Knicks 118, Wolves 114: More of the Same

Credit: MIKE STOBEY/GETTY IMAGES

Credit: MIKE STOBE/GETTY IMAGES

The Wolves fell 118-114 to the New York Knicks Friday night and, in many ways, the loss felt all too familiar. Much like in games previous, the Wolves dug themselves into an insurmountable hole due to coming out flat in one frame (Is the first quarter the new second quarter which was the old third quarter?) and struggling to sufficiently defend the rim, particularly against the opposing team’s center. Kyle O’Quinn, who deserves nothing but credit, outmuscled and outhustled the Wolves’ big men all night, posting 20 points (9/11 from the field) and 13 rebounds in what was most likely the best game of his career.

Zooming out, the Wolves continued to struggle with pick-and-roll defense and crisp, purposeful rotations. In a trend that has continued since the start the of the season, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns could not prevent the opposing team’s point guards, in this case, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings, from getting deep into the lane in pick-and-roll situations. This opened up a world of opportunity – they could pull up, continuing driving and kick, continue driving and score, hit the roll man, the list goes on – and allowed for them to break down the Wolves’ defense with surgical precision. (Rose, who had 24 points, combined with Jennings to tally 13 assists.)

Although the Knicks connected on 12 of their 31 three-point attempts, it could have been much worse. Many times Carmelo Anthony, who led all scorers with 29 points including five threes of his own, and Kristaps Porzingis, who thankfully (or unfortunately depending on to what extent you like seeing good basketball players play well) had an off shooting night, were left wide open on the perimeter. That cannot happen if a team wants to consistently win basketball games.

On an individual level, Andrew Wiggins did a pretty good job at closing out and contesting Anthony’s attempts (he even defended Prozingis admirably on the perimeter a few times and caused misses), but sometimes that just isn’t enough when you’re going up against a future Hall of Famer. (Yeah, I said it. Melo is a future Hall of Famer. Period.)

Despite putting up 112 points, it never felt like the Wolves established good flow on offense. The ball never skipped from player to player, rather it often ended up being flung towards the rim after one or two passes and a brief bought of isolation play. Perhaps (or definitely) related, the motion often looked disjointed and panicked, leading to ill-advised and rushed shot attempts, even though they technically could be qualified as being “good” shots. They were good shots in the sense that the shooter was often open, but they weren’t necessarily the right shots; the team could have gotten better looks had they taken a moment to collect themselves.

The silver lining, which may or may not be becoming more oxidized and dull with each loss, is that all of these mistakes on both sides of the ball are correctable. These kids are still young and relatively inexperienced and I remain convinced that many of the mistakes that are seen on a nightly basis can be attributed to that fact. These mistakes are only exacerbated in the presence of perhaps overzealous expectations and the fact that Tom Thibodeau and his staff are Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ third coach and system in as many years (fourth if you count college for Wiggins and LaVine and high school for Towns). Learning and executing strategies on both sides of the ball simply takes time, plain and simple.

That is not to completely absolve the Wolves’ players or Thibodeau from any responsibility that they have for their collective slow start; both parties could perform better and they aren’t going to make any excuses for themselves. But the fact of the matter is, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, that it is difficult to win in the NBA when three of your five starters are 21-years-old and your “veterans” are young role players themselves.

I don’t have a great segue to lead into this, but I feel compelled to comment on Karl-Anthony Towns’, well, comments after their recent loss to the Utah Jazz. One on hand, it is nice to see a player taking ownership of his mistakes and trying to shift blame away from his teammates. On the surface, this is a true sign of leadership and in many ways should be seen as a good thing. But, when you dive deeper into his message, in my opinion (and perhaps it is not truly my place to speak, being that I am only 23-years-of-age myself and not a fountain of wisdom), Towns’ constant use of “I” phrases – I need to be better, I’ve got to change us – are yet another sign of his youth. Basketball is a team effort and one individual person cannot bring about the change needed to right the Wolves’ ship. Reliance on yourself to be the harbinger of change only leads to increased pressure to perform and often doesn’t result in achieving what you wish to accomplish. But how common of a mindset this is for young adults! Towns doesn’t need to be the sole hero for this franchise. He doesn’t need to be the one to turn the Wolves’ season around. He needs to turn to his teammates and help them, and himself, grow into better players. There’s no need to put that amount of pressure on one individual’s shoulders and, like many things regarding the Wolves, an increase in age and experience will bring this to light.

Notes:

  • The Wolves’ bench played infinitely better Friday night, combining for 47 points and a +/- of +51. Cole Aldrich led the way with 10 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double in a Wolves’ uniform. Nemanja Bjelica added 17 points, seven rebounds, and three assists and Shabazz Muhammad tallied 14 points (2/5 from 3). Kris Dunn also played his best game in quite some time, scoring six points, dishing out five assists, and playing pretty pesky on-ball defense.
  • The Wolves next play Saturday night in Charlotte. Tip-off with the Hornets is at 6 p.m. CDT.
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6 Responsesso far.

  1. enai says:

    If this is what this season is going to be, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hang in there for it. Am just becoming numb at this point. We’re currently on pace for 22 wins, a significant step back from last year, and there really isn’t a single area you can point to where the team has appreciably improved.

  2. finchy74 says:

    My perspective on the Wolves this season has been one of low expectations. Not out of cynicism as I’ve greatly enjoyed watching this young team come together over the past three years. Consequently, I haven’t been bothered by any of their losses this season as I’ve assumed all along that given the circumstances, it was unlikely that this team would really “click” until the mid-point of the season.

    But wow did this game piss me off. This had more to do with my week than the Wolves performance but what an utterly frustrating game. For the first time in possibly forever, we get solid production from the bench. Of course, the Knicks did as well with Kyle O’Quinn looking like the second coming of George Mikan. What was most distressing is that the Wolves’ energy in the 1st quarter paled in comparison to the Knicks.

    This team still doesn’t seem to have even a tenuous grasp of Thibs’ defensive system. They’re a half step behind on close outs and rotations and they’re still making mental mistakes. They’re not playing fast and aggressive on defense and that’s a sign (to me at least) that this team is still having to think on defense instead of playing fast and instinctively.

    All of this is to be expected.. But damn, I just really wanted to kick back after a rough week, drink some good irish whiskey and watch the Wolves win…. and they let me down.

  3. Tom says:

    Good article about the inconsistency of youth. Last night, was the perfect example. KAT came in thinking, I killed these guys last time and misses four gimme’s, gets two frustration fouls and sits. The Starters probably think, hey we beat their starters last time, we should be able to do it again and they play uninspired ball. The bench comes in and you think, they must be shell-shocked from the last few games and they play hard and culminate with a great feed to LaVine from Dunn to take a lead in the fourth. Knicks call time out and then our team plays like “Hey, we got these guys” and throws the game away with sloppy passes, needless three pointers and no defense or rebounding.

    They probably will say how they have to play together for four quarters and cliche after cliche and then off to Charlotte. Most people will think, they lose to NY, they will get killed by Charlotte, but this is the benefit of youth. They could put it together and run over a Charlotte team who may think we got an easy one tonight. Of course, they could roll over us and that won’t mean a thing either. Because until they learn the importance of protecting the ball and running the right plays and understanding that they can’t let people get to the middle or that each shot needs to be taken with purpose and that hard work and maximum effort each night is the only way they can win, they won’t. As soon as they do, then the league will worry.

  4. pyrrol says:

    Armchair psychology: What’s revealing about Town’s “I” phrases is not his youth or immaturity. It’s a sign of frustration, or feeling isolated from support or a helpful group effort. He clearly is focusing on what he can do. The team play won’t magically get better. Thib’s system isn’t helpful to the players right now. All Karl has control over is how well he plays and that’s what he pours himself into–trying to never be satisfied with his own play. Is it wise for him to think in these terms and put this much pressure on himself? Probably not. But what other outlets does the guy have? He can’t make the players around him play better. He can’t go talk to Thibs and get him to use a better system, tell him to let Rubio create opportunities to him. In fact, all he gets is negativity from the coach in already hard times. It makes perfect sense that he’s focusing on his own effort.

    Which brings me to Thibs’ attitude. He’s got the mind of a bulldog perfectionist. But he’s a really negative guy. I’ve not been able to attend a live Wolves game with him yet, but people are rumbling about Thibs, and I’ve heard people say that he’s relentlessly negative. As in yelling negative things only, only criticizing, in games and practice. Have you ever had a boss that never tells you when you do a good job at something, but jumps on any mistake? What am I saying. I think everyone has. Is that effective? Or do you quit that job when you get the first chance? Let me be clear–the number one problem with Thibs is his bad systems that do not compliment the players he has. Perhaps the number two problem is not teaching prioritized basics well enough (barking at everything rather than focusing on the most important things to correct). On top of that the team isn’t spunky—it seems they’ve dropped into some sort of malaise. This malaise is mostly caused by the confusion and frustration of playing for this system. But I now am starting to think the relentless negativity is part of it too. And it isn’t just that it is ungracious to ride guys without giving them props for what they do right. Positive reinforcement is a great teaching tool. In my opinion, it’s a better teaching tool than negative reinforcement, of using negativity and fear and yelling to try to force feed your teachings.

    In a nutshell, I don’t think fans are buying the ‘they’re young!’ excuse anymore. Not because they aren’t young, not because young players don’t tend to do dumb things, but because we aren’t any better than last year and should be with a ‘better’ coach and another year under our belt. That we have flat-lined is not a good sign, nor any fun. In some ways we are even less fun to watch this season than last. That’s impressive in a bad way.

    I mean, again, on offense guys just spread the floor and stand there. It’s unbelievable. It’s either a spread out floor where everyone without the ball just stands there or it a loaded floor with more guys on one side, clogging half the court. Either way, there are no cuts, no screens, no one moving without the ball, little P&R. It’s crazy. I see better schemes in high school games. On D, yeah I get it the subtleties of advanced NBA D isn’t going to come overnight to these young, sometimes defensively challenged players. But they can’t even put together absolute basics. This is stuff that they should have picked up long ago, common sense stuff, some of it being things you learn over and over pre-NBA. I just don’t get it. I’m not asking for great defense right away. I am looking for some sign of improvement going forward.

    On a more philosophical note, Thibs seems to love cliches and won’t let them go. One of them is that his system works and if we’re bad it’s the players fault, that no adjustment to the system could ever be useful because it is proven goods. Another is ‘Wiggins IS our star.’ We force feed that guy and basically design terrible team offense around him. His defense it OK at best and when drafted we was slated to be a really good defender right away. Someone over on canis hoopus wrote a comment ripping Wiggins’ role as a cancer on the team. He was maybe a bit over the top, but more convincing than me, so I thought about it and came to the conclusion that we need to treat him like any other player, not design the offense around him, and perhaps consider him more of a natural 2nd fiddle in the future when he’s a nightly fiddle at all. Thibs wants to make or break the team on him some nights. Which makes no sense to me when we have Towns…

  5. Yongjun Lee says:

    Do you remember what Glen Taylor said last summer? He said “But when it was clear that we were not going to the playoffs, I had to ask whether to stick with Flip’s folks long-term or start again. I made the decision that we needed to make visible changes so our fans could see we were doing everything we could.”

    The reason that Glen brought Tom Thibodeau and asked Sam and Milt and their staffs to resign was to make ‘VISIBLE CHANGES!’. And also he said, “I think we have a better chance to win with the group I’ve got now.”

    It is clear that he thought there was a chance to win more, so he decided to bring new management group. So Timberwolves should win now at least last year.

    But the result is awful so far. And I want to ask you something. Do you believe the wolves is on the right track? And Fans should be patient?

    No! You have to criticize their decision making system. Yes, they’re young. I totally agree with that and also there is a possiblity to make them confused when they faced their third coach and new system. But it’s doesn’t matter because it’s not the thing they want and made.

    From the time when Glen hired David Kahn to now. He made a lot of mistakes continuously. Wolves should keep Flip’s successor group last summer including KG. I’m very disappointed all their problems.

  6. jsj says:

    The most frustrating aspect of this team is that they just don’t seem to be very cohesive as a unit on either end. Each night someone takes a turn at being impressive and the rest of the team either watches lifelessly or starts shifting away from what is working. They also seem to give up on the inside game if they get blocked a few times, instead of attacking the rim which they are very well equipped to do. Didn’t see this particular game but I heard my 9 year old sighing in frustration early this morning as he watched the replay on league pass…

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