“It’s what you see in front of you and pretend isn’t there that gets you — not what you don’t know, but can’t find out.” – Dan O’Sullivan, ‘Vengeance Is Mine,’ Jacobin Magazine
Here are the things I saw (and heard) from my very privileged vantage point, the second seat of the second row of the media section at Target Center, 600 1st Ave N, Minneapolis, MN, on the night of December 9th, 2016, when the Timberwolves lost to the Pistons by nearly 30 points and no less an authority than Jonny K stated the team had reached “Defcon 1.”
The most striking thing about seeing an NBA game live, especially if you get to sit close, is not just the size of the players (they’re all enormous), but also how one center can be so much bigger or smaller than the other, one small forward significantly more muscular than his defensive assignment, or one point guard much too fast for the other to handle. Flip Saunders liked to make a point that sounds very simple, yet people forget: winning is about finding mismatches and exploiting them. Experience, executing fundamentals, and sheer will can help make a mismatch, but often it comes down to the measurable things. Size. Length. Leaping ability. And something stands out immediately when you watch the Detroit Pistons:
Andre Drummond is a freaking huge person.
But Drummond wasn’t the only huge guy in visiting blues; Aron Baynes, with 260 pounds packed on to his 6’10 frame, made Karl-Anthony Towns look like a child and Cole Aldrich look like a gangly teenager. Boban Marjanovic, all 7’3 and 290 pounds of him, was the garbage time center and Jordan Hill appeared as though he were a random man who’d wandered past sleepy security guards and onto the court, and not a 6’10 NBA center.
But the real story, of course, was Drummond. The 5th-year man from UCONN had 9 points and 7 rebounds, including 4 off the offensive glass, in the first quarter alone. He finished the night with 22 points, 8 offensive rebounds, and 14 defensive boards. A 22-22 night. He was a brute force, snatching balls for putbacks and clearing guys out from underneath the hoop to end defensive possessions with definitive boards.
There was an unmistakably sleepy feeling to the early parts of the game.
There was a charge in the lane, or it was a blocking foul, one of the two, then refs talked it over and decided it was a double foul, apparently, and that there’d be a jump ball, or something. And all throughout, since it was so quiet inside Target Center, I could hear lots of “What?” and “Noooo?” and bickering of the like, and then, clearly above the incredulous cacophony of protestation, a deep grunt from Tom Thibodeau. “SEAN!,” he bellowed to referee Sean Corbin. “WHAT are you DOING?”
Listening to Thibs coach, including his pleading with officials, will wake anybody up.
Basketball, when it’s played right, has a flow. An offense, when it’s clicking, has very few stops and starts, fumbles and flourishes. Watching a great offense is watching a five-part harmony, rhythmic and rehearsed, with each member feeding off one another’s energy and anticipating how to screen and where to cut.
The Wolves’ offense has been pretty good this year, but last night they faced one of the league’s best defenses. Detroit has a ton of size (Drummond, obviously), length (Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and heart (Reggie Jackson, who plays like everyone in the world has personally wronged him). As a result, the Wolves were out of tune; picks were slow to come or ineffective, ballhandlers were indecisive, passes went out of reach or to no one in particular. The Wolves mustered assists on 19 of their 37 made field goals, or 51%; their season mark headed into the night was a smidge under 60%. They attempted just 16 threes, sank just three of them, and tallied just 3 fastbreak points, an astoundingly low figure.
Near the end of the first half, Detroit pushed their lead to 42-39 after Tobias Harris burned Shabazz Muhammad for a bucket. KAT inbounded to Rubio, and lightly jogged onto the floor. Rubio bounced the ball in frustration, letting it arc just above his head as he peered to the Wolves’ bench and continued dribbling slowly forward. Bazz hung his head and sauntered toward midcourt. Dieng and LaVine stood straight up near the three point arc, also glancing toward the bench. This behavior is the internationally-recognized signal that your players think it is time for the coach to call a timeout.
He did not.
Instead, Thibs stared ahead and called a play, and the five Timberwolves put their heads down and moved with a bit more urgency. It worked – a Dieng layup cut the lead to one. But then Shabazz got burned again, this time for a Marcus Morris three, and Tom Thibodeau finally called timeout.
During the timeout, the coach drew up a play. After Thibs was done drawing up the play, there was still time left in the timeout. As the Wolves dancers danced or the t-shirt people did their thing or the in-arena announcers tried to sell some merchandise behind and around them, the coach and the players sat very quietly in their folding chairs. Thibs was not talking to the players. The players were not talking to one another.
It was a fine play he’d drawn up; Towns wound up earning a trip to the line because of it. But alas, he missed both free throws.
What does that story mean? I’m not really sure; maybe it’s really nothing. But my main takeaway after watching the whole sequence unfold over the course of a few minutes was, “These people do not look very happy.” And this was not at the end of the blowout; this was while the ballgame was still very much a ballgame.
The halftime media snack was pretzels and gummy bears. I was a very happy boy.
Tom Thibodeau is the freaking master of the frustrated timeout.
Sam Mitchell was very good, too, don’t get me wrong. He’d kind of half-shout “tiiiiimeOUT” while strutting onto the floor, alone, as if to collect his thoughts before returning to the bench to talk to his young team. The whole thing was a show, a way to tell his team he was disappointed in them.
KG, Tayshaun, and Andre would fill in this intermediate gap – especially KG. They’d either address the whole group, or would split up and talk to certain players individually. Then Sam would come in to deliver the overall message, or the next play call, or a little pep talk, before breaking things up.
This year it’s a bit different. After a couple of easy buckets from Andre Drummond opened the Pistons’ second half scoring, the latter being an alley-oop from KCP that Gorgui fell asleep on, Thibs’ gravelly voice shouted “TIME” while emphatically making the ‘T’ with the fingers on his left hand and the palm on his right. Then he discussed a few things with the officials. The players returned to the bench area – it was a 20-second timeout, so no one sat down – and again, there wasn’t much chatter. A word or two from Thibs, and the horn blew, and the team was back at it.
What does that story mean? I suppose you could say it’s different this year, now that KG isn’t around. (No shit.) But I already addressed the silent timeout problem above; there’s something more to it. Last season, there was a lot more hands-on teaching occurring during games. There were demonstrative conversations, shadowplaying post moves, a veteran or an assistant putting an arm around a young player and gesturing out to the floor.
This year, the teaching style is different. A bit more didactic? Perhaps Thibs and his staff believes teaching occurs best in practice situations, and that games are when you show what you’ve learned? If so, that’s fine – what the hell do I know, maybe that’s a better style, there are probably strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. The main point is, it’s very different. It could be that a team full of young players responds better to one approach, and a team full of veterans would respond to another.
A brief aside regarding in-game, in-arena entertainment… Yelling “who wants a free t-shiiiiiiiirt” really gets the people going, but by the third incarnation of this promotion, the excitement’s worn off. Crunch’s bits are… something. Last night Chomper (the mini-inflatable-looking thing) pulled a random woman from the crowd onto the court with him, then she stood there awkwardly while he danced to a medley of hip hop songs. It was unwatchable.
The one bright spot was the kids’ dunk contest during a first half timeout, which is always a treat. Three young kids, maybe 3 or 4 years old, dunk on mini-hoops. They sprint towards the rim with everything they have, maybe spin, and maybe actually land the dunk, or maybe not, but either way, it’s freaking adorable. The “winner” was the little girl who sprinted toward the hoop, stopped, handed the ball to her “helper” did a ballerina twirl, grabbed the ball back and slammed it home, all with the world’s biggest smile on her face.
That could be the bit during literally every stoppage in play, and it would never, ever, ever get old.
There are moments throughout an NBA game that test a team’s resolve – the question is, will they get derailed? Or keep their heads, and keep battling?
The Wolves did a good job of battling through an iffy foul call on Ricky Rubio five minutes into the third quarter; after playing terrific defense for the first 23 seconds of the shot clock, Tobias Harris stood, flat-footed, with 1 second to go. Ricky reached in and swiped the ball away; the whistle screeched, the ref’s arm went up, and the bailed-out Harris went to the line for three shots.
The Wolves did a good job of battling back when they played great defense, again, at the 3:28 mark, and Harris was bailed out, again, this time by a friendly rim that rattled home his end-of-the-shot clock chuck from three.
In both instances, the Wolves answered with a bucket. With 3:09 to go, Wiggins hit a turnaround jumper, cutting the Pistons’ lead to 4. Marcus Morris turned it over, and the Wolves came out of a TV timeout with a chance to cut the lead to 2 or 1.
But then Karl-Anthony Towns was whistled for an offensive foul, and Ish Smith countered with a three. Next, KAT traveled, and Jon Leuer got free from Adreian Payne for an easy layup. The Wolves kept missing shots and turning it over, and the Pistons answered with threes from KCP and an Ish to to Leuer alley-oop. By the time Aron Baynes slammed it home with two seconds to go in the frame, and Kris Dunn’s end-of-quarter heave missed the rim, the Wolves were down 14, but might as well have been down a million. The team’s resolve was broken.
Early in the fourth, there was a red-faced man in the lower bowl screaming at Tom Thibodeau to yell at his players and hold them accountable. Shortly thereafter, the boo birds started. The lead was ballooning, 14 to 16 to 19 to 21. Adreian Payne was the main staple of the Wolves’ offense during this stretch; you can imagine how it went. When he has the ball in his hands and is attempting to score, which is often the case, for better or (usually) worse, he moves as if he has a YouTube reel of highlights in his head. A routine floater or straight-line drive will not do; he must spin, or contort his long body, or pump fake wildly, or go reverse. The moves programmed into his head are the opposite of Occam’s Razor; call them Payne’s Dictums. Simple will not do; he can make as many moves as he damn well pleases, whether the combinations are effective or not.
And the Pistons’ lead ballooned to 24, 26, 28, 30, 33, 35, and the boo birds flew up the aisles and out into the cold Minneapolis night, well before the 6:00 mark of the final frame, and Thibs stopped yelling, and the big arena was left in eerie, uneasy silence.
“We didn’t take anything away from them,” Thibs said after the game, and he was right. Drummond got his, and when he wasn’t, the Wolves were so scared of him rolling to the rim that the Pistons’ guards were free to take floaters and short jumpers from just inside the free throw line; it felt like they didn’t miss a single one. Detroit outscored Minnesota from beyond the arc 42 to 9. They shot 50% from the floor and 48% from three – in the second half, those numbers were an absurd 60% and 57%, with 14 assists on their 24 made baskets. What was a close game late in the third turned into as thorough an ass-kicking as I’ve seen the Wolves endure on their home floor; and considering the personnel, and the coach, and the pre-season proclamations from so many “experts,” this one is easily the most concerning.
I’d describe Tom Thibodeau’s overall mood after the game as “genuinely buddled” and “perhaps a bit defeated.” When asked if he was concerned that his message wasn’t getting through, he said, “I’m always concerned. I’m very concerned. But I’m going to keep coming. I don’t go away, so I’m going to look at everything, re-examine (everything). Because something’s being missed. So it’s got to change.”
“We’re trying to be a 48 minute team,” he said later. “You can’t pick and choose when you want to play hard. That’s got to be constant. The intensity, the heart, it’s the foundation. So it’s hard to examine what you’re doing with schemes and sets… if you’re not doing anything hard enough, it’s not going to work.”
And he concluded with this, off a question from Britt Robson on continuity, familiarity, and whether it’s time to change things up: “Everything is on the table. You try to gather information to formulate a plan going forward. We have a pretty good idea of where we want to go, and how we want to get there…”
“… we have to look at everything.”
The ends of home blowout losses are empty and sad, and not just because Target Center itself becomes mostly empty, and the guys on the court are playing the slow, sad basketball of garbage time. Few people are looking, fewer are watching, because what is there to watch? I found myself imagining all the turned off TV sets, or the stations changed to something, anything else, and the people who got an earlier start on the rest of their Friday night for fleeing the end of that deflating game.
It’s become more apparent, from my privileged vantage point, that what I see is not the whole story, and the insights I glean from watching the way everyone interacts may just be superficial. But I won’t pretend something I see isn’t there; as the quote at the top of the piece suggests, that’s an unwise move.
Here’s what I see: there’s a disconnect. Maybe the players don’t like one another, maybe the players feel the coach is the disciplinarian new step-parent and this is all one big adjustment period, maybe the players need to grow up a bit (news flash: 21 year olds aren’t fully-formed adults), maybe the coach needs to tailor his coaching style to a younger team. None of these are new insights; all those theories have been floated by multiple people, ever since the moment Thibs was hired.
But I can tell you that from what I see, they aren’t just theories. I see them, now.