna be bad. It’s gonna be bad.”
These are all-encompassing attacks on the way that his new team is playing. An attempt at paraphrasing Thibs post game would go something like, “My team makes a lot of mistakes on offense and defense and it isn’t smart enough or doesn’t care enough to learn from them.”
He’s probably sending a message, but he is also speaking some harsh truth.
Tuesday’s loss to the Hornets was not this team’s worst of the season, but it was the latest loss in an early-season stretch of blown leads; specifically, leads blown in the third quarter of play. The Wolves played a solid first half of basketball. They persevered through some early struggles — Wiggins started the game 1-7 from the field and Rubio committed 3 turnovers in the first quarter — and led by a dozen points at halftime, 58-46. Kris Dunn played his best stretch of regular-season basketball, showing off some nice playmaking for his teammates combined with his usual pitbull-style defense. Wiggins turned around his early struggles and started to get buckets before halftime. Ricky Rubio threw some Ricky Rubio passes to set up easy baskets for teammates and entertain the crowd.
But that damn third quarter.
It started with 6 quick Hornets points and a Thibs Timeout. Then Charlotte scored a bunch more in a hurry and a 12-point lead turned into a 1-point deficit. The Wolves showed signs of staying alive — led by Wiggins, who would ultimately drop 29 points in this game and look great on offense at times — but their defense completely collapsed in the middle of the third quarter, right on through the end of the game.
The Wolves led 69-61 halfway through the third and seemed to have settled back down.
Then Nicolas Batum happened. And one of the reasons that Nicolas Batum happened was that the Timberwolves played bad defense — especially Zach LaVine and Nemanja Bjelica.
Batum hit a three to cut it to 69-64. Then Kemba Walker hit a three. And then Batum hit a three. After Rubio made 1 of 2 from the line, Bjelica fouled Batum on a three-point attempt. Whoops. Then Batum hit another three. Then Batum drew a pair of defenders his way when the Wolves were finally scared enough to guard him. So he threw it to wide-open Frank Kaminsky (who had 20 points and 5 assists). This time he made the three. After a Kemba layup, the Wolves 12-point lead had become a 10-point deficit.
They went on to lose by 8 points in a game that went down to the last minute. Wiggins tried to carry the team on his back, but there was no team defense to be found on the Wolves tonight. Both teams scored 33 points in the fourth quarter. A win was there to be had for the team that could just get a few stops here and there. Tonight, that was Charlotte. Not Minnesota.
This loss drops the Wolves to 3-7 and it gave rise to the first major (public) response from Thibs. Whether it leads to any tangible change, like a shuffling of the starting lineup or a new player to be tried off the bench, we will have to wait and see on Thursday night when Philly comes to town. As Thibs’s remarks make clear, this is not a one-issue problem. Yes, the third quarter is when the proverbial shit seems to hit the fan, but the struggles cannot be isolated to one player or one side of the floor.
Ball movement stalls. Sometimes KAT floats on the perimeter too much and then tries to take on a set shell of defenders all by himself. Sometimes LaVine irresponsibly tries to make a steal and instead turns around to see Kemba Walker swishing a wide-open three. Sometimes Bjelica looks half-asleep.
It’s a lot of things.
If there is “one thing,” then it’s youth, but that’s not something the head coach or any of the players will benefit from thinking about.