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.
- 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.