By the end of the third quarter, I was hoping I was going to be able to write a recap about how the Minnesota Timberwolves had at last beaten the third quarter. If you’ve followed the team, you probably know the haps: The team’s net rating in the third quarter is -30.5, and even in wins like the one they had against the Philadelphia 76ers they actually lost the third.
But here, tonight, they managed to win a third quarter, outscoring the visiting Boston Celtics 29-26. The story of the game was shaping up thus: Despite poor shooting thanks in large part to the defensive efforts of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves were outworking the Celtics on the glass and beating them in terms of assists, turnovers and points off those turnovers — at the half, Minnesota had 6 turnovers for 3 points while Boston had turned it over 10 times for 15 points.
And then the fourth quarter happened.
To plenty of people, the Wolves absolute collapse in the fourth looked an awful lot like a recrudescence of the issues that have dogged them in the third all season: the ball bogs down, every offensive trip turns into a Wiggins or Towns or LaVine iso, and they keep trying to get it back with one big shot while failing to follow up on defense. Boston outscored them 31-12, but six of those points came with less than a minute left. The bulk of the quarter comprised a 20-6 run by the Celtics.
The Wolves shot 20% from the field, including 9% from 3-point range. LaVine was 0-for-5 from the arc. They had just 2 assists to Boston’s 5 and 10 rebounds to Boston’s 15 after outrebounding them 41-24 through the first three quarters.
It was, in short, a garbage fire inside a dumpster fire inside a dump that was on fire on a floating barge on fire floating in an oil slick that was on fire. It was disappointing and Thibodeau afterwards was disappointed, although it was notable that he didn’t seem nearly as frustrated as he was after they blew a big lead in the third quarter to Charlotte recently. Here’s my theory: Thibs actually views blowing a fourth quarter lead as progress. This is certainly an angle I can see: a blown third-quarter lead against Boston wouldn’t have shown that they’re learning, which is Thibs’ greatest concern. The Celtics had a much better third than first or second, but the Wolves kept the momentum they built at the end of the second going and held them off.
In other words, collapsing in the fourth is bad but at least it’s different.
But let’s zoom out a bit for a moment because I do think Thibs’ bears some responsibility for the team’s struggles so far. When the Wolves surrender a lead, it often looks the same: the opposing team ups their energy and takes it at the Wolves and their initial response isn’t to wilt, but rather tighten up. Their starting lineup features three players who should each round into some level of NBA star eventually and in these moments it’s almost like they have a Baby Big Three problem. Think about the different kind of sacrifices Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade (mostly) and LeBron James (some) had to make in Miami to make that team work or even the sacrifices being made by players in Cleveland right now to much the same end. Now imagine asking three 21-year-olds to do some of the same thing when they don’t even fully understand all that they’re capable of.
You can practically see it happening on the floor in front of you: the whole team is confused about who is responsible for what and who is supposed to be putting the team on their back. First it’s LaVine jacking up a 3-pointer on the wing, then it’s Wiggins handling it up top and trying to drive through the entire defense after a pick, then it’s Towns isolating on the low block. The communication is the first thing to break down, but it’s also not entirely clear what they’re supposed to be communicating in the first place, and that’s where Thibs’ responsibility comes in.
We’ve all seen how Thibs stalks the sideline and barks constantly. It’s been refreshing, mostly, after Sam Mitchell’s resigned reaction to most things. When Thibodeau was let go in Chicago, the basketball reason given was that they wanted a more open, free-flowing offense. But when Fred Hoiberg took over it didn’t suddenly start flowing. Instead, guys didn’t really know what to do, or how to take responsibility for themselves on the court. Thibs was so active and vocal as a coach that removing him from the system basically made it break down completely. Thibs is, basically, a helicopter coach.
Now, you can decide for yourself whether you think that’s a good or bad thing when it comes to the Wolves. Do you want to try to foster a certain independence for the players, something more akin to how Phil Jackson dealt with the Bulls and Lakers where he would let them keep playing and figure it out on their own or do you want an authoritarian who want to micromanage everything? Either can work in their own ways. The latter might work a little more quickly, although Wolves fans probably wished it were working a little faster than it is currently.