Winning feels better than losing. Everyone knows that. But for the 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves, the question is whether last night’s come-from-behind win over the Phoenix Suns is cause for fleeting joy – tonight they play the Curry & Durant Warriors tonight in Oakland, where they figure to take an L even if they play their best — or something greater; something learned about the makeup of their roster and the best route to lasting chemistry among the team’s core players.
For three quarters, the game at Phoenix felt like more of the same. The Wolves struggled to create many decent shots and they committed tons of careless turnovers.
When the starters were on the floor, Andrew Wiggins continued his slump. After my post dedicated to Wig’s greatness went up last week, he shot 2-11 in a blowout loss at Memphis. Then he shot 5-18 in the meltdown loss at home versus Boston. Then he shot 2-19 in the embarrassing loss at New Orleans. Things haven’t been great. Last night, in the first three quarters, Wiggins was getting to the free throw line where he generated points, but his jumper seemed as broke as in the past three games. He was frequently settling for extremely difficult turnaround fadeaways. Rarely did he work to find better looks in the flow of team offense. Along with Wiggins missing shots, all of the Wolves starters were making some of the most careless turnovers you will see in a high-level basketball game.
When the bench came in, there was a vacuum on the offensive side of the floor. The mightily-struggling Kris Dunn (PER of 8.6 as of this writing) could not get the team into any good offensive sets. Nemanja Bjelica hoisted up some threes that didn’t fall. Cole Aldrich made a pair of free throws but was otherwise unable to help. Shabazz Muhammad looks lost and in need of a fresh opportunity. Brandon Rush doesn’t do anything.
The bench players scored a combined 2 points in the first half. Those Aldrich free throws.
Had the Wolves been facing a strong opponent, the 5-point halftime deficit would have been more like 10 or 15. While the Suns backcourt played well (Brandon Knight had 13 points at halftime, and Eric Bledsoe had 9 points and 7 assists) they made plenty of bad mistakes of their own. Phoenix also fields a young lineup, dedicating regular minutes to teenagers Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. The first half was not pretty for either team.
After the Suns built up an 11-point lead midway through the third quarter, Tom Thibodeau finally gave Tyus Jones a try. Thibs initially played Tyus next to another point guard (at first Ricky Rubio, and then Dunn) but handed Tyus the wheel for the entire fourth quarter, pairing him next to Zach LaVine in the backcourt.
After 8 consecutive quarters of bad basketball, dating back to the fourth quarter meltdown against the Celtics, things finally clicked.
Jones did what he has been doing all season when given a chance: making basic, but meaningful passes to the team’s best offensive players, getting out of the way and posing a threat as a spot-up shooter, and pushing the tempo on offense when the situation calls for it. He made a nice assist to Karl-Anthony Towns for an open three with 7 minutes to go in the game, which sparked the run that led to the Wolves win. He scored on a layup right after that, and then Gorgui Dieng’s offensive rebound and put-back gave the Wolves their first lead since early in the game. They would never lose that lead.
After the chemistry boost provided by Tyus, the Wolves shifted back to their winning gear of 4-6 games ago, handing the ball off to Wiggins to close things out from the top of the key. Looking like he did in those huge performances against the Lakers and Sixers, Wiggins attacked around ball screens, knocking down key jumpers to put the game away. He finished with 25 points and the first positive momentum he’s had in 4 games. Minnesota outscored Phoenix 30-11 in the fourth quarter to pull away for the 98-85 win.
The obvious question that Wolves Nation will be asking is whether Tyus will continue to play in the regular rotation, or whether Thibs will stubbornly stick with Dunn, his first lottery pick since becoming a front office boss.
Jones will not blow anyone away with his stats. He had 6 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds in 18 minutes of action. But the Wolves don’t need big stats from their point guard – they have LaVine, Wiggins and KAT to produce NUMB#RS. What they need is a steady hand to initiate the offense and ensure that those Big 3 get enough touches in good scoring position. They need a point guard who can pose a credible threat as a shooter off the ball. They need a point guard who will make scrappy defensive plays without blowing up the scheme with reckless gambles.
That point guard – at least in a backup role – seems to be Tyus Jones.
Jones’s shooting percentage of 39 is not good, but much better than Dunn’s 32 and Rubio’s 33. Jones is shooting 39 percent from three-point range and – unlike Dunn and Rubio – has good mechanics that suggest sustainability. Jones has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team (per 36 minutes, 7.9 assists to 1.7 turnovers). In 168 minutes, the Wolves have a net rating of +14.9 with Jones on the floor. That’s the best on the team. In the 552 minutes without Jones, the Wolves are outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, which is the worst “off” rating of any player on the team. In other words, through 15 games, the Wolves play their best with Tyus on the floor and their worst with him on the bench.
Some of this Relative Jones Success is certainly a small sample size error. If he were thrown into a 30-minutes-per-game starter role, his net rating would rapidly fall down to something closer to net zero by virtue of the simple fact that the Wolves have such a young team and are not going to consistently win games by lots of points. But I think we’ve seen enough of Jones, and – more importantly – enough of Dunn to know that there needs to be a change in the rotation. Jones needs to play and Dunn needs to sit. While Dunn’s body and athleticism give him a higher theoretical upside, the difference in basketball ability is lopsided in Tyus’s favor. It isn’t fair to anyone to continue wrecking the team’s potential chemistry by playing a rookie point guard who is in over his head.
A few quick hitters to wrap this up:
- Zach LaVine did this in the first quarter.
Zach LaVine just had a dunk so vicious that the jumbotron in PHOENIX had to replay it (yes, really) https://t.co/joPoZyUfnq
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 26, 2016
- It seems like Gorgui Dieng is always being attacked on defense. Some nights it’s a great scorer like DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis going at him one-on-one. Other nights, like last night, it is a guard like Eric Bledsoe attacking him in pick-and-roll action. He expends a lot more energy on defense than most of his teammates. I’m not sure if this is true, but my guess is this is due to Gorgui guarding the other team’s best big scorer, and also due to other teams directing their pick-and-roll his way instead of KAT’s.
- The Wolves should trade Shabazz Muhammad, even if it’s just for a nominal asset like a future second round pick. At a certain point they need to decide who is in and who isn’t in their future plans. Bazz doesn’t seem to be “in,” and he’s forcing bad shots in limited minutes right now as if auditioning for a bigger role. It’s counterproductive. He has some fun NBA skills and could use a fresh opportunity.
Wolves play the Warriors tonight. Here’s hoping they can build off of last night’s fourth quarter and at least give the title favorites a good challenge on their home court.