On Saturday the Timberwolves and Thunder tipped off at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City at an unusual 5:00 Central Standard Time. This is two hours earlier than most games and must have thrown off each team’s regimen to some extent. That this came on the last day of Daylight Savings only added to the chronological strangeness of it all; an early start with an extra long night ahead.
What was NOT strange in this Timberwolves game, unfortunately, was the team’s performance in the third quarter. Continuing a troubling trend that has already cost them multiple games, the Wolves were blown off the floor after coming out of the halftime break. With 9:11 to go in the third, the Thunder led the Wolves 63-60. Over the next seven minutes and nine seconds of action, the Thunder would score 20 points.
They scored 2.
In previous renditions of The Timberwolves Get Annihilated in the Third Quarter, the Wolves have begun with a sizeable lead. After getting waxed in the early second half, they were still within striking distance and the games were competitive. The season opener at Memphis went down to the wire, and Mike Conley made big plays that led to a close Grizzlies win. At Sacramento, Ricky Rubio injured his arm in the second half, and a stint of Point Andrew Wiggins saw the Wolves tie the score with a couple minutes to go. A bad bounce here, and a Kings jumper there, and the Wolves once again fell short — but the game was close. And the other night against the also-young Denver Nuggets at Target Center, Nemanja Bjelica had a three-pointer rim out at the buzzer. Had he made it, the game would’ve gone to overtime. Another close loss.
Saturday’s Thunder game was not like those previous ones, because the Wolves were already losing when the onslaught ensued. Instead of a 10-point lead becoming a 10-point deficit, the 20-2 Thunder run blew the game open and left the Wolves down 21 points. There would be no comeback or close finish.
This was a blowout loss; the first one the Wolves have suffered this year.
So what happened to cause it?
Well, a lot of things. Here’s a rundown of events, starting at that 9:11 mark in the third:
Andrew Wiggins (who played his first poor game of the season) was caught sleeping on Andre Roberson who slipped behind him on the baseline for a dunk off of a nice pass from Steven Adams. Then Kris Dunn and Karl-Anthony Towns miscommunicated a post entry play, leading to an ugly Dunn turnover. When Zach LaVine jogged back on defense in Thunder transition, he was not in position to defend Russell Westbrook’s three-pointer.
After a Thibs timeout, the Wolves tried to run a play for LaVine, but it was well defended and they had to resort to KAT going one-on-one. As well as that worked in the first half (when KAT had 25 points) it did not this time; he missed his shot, and traveled after getting his own rebound. The next time the Wolves had the ball it was Wiggins with the careless turnover; a bounce pass to an opponent on the baseline.
LaVine made a nice steal after he ended up on Adams in the post. Unfortunately, he gave it right back to the Thunder with a poor post-entry pass to KAT on the other end. A few possessions later, Dunn tried a 23-footer off the dribble with his feet on the three-point line — not a good shot — and it clanked off the rim. When Westbrook came at Dunn with his patented burst from the top of the key, LaVine helped way off of Victor Oladipo, spotted up in the corner. The basic drive-and-kick — a play that Thibs would like to see more of from his own team — led to an easy three points.
Wiggins tried a difficult dribble jumper that missed and then Enes Kanter drew a foul on Gorgui in the post. On both ends of the floor, the Thunder were leveraging their matchup advantages, whether it be Westbrook’s explosiveness or Kanter’s size and strength. Conversely, the Wolves were not spacing the floor well, and KAT was not getting the ball very much.
LaVine missed a three — nothing wrong with the shot attempt — and then Russ pulled up and splashed a heat-check trey of his own, right in Zach’s face. The Thunder had serious momentum and a happy home crowd. Gorgui Dieng should have been careful when passing to Dunn on the wing, then, when Russ overplayed it for a steal and breakaway dunk the other direction.
Thibs called another timeout after that play with the Thunder up 79-61. The damage was pretty much done at this point.
The Thunder went on to win 112-92.
Clearly, turnovers were a problem during this stretch of play, just as turnovers were a problem in the meltdowns against the Kings and Nuggets. Bad Timberwolves offense contributes to good opponent offense and bad Timberwolves defense. The relationship between offense and defense exists for every team but is stronger for these Timberwolves, high on speed and low on basketball intelligence and veteran savvy. When they’re good they’re great and when they’re bad they’re terrible. At least that’s how it seems right now.
What is most problematic for the Wolves offense right now is not the amount of turnovers — their 15.8 per game is 11th in the league. The problems are that they are not spacing the floor and nobody is able to move the defense to create good passing lanes. That they make turnovers in situations lacking a clear “reward” to justify risk (screwing up basic post feeds, for instance) is not only frustrating to watch but emblematic of higher-level dysfunction.
The former point — poor spacing — should be correctable (or at least “improvable”) with good coaching and better chemistry between Dieng and KAT. There were times in the second half at OKC when the two big men were in the lane simultaneously, getting in each other’s way and drawing an unnecessary extra defender into help position.
The latter problem — the inability of Wolves players to scramble opposing defenses — is a bigger one, and this is where they miss Ricky Rubio so much. Wolves fans are painfully aware of Rubio’s importance to the team’s basic functionality. He missed most of the 2014-15 season with ankle problems, and the team plummeted to the bottom of the league standings. Last year, Rubio missed 6 games. The Wolves lost 5 of them, only winning against the Kings on a night when DeMarcus Cousins sat out with an injury. They miss Rubio’s defense, which is great, but they have also had an unusual playmaking void in his absence — nobody seems able to execute basic pick-and-roll action, or go hard to the basket to draw extra defenders and initiate ball movement. Rubio is not an explosive athlete by NBA standards, but he nevertheless creates good shots for his teammates. He is tall with long arms, has a strong handle of the ball in tight spaces, knows how to play close to his defender, and — most importantly — he anticipates everything around him and puts the ball where it needs to be. To some extent Ricky is his own offense, surveying the floor and freelancing.
It is not clear right now whether Rubio’s impromptu style of playmaking is congruent with what Thibs wants to see. His injury came in the second game of the season, so we just haven’t seen much of him under Thibs yet. In Kent Youngblood’s excellent feature on Thibodeau before the season opener, he mentioned that “Thibodeau will tell you there are five tenets of his basketball philosophy: defense, rebounding, low turnovers, playing inside-out and sharing the ball.” (Emphasis mine.) In recent post-game remarks, Thibs has explained how kick-out passes lead to “good” three-point shot attempts. Thibs’s experience coaching Derrick Rose — a slasher in the Westbrook mold — and his decision to draft Kris Dunn might suggest that he wants to build a system around hard drives to the basket from the top, with shooters ready in the corners. That is not Ricky Rubio’s game.
But again, we don’t really know that either. All we know right now is that Dunn is not yet prepared to lead a good NBA offense, and his backup, Tyus Jones, is probably not in the long-term plans of this team. Dunn shows flashes of potential greatness as a defender and he is certainly athletic, but he makes very few plays as a point guard to create open shots for teammates. Whether and how soon he improves in that area is anyone’s guess. Until Ricky’s elbow heals, the Wolves are going to need playmaking from non-point guards like LaVine, Wiggins, Bjelica and KAT. When those 4 players combine for 3 assists, as they did versus the Thunder, the team will probably struggle.
As for why these issues are always manifested in the third quarter, I guess I’m not sure. That seems to be the time when the opponent ratchets up the intensity and ball pressure, the Wolves offense struggles to respond and those struggles lead to transition opportunities going the other direction. Strong offense with better floor spacing might have a domino effect that helps the Wolves defense, too. I do think there’s a relationship between the two and that’s part of the reason why their third quarters have blown up so spectacularly, this season.
A few bullet points to wrap this up:
- KAT has 65 points and 20 rebounds in his past 2 games. I think it’s safe to say that he’s back on track and playing like we expected he would.
- Brandon Rush and Nemanja Bjelica have not been giving the Wolves anything off the bench. They need shooting from both players and some playmaking from Bjelica in the second unit. At this point, they have provided none of those things.
- Wiggins had just 7 points on 3-13 shooting versus the Thunder. This is an outlier for Wiggins — his low total this season had been 17 points — but perhaps a sign that opponents are gearing up to stop him, knowing that he is often times isolated to go one-on-one.
- The Wolves’ upcoming schedule includes a lot of winnable games. The play at Brooklyn and Orlando, and then play home games against the Clippers, Lakers, Hornets and Sixers. Assuming Thibs can clean up their offense and figure out third quarters, they should be able to win some of those games.