Timberwolves 93, Celtics 99: Do The Collapse

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.

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6 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    OK, I have to just ask up front: Is this team TRYING to piss off its fans?

    For someone blowing a gasket every minute of the game from the sidelines, Thibs is surprisingly OK with blowing the fourth quarter and game in stunning fashion… I have to say, blowing the game in the 4th quarter is less novel than that 3rd quarter thing we were doing. But it’s not better. We almost came back for some of those 3rd quarter games because we had a whole quarter to recover. Moving the problem to the fourth is more normal, but not better. It actually would make it harder to win, it that’s what we do now. Hopefully it was a fluke.

    We’ve been good at finding ways not to win this season. I call that general concept being ‘Wolvesy’ because we’ve mastered it in so many ways in our franchise history. Finding a way to be abnormally incompetent and to underachieve peoples’ general perception of our talent/expectations. I think Thibs was supposed to make us unwolvesy. He’s doing a horrible job of it. Perhaps this is because of his ‘long view’ and he has a plan and this is a normal part of it, but the optics are awful. And quite simply, the fan experience is well below what it should be. Thibs has even managed to quell Rubio’s ability to make something out of nothing as far as team offense goes. That takes some doing.

    If all this sounds mighty critical of Thibs, it’s because I’m running out of excuses for him. If this is a long term project and he doesn’t even expect us to be good at all this season, I don’t see what he’s doing as a solid route to anything. Even if it is, I think we could manage a higher level of competence in the process. This just looks like the wheels aren’t quite on the rails.

    Specifically, he’s gotten us (all a year older and with some roster adjustments) very marginally better defensively and has basically kept us at our recent incompetence offensively. It’s not so much the numbers on offense, but the inconsistency. We don’t get to 100 too often, and then pad our stats with a few blowouts. But it really isn’t about the numbers on offense. When we hit a tough stretch we just can’t pull out of nose dives because we don’t have a system to speak of. And we don’t have a coach giving the young players a strategic lifeline. Iso is often the answer. Less movement and floor balance, not more. Our best player for getting us out of stagnant offense (Rubio) is often barely touching the ball in these bad stretches, and it’s clear he’s been told to stay out of the way. The way!? Tonight, for instance, during our terrible stretch Thibs had Wiggins (who was having another bad game) run point forward. Predictably disaster continued. We’ve got no flow to our offense and the one guy who can manufacture a facsimile of an offensive system on the court is told to dump the ball off right away and go stand in the corner. This is neither fun to watch nor effective.

    Does it matter if Thibs is a hover coach? Clearly, most of the things he bellows aren’t that helpful. Would this team look much different if he made a calm sideline suggestion every now and again? Can’t imagine. They look lost as it is. I’m hoping Thibs tries/develops something else (esp. on offense). Because I’m finding myself out of the ‘give him more time doing THIS and it will suddenly look better and he’ll reveal himself to be a genius’ club. He needs a significant change in gears, not just more time doing whatever this is on offense. For their part, the young guys are frustrating but also fun. They will get better with or without Thibs upping the ante. But we can’t get where we need to be without the coaching staff doing a better job of using the resources at hand.

    PS can we see Tyus at backup PG yet?

  2. sportsbygreg says:

    Straight garbage of a team. Get punked by any team in the NBA. A bunch of underachievers and actually may be the worst team in the NBA. And Thibs needs to stay consists tent with his substation pattern and build a legit deep rotation. Payne plays a few pretty good hustle games and he’s buried on the bench in a game that desperately needs a hustle man in the fourth quarter. Why not give Jordan Hill a few minutes? Tyus Jones to spark some kind of spark and scoring punch from our point gaurd position? He just doesn’t seem to push the right buttons at all. But the players have to show some kind of heart and fight. They act like a bunch of losers and get punked very easily. I don’t want to hear the young excuse. This is strictly a heart and grit issue. They have neither. Pitiful team! Hot garbage! I’m sure they’ll get plunked Wednesday by the lowly Pelicans. I have absolutely no confidence in this pathetic team and bunch of underachiever. A team that’s allergic to prosperity. I offer no apologies. GARBAGE!

  3. sportsbygreg says:

    Typo – substitution pattern. Oh, and I guess Wiggins heard all the praise and decided he didn’t want to be great after all. I understand slumps, ect.. But TRUE superstars don’t continously let these things happen to their team. He & Towns should be ashamed (even though Towns played a Google game). They’re not damn Rookies anymore. No excuses! Very weak team. I’m pissed!

  4. Tom says:

    The start of the year, you could see that this team would have difficulties with large lineups. However, you thought that when they started playing teams with a lot of small perimeter players, like last night’s Celtics, the athletic ability of the wolves would be up to the challenge. You figured Thibs could guide the youth against a disciplined older team like the C’s and win a game at home. Nope. They did go to KAT down low and he did have his way with the C’s bigs early, which was a logical strategy given KAT and G’s size advantage for once. However, the perimeter guys kept trying to get to the rim and not spacing themselves out for open three’s and the Celtics packed it in on the big guys and stopped us from getting those easy inside baskets. Wiggins is a star, but even stars have off-nights and this was definitely an off-night. Baz was energetic, but still was the old Baz of ” I’m going to the basket and throw up some silly shot or ram my way into a defender and get called for a charge”. Dunn was for the most part, a rookie without the ability to run his team. So my questions are,

    Why did Belly sit for key stretches last night? He did look tentative with his outside shooting again, but he was still shooting far better than Andrew.

    Why didn’t we use our big lineup of KAT, G, Belly, Ricky and either Zack or Wigs especially when they ran out their bigger line up in the fourth and kept us to one shot and done?

    Why did Tyus again sit and watch a game that he could have helped with his outside shooting and brains? Did Jordan Hill call Thibs a sissy and is forever banned from playing?

    I worry that our “great” coach is not really all that “great”. That he either had great teams to play his defense and it really wasn’t the scheme or his ability to communicate that scheme to his players that made them great, Could it be that his scheme is now so incorporated into the league that everyone knows how to work through it? Kind of like Phil Jackson with the triangle. It sure works better when you have MJ, Kobe and Shaq to run it. Plus everyone runs a little bit of the triangle now and so it doesn’t have the same voodoo magic that it once had.

    It is still very early in the season, and we weren’t expecting the boys to get to the Western Conference Finals, but losing to teams you need to beat (Denver and Nets) or teams that you should be physically bigger than (Last Night) is a recipe for lottery ball purgatory.

  5. Chris Holman says:

    Steve…nice observations. Any sports-related post that uses “recrudescence” appropriately is okay in my book!

    Thibs is an interesting coach. He is committed to self-learning, as evidenced by the year-long hiatus where he studied the league. He also seems to expect his team to be equally committed and accountable to their own learning. By the season’s end, we’ll know if these young Wolves are accountable to themselves, and up to the challenge.

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