Kings 109, Wolves 105: What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

(Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Minnesota Timberwolves fell to the Sacramento Kings 109-105 on Friday night in a game that could be described as anything but pretty. The referees sought to take control early in the game, calling 14 fouls in the first quarter (44 overall), including a technical foul on Wolves’ head coach Tom Thibodeau after two minutes and nineteen seconds had passed (Ken Mauer must’ve come upon a new whistle that needed to be broken in). The abundance of whistles in combination with sloppy play by both teams resulted in a game that often felt disjointed and awkward.

Karl-Anthony Towns started off strong, posting nine points and eight rebounds in the first quarter, but it was Zach LaVine who stole the show by halftime. After taking (and making) only two shots in the first quarter, LaVine combusted in the second quarter scoring 19 points. He tallied 25 points on only nine shots by the end of the second quarter, an absolutely blistering half.

Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins were relative no-shows in the first quarter, combining for only seven points on 2/13 shooting.

DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings’ magnificent big man, started off slow, compiling only 11 points on 10 shots, five rebounds, and three assists in the first half. Kosta Koufos, the Sacramento’s other starting big, and Matt Barnes were arguably the catalysts for the Kings in the first half, combining for 18 points on 8/11 shooting, four rebounds, and two assists.

Cousins came out chucking to start the second half, hitting on all three of the threes he took, which served as the metaphorical push to get the Kings’ offense rolling. Sacramento shot 56.8% from the field and 52.6% (10/19) from three in the second half. Cousins scored 21 of his 32 in the second half and point guard Ty Lawson and forward (and old friend) Anthony Tolliver each added 11; Tolliver was a particularly deadly 3/4 from three after halftime.

LaVine stayed hot, scoring 15 points and shooting 3/8 from three. He finished with 40 points, six rebounds, and two assists on the night. Rubio, who played a strong, Rubio-esque second half, finished with 13 points, six rebounds, and eight assists and Towns added 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists.

After the game, Tom Thibodeau was unimpressed by the Wolves’ play, especially on the defensive end. Although Cousins is a matchup nightmare for basically every team in the league, Thibodeau and his coaching staff clearly had a game plan for defending him, but the Wolves did not execute. When prompted about whether or not the scheme was to stay home on threes or deter Cousins when he had dribble penetration by the incomparable Britt Robson of MinnPost, Thibodeau gave this long and insightful answer:

“The thing with Cousins is he doesn’t stay stationary. He’s good in transition … He made threes to start the second half, so that opened things up. And then he can put it on the floor, he can catch it at the elbow and go, he can catch it in the post and go. We had different schemes for different situations and it wasn’t overly complicated. The thing is, everyone has to be tied together on it. Starting with your ball pressure, your reading of the ball. Where’s he catching it, how’s he catching it? Knowing where we’re coming from and then the proper rotation out. So if the ball is going into areas it shouldn’t and then if it’s not being read correctly, whether it’s flat or penetrating, then it’s going to lead to open threes. And then you have to recognize, okay, Tolliver’s making threes. And then are we over-helping when the ball’s being dribbled at us? It’s all decision making. Am I moving on the flight of the ball? How am I closing to him? Am I running him off the three? Is it a hard close out? What type of close out is it? … That’s communication and that’s where we’re lacking … Sometimes you can do it well and they can make a shot and the shot can be challenged correctly. But, when that does happen, you have to understand that you don’t change to something else. You trust your system. You have to have discipline. You have to have the ability to do it over and over and over knowing that, over the course of the game, the percentages will work in your favor.”

Many of the Wolves’ struggles on defense this season have been attributed to them being young and that is reflected within Thibodeau’s answer. Many members on the team have struggled with decision making; they aren’t communicating; perhaps they aren’t trusting the system. The decision making and trusting the system come with experience and familiarization with a coach and his tendencies, neither of which the Wolves have at the moment (remember, this is the fourth Wolves’ coach in as many years). Young and inexperienced can and often struggle with consistency (see the Wolves playing great defense against the Atlanta Hawks and then playing poorly against the Kings).

However, the lack of communication is the biggest issue presently and that begins with Towns. Towns has the size, athleticism, and quickness to be the foundation of a top five defense in the NBA, but until he learns how to communicate and make game-quick decisions, the Wolves will continue to struggle.

Do Wiggins, LaVine, and the rest of their cohort need to improve their communication and decision making? One hundred percent absolutely, and placing the largest burden on Towns does not absolve them of their deficiencies. But, traditionally, the foundation of a solid defense begins with rim protection and strong play from the center position and the Wolves need more from Towns on that end of the court. He has the ability to do it. Some problems can be fixed by experience, but communication can be improved without. Until Towns improves in that area, the Wolves’ ceiling this season is significantly lowered.

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    Lack of communication is a huge issue, particularly on D. Oddly, even though Towns played with KG last year, he seems to have picked nothing up from the great anchor-general. Towns hardly communicates on D. But it isn’t just his fault, he just has the most impact available if he gets better at it.

    The Thibs quote is illuminating. Who’s head doesn’t spin reading that? And you expect 21 year olds to follow this? I mean, you have to boil some of this down maybe and then get the more complex add ons later, to my thinking. With Cousins, he was just killing us with the three. Make sure a big is on him all the way out, and someone, preferably a big is on him in transition, as he likes to shoot that 3 before guys are set. He’s wily so he’ll try to drive off of his defender on the perimeter if he’s pressed up. So just have help. Have one big always around the paint and switch if his man leaves that area, the other big follows Cousins no matter where he goes. Or, more simply, have someone on Cousins at all times even in transition.

    But it’s more than communication. SAC got unreasonably hot from three, but this was exasperated by how bad our perimeter D was. The only player that was impressive on D over the course of the game was Rubio. Dunn was hard to play, and got 14 unimpressive minutes. No one else defended consistently well. Gorgui was probably the next best defender, and LaVine had a nice play or two. But so many decent looks from 3 allowed over and over. Our offense was impressive. I don’t recall point Wiggins at all (maybe I blinked). We had a decent strategy, some good action (still a huge amount of room to improve) but we weren’t bringing a bad strategy to the table and the guys responded. LaVine was very impressive. Rubio showed toughness and stuck with shot attempts until they started falling and the way Towns and Wiggins are bricking from three, Rubio is maybe the next best option after LaVine for threes from starters. Which is odd. But Rubio stepped up, realizing this. All this was wasted because we couldn’t stop SAC at all. We are missing something on D. I suspect Thibs is royally confusing/overwhelming the guys on D. But there may be more to the issue. Not sure.

  2. Tom says:

    It is curious that this team plays as if they have nothing to gain by playing defense the way Thibs wants. Thibs has such a short leash on his bench, the starters aren’t being pushed for playing time and know that no matter how bad the defense is; he has to play them large minutes night after night. I wonder if Thibs thought these guys would tune him out so quickly, when the year started? He can’t reach them and motivate them to play his way every night, which means they will lose to Mediocre teams like Kings and beat only teams that are off with their shots or resting stars like Atlanta was.

    Players that think they can simply out score teams and be successful are losers. I see nothing from this team that says they get or trust their teammates on defense or that defense should be their focus each night. This the GM may need to trade one of the big three to add quality depth and defense and possibly get their focus on Thibs the coach.

  3. Im kinda scared already that Thibs is gonna f*** this up for us. Id love to have KG still on the team as a mentor (dunno assistant coach or s.th.)

  4. Tom says:

    A beating by the Thunder on Christmas. Not really unexpected, but it shows that the last week has been a mirage. Low scoring games do not mean that the team is getting better defensively, Quality big men (not great big men, but above average) school our players and we can’t seem to improve from one beating to the next. I think Dunn is a potential NBA player, but no one should look at his play right now and see star or ever starter. OKC finds guys late in the draft that shoot the ball much better than our lottery picks. How many players do we have that struggle to hit shots of any type with consistency, much less three pointers?

    Offensively, we see KAT, LaVine and Wiggins have great games (sometimes only one, sometimes all three in the same game) and yet we lose. Poor defense and a lack of a bench are the obvious main culprits, but maybe it is how the big three play together that is the root of the problem. Do these three guys play well together, or are they just taking turns playing a predictably and easily stoppable,during crunch time, kind of offense? KAT can score from many places, but does that actually help Wiggins and LaVine? Do we see open lanes to the basket for them to exploit with him on the perimeter? Do we see passes going from one side to the other for open threes because he is drawing double teams? LaVine and Wiggins seem like Kobe with three point shooting and drives to the basket no matter how well the other team plays defense, but many of their shots are difficult contested shots that they make until it gets to the second half and then the law of averages hit them and we go from up ten to down twelve in three minutes. Do we see that each of them get selfish and try to win the game on their own?

    I hope that our Big Three are furious with themselves and discuss what they can do as a trio to pull their team out of this abyss. I hope they are not furious with the rest of the team and blame others for being such under-performers this year. Only KAT, Wiggins and LaVine can make us better. Not be individually scoring one on one, but pushing themselves to make the offense run like a well oiled machine.

    • pyrrol says:

      On the trio thing, I think a lot of it is just young guys that don’t know how to play together with anyone, let alone two other young starts at this point. I’m not sure this is going to get significantly better for a long time.

      That being said, the trio is made up of very different guys. LaVine used to take the stupidest shots, and be unbelievably streaky as well as being a black hole of D. Now, he takes mostly good shots, can be amazing efficient for a perimeter player, and while not good on D is showing some flashes. He’s learned a lot and has a really winning attitude. He has the most unshakable confidence of anyone on our roster. I used to think it was over the top and immature–cockiness–but it’s actually something our guys need more of. We’re a bunch of frowning Bjellicas out there.

      Wiggins, in contrast is close to the product that he was when he came into the league. When he came in he was touted as a good D guy right away who would pick up O stuff and eventually become a scorer. He became an inefficient scorer surprisingly quickly, but never has become a consistent defender. While he has flashes, I don’t think he’s ever had a whole game I’d call a ‘good defensive game’. The little quirks in his style of game have become tiresome and limiting. There is something lazy about the way he plays (most obvious in most of his finishes and ‘arming it in’ rather than exploding with a strong leap). But it’s all over his game. Even though Westbrook can be really fun to watch in spurts, I find his wild abandon style kind of numbing after a while. I mean have you ever seen a lamer 15 assist night? Just a bunch of dumps to unguarded Adams a foot from the basket… But he gets a load of assists every night. You have to conclude that his passes are boring. But they work and so does his reckless style. Wiggins is the anti-Westbrook. He’s also shown little improvement. Perhaps he started from a more advanced place than LaVine, giving Zach more room to show off his learning/improvement. Still, Zach has done nothing but impress me, and Wiggins is a flat line. I was so hopping that Wiggins’ improved 3 pt shot coming into the season wasn’t a complete mirage, but it proven to not be a significant improvement. For all the chatter about Ricky’s lack of scoring, he’s never been scorer and doesn’t have to be–he just needs to chip in his 8-12 pts. Wiggins only scores. That’s all he adds. Yet he is a SF (who seems to want to play SG sometimes) who can’t shoot threes well at all. In general, how little we get out of him in rebounds, assists, on D and as a source of energy and momentum is unacceptable, even for a 3rd year player, particularly one touted as out ‘go to’.

      Then there’s Towns. He might have the greatest potential of all three, but he’s probably my biggest disappointment this season (among players). I’m shocked by his lack of defensive improvement and awareness, and at times even effort. He has all the hallmarks of a guy pressing, and a guy too young to know how to get it done without pressing and the backlash that causes. His pressing has hurt his individual game/progress, but it hurts the team, too. I guess, I worry little about him long term. But I was not expecting a lot of these problems and lack of progress from him this season after his rookie campaign. Some of it I can’t explain. His blocks per game, well under his potential last year, have gone down. You don’t need to be a great team defender in the paint to get some blocks to pad your stats, but he just isn’t getting them. And we need rim protection. Some have rumbled about getting Noel. Who sits? Maybe Deng to the bench or something, but I don’t think Noel will suddenly get us rim protection. Anyhow, Towns has a lot he can do and it is hard for such a young player to keep track of all this and put it in its proper place. I mean, Wiggins is a guy who’s got a mid post/mid range face up game who sometimes takes it to the hole or gets a put back. He doesn’t rebound, doesn’t pass, is OK on D. Towns can rock in the post, hit mid range shots, hit threes, he’s got a totally undeveloped interest in passing, and has the physical statue and ability to move to be a defensive anchor. That’s a lot to juggle with limited focus. Maybe this is an excuse, the ‘overwhelmed by riches’ theory, because he just needs to get better. And I’ve been disappointed with his learning. As bright and talented as Towns is, how he’s played this season seems to suggest coaching issues in addition to his not so great reaction to inflated expectations. It actually worries me about the coaching more than Towns’ long term ability. Still, Towns needs to show more improvement the rest of the season.

      Looking forward, can these guys play together? Yeah, sure, why not? But can we afford to keep hoping they can when they get more expensive? We may need (or be better off) dumping one and keeping two. If we do that, I hope we get rid of Wiggins. He’s oddly still respected a great deal around the league and we could get something for him if we trade him ahead of his next contract. But from what I see he has the lowest total potential of our big 3. And he has the most red flags. This isn’t to hate on him. He’s a helpful player and I’d like him on the team long term. But I think that would have to involve some lower expectations (and pay) as well as a smaller share of the focus. This ‘Wiggins is our Jordan!’ thing isn’t going to pan out and already has harmed our development. In a smaller role with less responsibility to carry the team (and a relentless focus by him and coaches on 3 and D) he could be a great fit here. Dunn, I’m just not sure he should be in our long term plans from what I see. Feels like a waste of a 5th pick. If you get the guy at 25, you’d think he was a great pick up who can contribute to the bench and maybe could break the odds and become a starter someday. As a 5th pick and given all the benefit of the doubt and nice Thibs words, he looks really bad. I see him as totally expendable at this point. Great trade piece because I’m not sure how out of love with him the rest of the league is and the conventional wisdom on him is still pretty positive. He seems like a cool dude, but you could trade him tomorrow and I’d feel nothing (but excitement to see more Tyus Jones).

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