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.
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.