Knicks 106, Timberwolves 104: The KAT & Kristaps Show

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photo: Anthony Causi

Tonight’s 106-104 loss to the New York Knicks has a happy story and a sad one.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way and begin with the basic reality that the Wolves lost the game. They lost, and it was possibly their best chance to win in a brutal 11-game stretch that began last Saturday at Golden State and ends on December 17th against the Rockets. (The closest rival for “winnable” in that stretch is the December 9 home game against the Pistons, but they’ve beaten the Clippers, Hornets, and Celtics recently and seem to be on the upswing.)

How many wins do you see on this list?

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If the Wolves want to have any chance of preserving a competitive season, they need to win games like this one — home, against not-great competition — and they continue to fall short. With tonight’s loss the Wolves drop to 5-13. Looking at the upcoming 8 games on that list, they are in real danger of being something like 6-20 to start the year, which is abysmal.

As far as why they fell short on this particular night, it begins with poor bench play. Rather than spend time typing about it, I’ll just copy in their chunk of the box and you can have a look at the wreckage yourself:

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Nemanja Bjelica, Shabazz Muhammad, and Kris Dunn all played poorly. Sometimes they played poorly together, at the same time. Bjelly missed all 5 shots he attempted, including some open threes that would’ve helped stop the bleeding. Shabazz played chaotic-in-a-bad-way basketball that has been the unfortunate theme of his season. Dunn is simply not ready for NBA minutes, and showed that once again tonight in 10 undeserved minutes that should’ve gone to third stringer, Tyus Jones.

Jones got to play in the second half, but — strangely — he only played as a “co” point guard tonight. He began next to Rubio, then Dunn came in for Ricky, and then later in the game, he played next to Rubio again. He doesn’t serve much purpose if he isn’t allowed to lead the offense and he was basically a non-factor. His (-10) isn’t really reflective of anything he did right or wrong.

Aldrich played fine, with the exception of some unfortunate “defense” on Brandon Jennings that his slow feet could do absolutely nothing about. He seems to be settling into his “limited but somewhat helpful big man off the bench role” nicely. I would say he’s the least-bad bench player they have, if you remove Jones who is sort of in an uncertain role that eludes definition or easy analysis at the moment.

In terms of flow, there were a number of runs in this game, but the most consequential seemed to be the Knicks extending a 73-70 lead with 2:08 left in the third quarter to 99-82 (26-12 run) on a Mindaugas Kuzminskas three with 7:41 to go in the fourth. A solid chunk of that miserable and pivotal stretch came with some bench players on the floor.

The Wolves made a strong comeback to tie the game a couple times in the last minute. Carmelo Anthony hit a well-defended jumper for the win over Andrew Wiggins with 2 seconds left. On an out-of-timeout play, Zach LaVine threw the ball away. While many Twitter critics second-guessed the decision to have LaVine be the passer in that situation, I personally felt that it was fine, assuming he was designed to be a potential option as a “pass-it-back-to-him” shooter. Thibs confirmed that he was exactly that, in his postgame remarks.

So the Wolves lost. The bench played poorly. That’s the sad story of tonight’s game.

The happy one involves the two franchise centerpieces that showed their best stuff to admirers sitting for the live show in Target Center, and around the world on League Pass.

Kristaps Porzingis is 7’3″ with a pure jumpshot. When he catches a pass off a pick-and-pop, the ball is gone as soon as it hits his hand. He has moves off the dribble. He crashes the boards at the right times. He blocks shots. He plays within the flow of good team offense. He is barely 21 years old.

Karl-Anthony Towns is 6’11” with wide shoulders, crazy coordination and athleticism that defies his size. He can shoot, pass, or drive. He plays with physicality and intensity. He makes threes, jump hooks, monster dunks, and free throws. There is very little that he cannot do. He is barely 21 years old.

In this competitive game that went down to the last shot, Porzingis had 29 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. Towns had 47 points (!) on 15-22 shooting, 18 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 blocks.

This was the individual matchup that had League Pass geeks excited to watch Timberwolves-Knicks on a Wednesday night, and each young star delivered his best stuff.

Porzingis plays great team basketball. He shoots with great mechanics and no hesitation, rarely forcing anything but keeping himself involved with intelligent movement. He is going to be an All-Star for a decade-plus and it wouldn’t surprise me if he one day leads the league in scoring.

Towns, well, we know what he can do. On this particular night he had favorable matchups and wasted no time going on the attack. He had 22 points in the first quarter. He got to the line 20 times, converting 17 free throws. The 18 rebounds speak for themselves. He did all that he could and then some to win this game.

It’d be cool not just for Wolves and Knicks partisans, but for all NBA fans if these two could one day match up in the Finals.

A couple of additional observations before wrapping this up:

One is that there is a fairly obvious chemistry issue developing on this team, in terms of who produces and when, and a lack of cohesion among the team’s key contributors. Early in the season, Wiggins appeared to be the breakout star. His scoring average was up over 27 points per game and he was the de facto point guard during fourth quarters. Since that time we have seen some big nights from LaVine in losses — 31 at Golden State and 28 & 8 assists versus the Jazz. Tonight, in another loss, we see Towns erupt for 47 points.

The problem is that there is some “my turn/your turn/now his turn” to all of this, as opposed to fluid team basketball build around a foundational set or two. I don’t know if that is by design — Thibs is trying to continue experimenting with different plays — or if it is simply the result of having three starting players who each want their shots. But it sometimes seems like there is one too many playmakers on the floor in that starting unit and it would benefit from having a clearer focal point.

The second observation is that Thibs is yelling at his players all the time and fans and columnists are not necessarily viewing this as a good thing. I completely understand the concern and also don’t feel it is something that should be viewed as a bad thing at this point, with this team, and this coach.

Generally speaking, basketball coaches should not be standing up for 48 minutes barking out orders on both ends of the floor. That doesn’t signal any trust in the players and it is more likely to inject anxiety than tap into any energy or focus reserves. Anyone who has played for an intense coach in any sport understands that — sometimes — yelling and screaming can be counterproductive. I don’t know if Thibs stood and yelled for the entire games in Chicago, and I don’t know if he will continue to do that in Minnesota, but it does seem a little bit over the top.

But on the other hand, this team needs his help.

Badly.

All the time, it often seems like.

And Thibs is as respected as just about anyone in the industry at spotting bad habits, teaching good ones, and drilling the absolute shit out of them in practice. Unless you disagree with all of the countless players and coaches who heap praise on Thibs’s expertise and maniacal drive for basketball perfection (and you’d also have to disagree with the incredible results it produced in his career as an assistant coach in many successful places and then as a head coach with the Bulls) — unless you somehow disagree with all of that — then you have to understand that what he is doing here is going to work; at least it’s going to work for his tough-minded players, and maybe that is all part of this mad science project. Maybe he is trying to figure out who needs to stay and who needs to go. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is forming clearer-by-the-day opinions about each of his young players, and how each responds to instruction. He has seen too many players respond positively to it to question his own methods.

It is going to get better, and if for some reason it doesn’t, it is not he who is the problem.

There are two basic requirements of any coach, but these are especially true of the ones who like to spaz out a lot:

The first is that they know what they’re talking about. The second is that they emphasize the most important things.

Everything about Thibs’s past and reputation suggests that he checks both boxes and will do a great job. As for the spaz outs? I’ll leave it with an old Kyle Korver quote about playing for Thibs:

“Thibs does a great job of pushing everybody; he kind of pushes you to your limit and then he lets back. He pushes you again and then he lets back. And he knows exactly how to work that.”

Here’s hoping these Wolves start responding better to the yelling, and Thibs can find a way to ease up from time to time.

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11 Responsesso far.

  1. sportsbygreg says:

    Can you say… LOTTERY!!!? This season is already a wrap in my opinion. No talent or firepower coming off the bench (Kris Dunn is a colossal dissapointment). And frankly I don’t think these guys like playing for Thibs. His Bill Parcells way of coaching is (out dated). I had a feeling this was going to happen when I noticed his lack of eye for talent in his BELOW AVERAGE offseason acquisitions. I know the free agent market was watered down and obviously don’t know everyone he tried to acquire behind closed doors, but I thought he had a few talented young role players on his summer league roster that he completely [missed the boat] on. And to top it off he’s so stubborn, he’s not even giving the right minutes to the correct players he has on his bench now… and the losses just keep stacking up. All he does is stand on the sideline whining, barking and complaining. The guy needs to swallow his pride and hire an offensive guru immediately; along with changing his style a bit to adapt to today’s players. A team feeds off the demeanor of their coach. All this damn frowning and whining for 48 minutes every game doesn’t bode well. This team looks falter out awful. I’m not into moral victories. The Wolves are still the joke of the NBA. The sad thing is that it looks like they’re REGRESSING and have absolutely no confidence. Looks like another year gone down the drain. And what’s really pissed me off is that… I was so looking forward to this season and the Wolves contending for a playoff spot all year… playing relentless defense, being competetive and stringing together victories. But this team have already killed my basketball season. Smh! And obviously theirs, too. Well, I guess I’ll just have to look forward to my Cowboys making a run, and hopefully my Buckeyes can get into the college football playoff… then hope my boy Bryce Harper and my Nats can make some some noise starting in April. The Wolves are pitiful.Oh well…!!!#Buckeyenation

  2. Tom says:

    You failed to mention that Thibs used both a full and a 20 sec timeout to create the play that didn’t work. Leaving no room for error. A veteran team can do this, but not an inexperienced team like the wolves.

    The play that Thibs said was what was supposed to happen also makes me angry. He puts one of his worse entry pass players in a position to make an entry pass to KAT and then step up for a three on a return pass. First, he only needed a two to force OT with the momentum going to the wolves. You usually play for OT at home, the win on the road. You have your starters in, all of which can make a two or not, but you go with a play designed to the two players the Knicks would definitely expect to take the shots you designed for and defend against it. This is a great coach?

    We all know that Thibs is a hard worker, but is he a great coach? He had teams in the East make the playoffs, when the East was LeBron and nobody else. That is like Gardy being viewed as a great manager because he won the AL central when it was filled with poor teams.
    He needs to show the paying fans (what are left of us) that he is more than just a hard worker that expects his team to play hard, but a coach that can get the most out of his players each night and win games that are winnable.

    • sportsbygreg says:

      You’re right. I wasn’t to watch the game but when I saw the highlights I said to myself, “who in the hell designed that inbounds plays with 2.3 seconds. It had no creativity or imagination whatsoever. And then like u said, ‘to have the worst inbounder on the team’ [ taking it out]. Smh!

    • enai says:

      there are still paying fans at this point?

  3. Tom says:

    The NBA is based on a big three mentality for playoff teams. Talent wise we have our big three, but they are not playing a style of basketball that blends the three together. In Miami, Bosh let Wade and LeBron be the primary scorers and did all the little things that made the three so good. Boston had KG, Pierce and Allen, with KG playing the background guy offensively, but was the anchor defensively and the heart of the team. Last year, LeBron played facilitator and pulse of this team, so KLove and Mr. Selfish, Kyrie Irving, could blossom as scorers. What the wolves have yet to figure out, who of our three is going to focus on defense and rebounds and doing the little things, so the other two can be the offensive weapons that they can be night in and night out? That person probably has to be Wiggins. After watching Zack, he will probably never be the defensive player Michael Cooper was or maybe Michael Olawokandi for that matter. But he is our best assassin when we need a three and has a fabulous first step to the basket. KAT has some good instincts as a defender, but with such a shortage of big men, he should eventually score like last night on a regular basis and he may never be a KG or Ben Wallace type of player. That leaves Wigs. He is gifted, no question. He is, most nights, already guarding the best offensive player. He can light it up offensively when he is on. However, when he isn’t on, HE has to still be the best defensive player on the team or we lose. He has to run the defensive sets and hustle to get his team in defensive position. Thibs needs to turn the reins over to Andrew defensively and let him make sure people are doing what they are supposed to. Offensively, he needs to spread the offense to Zack and KAT and become a LeBron like facilitator, calling himself only when needed. This probably hurts Ricky Rubio, but the big three are the most important pieces and everyone else has to play along.

    The bench needs to be run, with what the big three need that night. If they need a stretch four, Belly comes in. If they need some energy offensively, they call on Baz. Defensively, they can get Dunn to play some and hopefully Cole, Payne or Jordan could take that role inside. If they don’t want that role or can’t help reliably, they get dealt for someone who can. Players need to see the big three and find ways to be supportive to them. Stay within themselves and give quality minutes and then go sit.

    Andrew needs to lead by doing all the things that scorers hate to do. We hear how he is a quiet burn competitor, never letting his emotions out. He is the perfect heart of this team. Let KAT get the press, Zack get the awards, but Andrew needs to be the driver of this team and his success will be measured on how many banners are hung. When this happens, the wolves will be a contender, no matter who the coach is.

  4. Brandon says:

    We are the worst fans. We want to immediately go from being a lottery team to .500 (or playoffs!!). Last year at this time, we complained that we were playing old guys instead of our much-hyped young core. Now we’re playing our young core and wonder why a bunch of 21-year olds are losing to veteran teams. Our players may have more upside, but playing against older, wiser, stronger players is a hard task. When we’ve played against other young teams (Lakers, Suns, 76ers) we’ve won.

    Where’s the patience? You can’t factor in the 12 previous loser years into this year and come away with any rational thought. Thibs wasn’t coach then. This lineup wasn’t playing together then (only after the all-star break last year). So what do those years have to do with now? I agree, it sucks to lose so much as a fanbase. But this is a brand-new team, so to speak.

    The other common refrain is that we’ve regressed since the second half of last year. As many articles here have noted, that wasn’t sustainable. Teams weren’t trying against us, and it was an offensive free-for-all with no defense. You can’t build on that. So why compare this year to last year?

  5. pyrrol says:

    Notes:

    It’s not that I think Thibs’ yelling at his players all game is going to hurt their feelings. It’s just a sign that he’s not doing a good enough job with teaching and strategy before games in order that we preform a little better in game. He could save on Ricolas if he had a better system and found a way to get the players to improve some prioritized basics.

    It’s going to take a lot more convincing for most fans than ‘Thibs isn’t the problem because he isn’t the problem.’ Does he have nothing to do with the crappy system night in and night out? Nothing to do with giving Dunn unearned minutes that waste productive minutes Tyus could be having? I’m not going to assume things won’t improve and call for Thibs’ head yet, but I’m also not going to praise him on rep alone, with not a single major positive result fans can point to.

    In this game Towns had a great individual effort. But that’s what it takes for the Wolves to compete. Our guys don’t flow in a system that gets them good looks each game. So they are super hot and cold and two players are not hot on the same night very often. Part of this is on the players. But clearly they aren’t in a situation that his helping them get easy looks consistently.

    Dat inbound! One, I don’t care if Zach is the shooter—there’s 2 point something seconds. It’s not a good idea to count on the fact he’ll get the ball back for an OK look after inbounding with that amount of time. Second, even if that’s the plan and I’m wrong, there’s plenty of time, Zach isn’t a skilled inbounder. Use someone who is. Third, and maybe most important, you need to draw up action that gets people open quickly and gives the inbounder options. I can hardly blame Zach, because no one was open at all. It’s no secret that I’m not happy with our system on offense or defense. I was sort of excited to see Thibs prove his coaching worth in other ways, such as a marker board, game winner situation (rare this season, we usually lose by a comfortable margin and if we win it is usually by quite a bit). He failed his first test for this aspect of coaching in spectacular fashion. It looked like something out of a high school game.

    Generally speaking, to try to get on the right track, we need more consistent offense. Our D isn’t going to catch on overnight, but our O goes into these funks that make it so hard to defend with any competence. Working out our D problems would be a lot easier if we were better and more consistent on O. This is particualrly true of the bench and can be helped a lot by simply putting Tyus in as the backup PG. Not having Dunn’s OK D out there will be mitigated by the improved offense–more points for us, less easy points off D rebounds for them.

    Someone above put the Thibs thing in an interesting way. Hardworking vs. great. No doubt Thibs is hardworking, obsessive, intense, competitive, and highly knowledgeable about Basketball. But he doesn’t seem to ‘know what he doesn’t know.’ He’s dangerously stubborn. And his vision/creativity for how to get the most from his team and basketball in general does not appear impressive. In Chicago he did impressive things, but he never came off as flexible nor creative. I’m worried he’s going to run this team like a king, but he has too many weaknesses to not be open to a lot of help from his staff.

  6. Tom says:

    Porzingas is really an excellent player. You look at Philly and think where they could be if they had taken KP instead of Okafor. They would have a better future than the Wolves. With a line-up of Embiid, KP, Ilyasova, Staukas and Simmons and with Saric, Henderson and Noel and Bayless off the bench? Sam Hinkie should be scooped up by the Nets, Pelicans, Mavericks, Sacramento, etc., any team that doesn’t see a championship in the next three years. What he did was sad to watch with a franchise as rich in history as the Sixers, but he was right. There is nothing worse than getting caught in the middle. With LeBron’s tenure as top dog in the East coming to an end, they would be a team on the rise for many years to come.

  7. Bc Mike says:

    I thought Thibs was the worst hire the Wolves could make. Nothing has happened to change my mind. FYI Last year the Wolves started 8-8 before the league started to figure out how to defend Towns & the rest of the Wolves

    The Lakers who won 19 games last year are 10-11this year They seem to be responding much better to Luke Walton than the Wolves are responding to Thibs. I much preferred Walton, Scott Brooks, Mark Jackson, David Blatt, anyone from Pop’s coaching tree etc. to thibs I didn’t like Thibs because he is a yeller and AW doesn’t respond well to being yelled at, he over plays his starter,s which has not changes this year,and he works his players too hard in practice resulting in lots of injuries. Given that the Wolves are all 20-22, their bodies are still developing & filling out,.Their bodies are not ready to take the pounding of 36-42 minutes/games for 82 games

    Thibs great v hard working. Its my personal experience (don’t know if this applies to NBA players but I assume it does) that if I’m constantly being yelled at; that after awhile I start ignoring it. I think this is already happening with the young Wolves.

    Having Zach inbound for the last play seems, to indicate Thibs doesn’t know his players well.

    Thibs doesn’t seem to use his time outs well. EX using a regular & a 20 for the last play. Earlier this year, the other team (can’t remember who) went on a 25-0 run and Thibs never called a time out.

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