2016-17 Season, Game Analysis

Timberwolves 125, Hornets 120 OT: They are who we thought they were… almost

Via Getty
Via Getty

Throughout the early parts of this season, we’ve seen big leads evaporate. Usually, it’s been a first half effort from the Minnesota Timberwolves getting erased in the third quarter and then some, before they’re coming up short down the stretch of close-ish games. However, the entire “it’s a game of runs” has always and will always go both ways in this league.

Saturday night in Charlotte, the Wolves reminded fans that those double-digit leads can be erased and the opportunity can be fully grasped and never let go in their favor. The Charlotte Hornets dominated the first quarter, allowed the Wolves back into the game by halftime, and then decisively won the third quarter to push the Wolves against the wall going into the fourth. The result felt inevitable, based on how this season was going. Fans were complaining and sulking on Twitter about the current state of the team. A frustrating season was sinking into numbness.

Remember, though: this is a game of runs. And the Wolves made their run a couple of times in this game to put the Hornets on their heels. After maybe the most embarrassing game of the season for the Wolves’ bench in Minneapolis against the New York Knicks, they’ve come back for two straight performances against the Knicks and Hornets. Tom Thibodeau credited the bench with getting them back in the game, and it was the 10-0 run in the first 3:42 of the fourth quarter that put these two teams back even.

It was the first tie of the game since the Wolves and Hornets were squared away at 0-0. That lineup of Kris Dunn (who put together back-to-back positive performances), Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Cole Aldrich was phenomenal (. It wasn’t just about creating production in the scoring department. This team played defense against a Hornets team that can be devastating offensively, especially with Kemba Walker in the game. What that lineup did in these key stretches was complement the good play on offense with pointed aggression on defense.

There were a couple of plays in which the Wolves’ key fourth quarter unit overextended themselves and screwed up ending the possession with a rebound, but other than that, they had active hands, good rotations, and a willingness to shove the ball back down their opponents’ throats in transition. And that’s really where you need a second unit to be. No matter what the circumstances are in a game, the second unit’s job is to put the starters in position to win the game.

The big question with the Wolves after the bench put them within shouting distance with 5:53 left in the game was whether or not those starters would capitalize on the effort. Even then, we saw them in a dicey situation. The lulls of a couple of misses over the final couple minutes of the game left the Wolves looking down the barrel of a more recent trend than what we saw to start the year.

First few weeks of the season saw the Wolves dominating early, getting destroyed in the third quarter, and then struggling to close. Those were dissatisfying ways to lose because they kept losing the proverbial rope. More recently, we’ve seen a more trustworthy style of losing. They get down early, they fight their way back with a spirited fourth quarter, and then they lose a tight one. Those latter losses make you feel (in a vacuum) like they’re on the verge of coming through and solving the problem. The former losses (in a vacuum) make you feel like they’re clueless to close.

This was going to be a scrappy loss but a loss nonetheless. The Hornets had the ball with a minute to go, hoping to sink a dagger into the Wolves while already up 104-97. They ran the clock down and Frank Kaminsky got Karl-Anthony Towns up in the air on a pump fake for a 3-pointer. This moment should’ve been it for the Wolves. Frank the Tank could jump into him and draw a foul but since he had picked up his dribble, he couldn’t drive past the big man. At that moment, Towns made a play.

I’m not sure how likely Kaminsky was to hit that leaning 3-point shot off of a pump fake and fly-by. It seems like a tough shot for most players to make, especially big men (even if they can shoot). But Towns never fouled him and still managed to recover to block the shot. It all but guaranteed a dagger-less possession for the Hornets. At that point though, we’re still talking about the Wolves making up a seven-point deficit with 51 seconds to play. InPredict’s win probability was not in their favor at that moment.

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0.1% chance to win the game and they end up winning this game. Zach LaVine hit a 3-pointer. Kemba Walker stepped out of bounds. Ricky Rubio hit another 3-pointer. Andrew Wiggins hit a 3-pointer to tie the game after free throws from the Hornets. The Wolves get a stop against Kemba on the final possession of regulation and end up dropping 19 points in five minutes of overtime to secure the five-point win.

The randomness of this victory saturated the game. From hand-wringing in the first three quarters to seemingly unrequited hope to Towns deciding in overtime that the Wolves simply wouldn’t lose this game, I’m not sure what to do with this victory. It was much-needed for the psyche of the team. Heavy has been the expectations that are being buried by losses early in the season. Moral victories can turn into actual victories and surprise you in the process.

However, I’m not sure what happened in Charlotte is much different than what’s been happening previously in the season. Big leads disappear. This time it happened for the Wolves’ win column, but does it change what’s been prevalent with this squad? I still insist that patience is needed with this team learning the discipline that Tom Thibodeau demands, even if the games end up resulting in a Wolves victory.

How bout that pick-and-roll though?

What I do find super intriguing and satisfying from this game is how much the Wolves ran pick-and-roll. So far this season, the Wolves haven’t run a lot of pick-and-roll. Going into Saturday’s game, they ran the ninth lowest percentage of pick-and-roll plays in the NBA. 32.6% of their offensive possessions come in the pick-and-roll. The Hornets run the highest percentage at 42%; the Warriors run the lowest percentage at 18.2%, according to Synergy Sports.

It’s not necessary to run the pick-and-roll, but when Ricky Rubio is your point guard, you should really do it more than the Wolves have been doing it. I’m not one of the people lamenting Thibodeau’s offensive system, but I do believe with Rubio in the game, the pick-and-roll should be an incredible weapon for you. Sure, defenders go under the screen against Rubio, but he still finds a way to pick defenses apart quite often.

Although in defense of Thibodeau, the Wolves haven’t been good in PnR this season. It’s a small sample and there’s a lot of noise so far because of Rubio missing the time he missed, but they’ve been 26th in scoring efficiency in the pick-and-roll. Still, I think they can be pretty exceptional with it because their bigs can pop, their bigs can roll, and the wings can spread the floor.

In the game against Charlotte, the Wolves ran 49 pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy. That’s a pick-and-roll rate of 39.5%, and they really looked good running it. When Towns was screening for Rubio, they had KAT basically popping so that he could survey the defense and decide whether or not the delayed roll was the best way to score.

If the defense doesn’t provide an easy driving lane, Towns can just pop the jumper from there. But with the Hornets struggling to find him and wall him off from the lane, KAT was able to really do some damage on that delayed roll. This is where you’d love to see that two-man game between Rubio and Towns really take off. And of course, having it work the same way with LaVine and/or Wiggins as the initiator would be great too.

The Wolves scored 55 points on 49 pick-and-roll possessions. That’s an offensive rating of 112.2, which is far better than the 85.4 points per 100 possessions they were scoring on pick-and-roll plays prior to this game.

I’m not sure if any of this is a breakthrough for the Wolves or just a random occurrence. The defense still needs work, although it got a lot of timely stops in this contest. The offense still stalls out but it got what it needed to down the stretch. The bench isn’t reliable but they were galvanizers in this game. The Wolves finally pulled out a close victory.

Not sure if it needs overanalyzing so much as just recognition that it was fun and it could maybe happen again.

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6 thoughts on “Timberwolves 125, Hornets 120 OT: They are who we thought they were… almost

  1. ‘I’m not one of the people lamenting Thib’s system.’ You should be. Up until this game it has lacked decent P&R and has made a point of taking the ball out of Rubio’s hands as soon as possible on most possessions.

    This game will help our confidence. It showed us how to play. But there certainly was an air of randomness to it. Why did the bench play so well? Why was Dunn like a different player? Why were we clutch? Why were we so lucky? Most of this is stuff we can’t count on happening all that often. Still, there was a big difference in this game, something that got our confidence up—Rubio was given the keys to create. This season, he’s clearly been told to get rid of the ball and let the offense run through someone else. The short of it is that created a lot of bad shots. Our guys’ offensive talents could at times overcome this, but not for prolonged periods. It’s not good strategy. This is particularly boneheaded when Rubio is on our roster, but it isn’t just a Rubio thing. It usually helps to have a PG running action like P&R and generally probing the defense, rather than just dumping the ball off every possession. But allowing Rubio to do his thing more gave us a lot of better shots than we are used to. It put the opposing D on skates and questioning what they were doing. It gave motivation to the guys to move without the ball, to cut to the basket, to stop standing around. Whether Thibs was also encouraging this basic stuff (or has been all along) is unclear–what is clear it that allowing Rubio to run offense and make passes encourages the guys to create action, drive and cut. The net results were confidence, what looked like a real system or personality on offense, less pressure on our defense and the ability to get out of funks in time. Perhaps most important was the contagious aspect of this. When Rubio is allowed to do his thing, suddenly our ball movement in general is better, the guys are making better passes more willingly. And when the ball is moving, then they guys are moving more. And when all this is happening we get better shots.

    We’ll see what sticks with all this. It might be mostly an anomaly, or just a small step. I don’t think we’re going to shake all our problems just like that. Funny thing is, I’m no so much concerned about what the young guys learned from this as I am concerned about what Thibs learned from this. If this game opened up his eyes to what happens when he gives his PG’s (esp. Rubio) the keys, things might get better fast. For now it was fun to have a really enjoyable game where our team didn’t feel wasted.

    1. Pyrrol, prior to this game, it’s almost felt like Thibs has been trying to prepare the Wolves for a future without Ricky but while Ricky is still on the court.

  2. The good thing about this game was that we played against bigger low post players and got offensive rebounds and second chance points. Thanks to Cole Aldrich and Baz we saw what happens when you don’t give up on a play just because you miss. The Starters are so quick to all rush back on defense, that rarely do you see them go after the missed shot. We even got some good tempo with Ricky and Dunn able to find some players with pick and roll or transition baskets, which is what we do best.

    This could be a game that puts them back into the mindset of being a playoff team. They play some real tough competition next three games, but if they play with energy and protect the ball, they have a shot to win a couple they probably shouldn’t, which would offset some of the early loses against teams that should have worse records than the wolves.

    However, the are young and not great defensively, and that is a bad combo if you want to go on a winning streak in the pros. Let’s hope that the starters and the bench now have a confidence to put some points up together. I like the Dunn -LaVine combo. The Belly Wiggins big line-up. Baz and Cole getting time with the starters. I would have thought Thibs would have had these line-ups in his playbook already to use in the right situation and as was mentioned, use them in P/R more, but let’s hope that we aren’t scratching our heads next week wondering what has happened now.

  3. Also, Dunn has been given a lot of opportunity, yet not been thrown into silly situations like starting, and has done very little other than disappoint. I think he’s been given a lot of minutes he didn’t deserve, which is to say, we have a hardworking young player (Tyus) who’s been playing much better who deserves most of the minutes Dunn has been taking. The last two games have proven me wrong in this view and speak well for Dunn and Thibs’ faith. Still, it’s only two games and one could argue that if all of Dunn’s PG minutes were given to Tyus even in these last two games where Dunn has finally been OK, we probably would have played just as well as a team and gotten the same value (in a different way) out of those minutes. Looking forward, I hope to see this competent version of Dunn but I’m only cautiously optimistic.

  4. Can’t underestimate the importance of being able to get a win and figuratively come up for air a little bit in this long season. Too often, the viewing public (fans and media) try to predict when that run of wins is going to come, which is silly. Momentum is a myth, and they’re not lacking the confidence to win; they’re lacking the game-by-game focus to hold leads and needed a few more shots to go down in the final minutes. This game’s kind of an ascension to the mean in crunch time combined with an unexpected bench performance.

    One of the things a team like the Hornets exposes is how connected a unit is out there. The Wolves have a lot of “not my job” guys who have never had to do the dirty work of covering for a blown rotation, boxing out, communicating on defense, or making good decisions. Those are the types of things that get stops, lead to easy points, and slow down big runs. Most of these guys were expected to carry the offensive load and that was it. Add that in to Wiggins and LaVine not being natural passers, and they have some habits that contribute to losing that haven’t been broken enough to consistently win. Until those habits are broken, they’ll live and die by how many shots go in for them and their opponent.

  5. How complete a player is, usually gets less attention than how much a player scores. Kyrie Irving and Harden are perfect examples. They were both viewed as great players, but never did much more than score. Last year Kyrie, actually did some of the dirty work you mention gjk and helped win a ring for Cleveland and this year Harden leads in assists and Houston looks like a better team than last year. If our big three, can see how important it is to box out, rotate to the right player or freeze a pick and roll, they will definitely win more games.
    As for Dunn, I would like to see him get more playing time (in the D League) in the hopes that his offensive game could come around. He has talent, but I just laugh at how so many “insiders” felt that with drafting Dunn, Rubio was gone and the wolves would have three ROY in a row.

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