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.