Minnesota Timberwolves and the Third Quarter of Doom

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First order of business: calm down.

Panic. Outrage. Distraughtittude (would be way better than the word distress). These are things Minnesota Timberwolves fans have been displaying after the Wolves went 1-4 in their first five games of the season. The only victory coming on a night in which the Memphis Grizzlies decided to rest Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in Minneapolis. Without that, the Wolves could be a winless squad right now and with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, this organization is finally supposed to begin winning.

Nobody (especially fans) likes being told to calm down, but that’s really the only reaction I have so far. This team isn’t broken. They’re probably underperforming a bit, but they’re also missing their starting point guard for much of this. That’s resulted in them often throwing a lineup out there with an average age of about 22 years old. In reality removed from a video game setting, that’s hard to win with, especially when you’re learning a very disciplined style of play rooted in modern times.

With that, the Wolves have started out slowly (undeniable) but we’re not talking about a team rooted in disaster… yet. The first three Wolves losses were by a combined 10 points before the massacre in Oklahoma City. Those first three losses were essentially coin flips and if you flipped a coin, called heads, and then had it land tails three times in a row, I’m not sure you’d say the coin was broken. Or maybe you would. Coins seem like a dead currency.

The reason the Wolves have been losing these games is because of the third quarter. Plain and simple. It’s not a problem with crunch time — although they’ve been bad in those 15 minutes (-18.2 points per 100 possession, 20th in the NBA). The Wolves wouldn’t even begin to find themselves in those situations without the putrid play they’ve displayed in four out of five third quarters this season.

Many people focus on the idea that they’ve blown big leads in three of the five games, but that’s not really the issue in its entirety. Leads — double-digit leads — evaporate around the NBA on a nightly basis. Last season, I asked George Karl after a Sacramento Kings game about using those evaporated big leads as teachable moments. Instead of answering the question, he tried to shine light on the existence of this happening in the NBA and how much of a fixture it tends to be every single night as you watch League Pass.

“Tell me what game when a lead doesn’t slip away,” Karl said. “When you watch eight games a night like I do… I don’t know why it happens. I used to joke with my assistants they get nervous when a 20-point lead gets down to 10 (points). I finally said that I don’t get nervous until it gets down to five. Every game I’m watching on TV has it.”

While there isn’t a ton I’d agree with Karl about when it comes to coaching the Kings last season, his perspective on leads diminishing is correct. This isn’t a Wolves-centric trend. This is just how the NBA is. It’s the best talent and coaching in the sport, and adjustments happen regularly throughout the course of a game that lead to changes. The game at the midway point of the first quarter is unlikely to be the game you see at the midway point of the third quarter because none of it exists in a vacuum.

Yes, the Wolves blow leads, but why do those leads go away in the first two weeks of this season? It’s because the third quarter has been an apocalypse. Here is the Wolves’ net rating quarter-by-quarter after five games:

First quarter: +28.1 (2nd in the NBA)
Second quarter: +15.0 (3rd in the NBA)
Third quarter: -37.1 (30th in the NBA)
Fourth quarter: +11.3 (9th in the NBA)

Before we dive deeper into this, maybe you’re feeling the win over the “Grizzlies” is skewing these numbers. So here’s the quarter-by-quarter net rating breakdown for them when you exclude that victory:

First quarter: +20.8 (would be 3rd)
Second quarter: +6.4 (would be 12th)
Third quarter: -58.6 (c’mon)
Fourth quarter: +14.4 (would be 7th)

The numbers/rankings aren’t all that different when you take away their lone victory. They are blowing out their opponents in the first and fourth quarters. They are winning convincingly in second quarters. They are barely an NBA team in the third quarter, at best.

So what’s the issue here? Why are the Wolves playing so poorly in these third quarters? Here are a few theories:

1. They’re young

This is the least satisfying answer of it all because there isn’t much you can do about youth and inexperience, but that’s why I want to get it out of the way. We love the potential of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and Kris Dunn as a core. Whether you want to exclude one or more of those guys from the long-term plan is another conversation entirely. This core is one that has excited not just Wolves fans but fans and pundits around the NBA as a whole. A lot of that is having Towns as the franchise player and then the complementing pieces filling in around him.

Whatever the reason, the potential of the Wolves will dazzle you while the reality and current state of that potential isn’t quite there. And that’s why Tom Thibodeau is here: to mold this potential into something more tangible. This isn’t like the Wolves of the past two years though. This potential is much more realized than before because they’re constantly gaining experience and learning through trial-and-error. When it comes to the third quarter though, it’s mostly error.

I posed this problem to a couple of scouts and front office-y people around the league of why the team might be so bad in third quarters. Aside from a lot of qualifiers of “it’s early,” the team’s youth seemed to ring as the one true explanation for these problems. Going into halftime, you’re hoping to either inform your players of a needed adjustment to the game plan based on the pre-game strategy or reinforce what’s happening out there while also guessing the strategy adjustments of the opponent.

Not many people can accuse Thibodeau of not having a plan — a plan consisting of great aggressiveness and discipline. But having young players retain the focus and drive out of halftime to keep going with what works while also handling those adjustments or reinforcements can be tricky. Some of that can be a relaxed mentality. You have the lead, things are going your way, and you assume this will continue to hold throughout the flow of the game. The young guys aren’t fully aware that leads evaporate in the blink of an eye in the NBA, so they can be overwhelmed when it starts to happen.

That’s not to say you do nothing about this problem and let the Wolves garner experience game after game. They have to find a way to shock this pattern out of their psyche, embrace the moment, and want to build on that lead instead of finding the warm, soothing blanket of complacency. Some of that is on Thibs to figure out; most of it is on the young players.

2. They stop winning the battle at the rim

I went back and re-watched all five third quarters they’ve had so far. Yep, even that OKC third quarter. Here’s what I felt I noticed: this team isn’t really attacking the basket as much in the third quarter and it feels like they’re getting killed at the rim. So I decided to compile the data of their distribution of shots by quarter, their accuracy of said shots, and go see how their opponents do in those respective categories as well.

Turns out that observation proved to be pretty correct. The Wolves are settling a lot more for jumpers in the third quarter and they’re getting obliterated at the bucket. This team goes from getting over one-third of their shot attempts at the rim in the first half to not even a quarter of their shots in the third quarter. When the fourth quarter comes around, they’re back to attacking the basket — even fiercer than we see in the first half.

But the drop-off of attempts at the rim and their reliance on jumpers turns them into mangled shrapnel when you see how badly they get destroyed at the rim in the third quarter. It’s the fifth worst quarter in the NBA for field goal percentage allowed in the restricted area. Here’s the breakdown of their distribution of shots, opponents’ distribution, and both sides’ accuracy:

Not only are the Wolves giving up a high percentage at the rim, they’re allowing 40% of their opponents’ shots to come in the restricted area during the third quarter. It’s just not an acceptable form of defense and it’s the type of performance that makes you believe Thibs is going to an ATM after the game to deposit a kitten inside it.

As for the offense, here’s something of note with a hat tip to @uwlaxeagle on Twitter, who prompted me to look this up. The offense becomes worse and worse in the third quarter both in effectiveness and how they attack. A big part of this is probably the quarter-by-quarter usage rate of Towns, as well.

1st: 30.2%
2nd: 29.2%
3rd: 19.4%
4th: 26.9%

Part of this is on the Wolves for not getting him more involved coming out of halftime. Other teams are going to adjust and try to take him out of the game by either denying him the ball or being even more physical with him to try to take him out of plays. The Wolves need to make it a point to get him going in the third quarter, but KAT also needs to work harder then to establish himself as the one who knocks for the opponent.

Their offense in the third quarter is complacent and bad. Their defense in the third quarter is a red carpet to the basket and even worse than the offense. If they can start winning the battle at the rim out of halftime, it will correct a lot of their issues.

(ONE IMPORTANT THING OF NOTE: Heat fans have this thing in which the team has been bad in third quarters so they call it the Turd Quarter. We do not need to join them in this, no matter how bad it gets.)

We have one more thing to look at in this question of why third quarters are bad.

3. They don’t have their legs under them yet

This isn’t something exclusive to the Wolves or their youth or whatever, and this is also something hard to quantify. However, I had enough smart people throw this out there as a possibility that I felt compelled to include it. What if the young Wolves in this young part of the season simply don’t have their legs under them quite yet?

The idea behind this is with long practices from Thibs, they could be feeling a little case of “dead legs” as they go from getting in shape for training camp to adjusting to the shape they need for the actual season grind. The problem with this theory is we’re two weeks in. Some players/former players say you don’t get tired this early in the season. Others say you don’t quite have your legs under you yet. I’m not sure what to believe. I really don’t think this is it but again smart people posited this idea and I’m willing to consider it.

However, I much more believe in youth being a factor than them not having their legs under them. This can also be a tough thing to quantify with such a small sample size because without Ricky Rubio for the majority of these games and third quarters, the Wolves are just in a bit of a rotation pickle.

I do want to check out their four factors and I don’t have a good transition so here we go with quarter-by-quarter Four Factors (eFG%, FT rate, Turnover Rate, Offensive Rebounding Rate) for them and their opponents (Wolves rank in parentheses).

The first half numbers here are spectacular. The defense isn’t great in the second quarter but the offense is so efficient that it doesn’t really matter. But when you get to the third quarter, they just stop making shots and start giving the ball away to the other team. They’re not able to make up for it on the offensive boards like they do in the fourth quarter (despite poor shooting), and that’s probably due to the fact that they’re taking more jumpers instead of being around the hoop.

Couple that with their defense falling apart (mostly at the rim) and perhaps the fix for the Wolves is simply a matter of emphasizing winning the paint battle and adjusting everything else from there. Keep attacking. Be relentless. Don’t settle. And get in front of somebody. The pick-and-roll defense has been pretty bad with the second level of defense. Rubio and Dunn have been pretty good getting around screens or funneling the ball handler where Thibodeau wants them to go. However, the Wolves’ bigs (primarily Dieng and Towns) have been poor at that next level of stopping them.

If that gets fixed, you see fewer shots at the rim. If you see fewer shots at the rim, especially in the third quarter, then maybe this thing starts to turn in the Wolves favor moving forward. This is a youth and focus thing. These third quarters have been a learning experience. I’m not terribly worried about them right now because I believe they’ll figure it out both from the sidelines and from the players focusing on preventing this from becoming a season-long trend.

That’s not to say it isn’t alarming though. You can’t get into a mind space as a team of “Oh no, here comes the third quarter; I hope it doesn’t happen again.” The Wolves have to take their first half success and use it as a galvanizing force to step on the throats of their opponents coming out of halftime to extend the lead and not completely relinquish it.

You’re going to give up leads in this league. That’s just how the NBA is. You have to learn to weather those storms and come out the other side of it. You just don’t want your opponents to know when the collapse is coming every time and you want to put yourself in a position to build the lead up again and finish the game strong.

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