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?
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:
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.
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.