To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld’s riff on car rental places and apply it to the Timberwolves this season, they know to to get a lead, they just don’t know how to hold a lead. Before tonight’s game against the Magic in Orlando, the Wolves had played five games and held a double digit lead in the first half of three of them, yet had only won one of those games.
In Orlando, they showed that while they hadn’t learned entirely how not to fritter away a lead in the third quarter (they were outscored 30-23), they figured out that if they just run up a giant enough lead in the first two quarters, it will be okay.
A lot of that scoring came from Andrew Wiggins, who scored 19 in the first half on 5-for-7 shooting from the field, including hitting both his 3-pointers and going 7-for-9 from the line. On offense, Wiggins’ game doesn’t look drastically different than last season — it’s not as if he’s suddenly making a lot of cuts (just 2.8% of his plays), although he is handling the ball more in the pick-and-roll (19% of his plays).
14.7% of his plays are isolation plays, 14.7% are spot ups and 13.3% are post ups, which looks a lot like last year, except — and especially in the last couple games — he’s just making his shots. Against Brooklyn and Orlando he was 23-for-47, or 48.9% from the field, including 8-for-11 from the arc.
This has made for an excellent complement to Zach LaVine’s 3-point shooting, which was at 41.7% heading into tonight’s game and will go up after a 7-for-9 night from the arc that contributed mightily to a game high 37 points. That mark matches the high from April 11 of his rookie season when he had 37 against the Golden State Warriors.
As a whole, the team shot 56.5% from downtown against the Magic, which means that as of this writing the Minnesota Timberwolves lead the league in 3-point percentage at 41.4%. Tell me that’s not the most shocking thing you’ve heard in the last 24 hours. Of course, they’re 26th in 3PA per game, but they’re making them.
What this all leads to is: What if the Wolves are the 3-point shooters they’ve been waiting for?
Last year, they were 29th in 3PA per game and 25th in 3-point percentage and one of the major things everyone said they needed to add was shooting. I wouldn’t pin Minnesota’s comparative success so far this year to Ricky Rubio’s injury, although he certainly doesn’t help the bottom line on field goal percentage when it comes to his own shooting. Kris Dunn is 3-for-7 from the arc (42.9%) and Tyus Jones is 4-for-13 (30.8%), so they’re fine, but the real heroes are Zach LaVine (22-for-45, 48.9%) and Andrew Wiggins (14-for-22, 63.6%). Even Towns is 10-for-23, while Brandon Rush (who they brought in at least partially for his shooting) is 3-for-11 and nominal stretch-4 Nemanja Bjelica is 4-for-17.
If the Wolves can actually get decent 3-point shooting out of their starting wings and half their starting frontcourt, the need to go out and get shooting on the free agent market or through trade is diminished, and that could be huge for the team.
Although shooting is of course just one facet of the game, in this case it’s what kept the game out of reach for the Magic. The Wolves outrebounded them on the defensive glass 35-28, but otherwise the Magic had more fast break points, an equal number of points off turnovers and more points in the paint. Many of those came from Nikola Vucevic, who was about the only Orlando player to really eat Minnesota’s lunch. He ended up with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
Another thing to note here is that Thibodeau shortened his bench considerably for the game. Only Tyus Jones went 20+ minutes off the bench (31 total) and Shabazz Muhammad played 19 and had the most Shabazz stat line possible: 13 points, 1 steal, 1 rebound, 0 assists. Aldrich had 5 rebounds in 12 minutes, but otherwise the bench was a non-factor.
I doubt that Thibs is suddenly going to only be playing seven or eight guys regularly, but it is interesting to see what the team looks like when he reins it in and it’s also worth noting that Jones was a major contributor off the bench after his 12 point, 5 rebound, 7 assist, 5 steal game against the Brooklyn Nets. Since day one I’ve felt that Jones smarts and guts will keep him in the NBA if he can leverage them off the bench, so this is encouraging.
This weekend the Wolves come home for a back-to-back you would normally see on the road as they face first the Los Angeles Clippers and then the Lakers. We’ll see if LaVine can work up some of his usual L.A. magic for the occasion.