My least favorite part of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ start to this season has been the hand-wringing about this team. That will happen when three straight summers of promising young cornerstones are added along with the J.K. Simmons “Fletcher” style of coach in Tom Thibodeau is put in charge of the franchise. It’s not just the Wolves losing these games; it’s the way they’ve lost these games. I get all that and I understand the frustration. I don’t understand tying Thibodeau to the previous 12 years of ineptitude, but I get why people aren’t having fun watching Karl-Anthony Towns in his second professional season and the duo of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine in their third NBA season.
The Wolves let go of the rope far too often. Their grasp is immature and unaware of the tenacity and focus it takes to keep hold of the control of any given game. If you expected the Wolves to make the playoffs this season and show themselves to be the next Oklahoma City Thunder (prior to Kevin Durant leaving, of course), then your season has likely already been ruined. If your expectations weren’t quite as optimistic and you’re looking for progress, then there’s still hope to enjoy this season.
That’s what happened in Chicago on Tuesday night during a nationally televised game. The first 6-12 minutes of the game lent themselves to the hand-wringing that I complained about above. In a game the young pups allegedly wanted to win for their growling coach, they came into this contest against the Chicago Bulls flaccid. The first seven minutes of the game had Robin Lopez looking like Wilt Chamberlain, Gorgui Dieng looking like David Lee, and the Wolves looking like the first quarter would be the one that does them in. Minnesota put up a bit of a fight a couple minutes later to begin to make it respectable, but the first quarter ended with the Wolves down 16, the Bulls putting up 38 points, and Chicago shooting 72.7% from the floor.
Even if the Wolves continued to fight back, that was probably going to be too big of a ditch for them to climb out of — mostly because that seems to be the way this season goes. People were wondering on Twitter what was wrong with the Wolves, why they showed so little effort if they did indeed want to win this one for Thibs, and wondering why they can’t at least be fun to watch in their youth.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you the next three quarters of basketball were the change the Wolves needed to enact. They dominated the second quarter, they won the third quarter decisively, and they even won the fourth quarter. The final 36 minutes of that game, Minnesota allowed just 33.8% from the field and 15.4% from deep. Chicago no longer dominated the pain. Some of this was defense and some of this was just the Bulls missing shots.
Whatever it was, the Wolves capitalized on it. And kept capitalizing on it. And put pressure on the home team. The game of runs went in their favor as they outscored their opponents by 21 points over the final three quarters of this game — exchanging blow for blow and counter-punching when the Bulls were left vulnerable.
The Wolves’ bench didn’t help, combining for 9 points between the four reserves who received playing time. This was simply an effort by the starters to get their excrement together after a putrid first rotation through the game to do what their coach has been roaring at them to do: play some gutsy basketball.
It often wasn’t pretty either. Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t find the stroke on his jumper. Andrew Wiggins wasn’t barreling into the lane in order to get free throw attempts to control the pace and get some free points. Zach LaVine wasn’t catching fire in a lite Klay Thompson performance. The Wolves simply started making smarter decisions that showed flashes of the discipline their coach demands.
At a certain point, the Wolves have a decision to make as a unit of players: either keep feeling sorry for themselves and continue to crumble under mild-to-optimistic preseason expectations, or they can find the mental breakthrough they need to erase poor play and build what many of us believe they can and will build.
That’s why I don’t fool myself into thinking or hoping the switch has been flipped for them by this road effort that should, in theory, galvanize a young, hungry team looking to satiate their quest for know-how in the NBA. There will be more frustrating moments this season and we’ll probably once again see the weight of losses and expectations begin to pull down the hopes of this team. Where you believe the progress will shine through is they’ll draw back on an experience like this and remember how to pull themselves back together.
When you’re 6-18, any win is an emotional one if you have a competitive streak inside you. Many of these players wear their competitive streaks on their sleeves, and you can see it being overwhelmed by panic and inexperience when things get bad. Slowing the game down to something you can manage is what veterans have learned how to do with their experience. There was also emotion in making sure Thibodeau received his win in the first game back in Chicago. With the bad blood that happened over Thibs’ time with the Bulls (some his fault, some management’s fault), it’s both petty and understandable that this win might mean more to the Wolves coach — even if he’d never admit it.
KAT walked over to his coach and gave him a hug when he final buzzer sounded. Wiggins apparently lit up when Alan Horton asked him about coming through for his coach.
Great sign that Andrew Wiggins' face lit up when @WolvesRadio asked him about Thibs getting a win in Chicago. Says guys wanted it for him.
— Jim Petersen (@JimPeteHoops) December 14, 2016
Maybe that’s what it takes to fuse the competitive streak they possess with the pride and execution necessary to become a winner in this league. Maybe they needed to take their own emotions out of it and play for something other than themselves. Maybe Thibodeau was finally that unifying voice they could believe in and use his history to amend their present and future. Or maybe it was just a random collapse by the Bulls and enough good moments by the Wolves to overcome their early and significant deficit.
There is no way of knowing right now. We can only speculate, hope for the best, and wait to see how the respond in the next game, week, month, and for the rest of the season. But for now, they made the right plays they needed to in order to get back into this game. Developing teams build those moments into habits and those habits into staples. Usually, those staples turn into more victories than losses, and it’s been a long time since the Wolves could flaunt that for an entire season. But it’s coming.
Three Key Plays That I Found Cool
Where you would assume the Wolves would kick this game away to the Bulls occurs in the final minute of the game. The Wolves had a two-point lead but Dwyane Wade had the ball in his hands with 65 seconds left. He was isolated against Zach LaVine on the right wing. Normally, you’d expect the Wolves to either give up the layup, find their way into giving up a soul-crumbling 3-pointer, or foul Wade and give him a couple of free points.
Instead, LaVine managed to create a likely four or five-point swing. Wade tested LaVine’s footwork with a quick crossover for show, just to see where the young defender’s head was. He then tried to catch LaVine leaning with a left-to-right crossover and a drive, which was setting up a pullback crossover to get Zach off-balance. LaVine initially bit on the first crossover, but he recovered and remained taller than Wade as he got in front of him. Wade then faked a post-up before stepping back for an unlikely 3-pointer.
The shot wasn’t even close and Ricky Rubio (who was sensational in this game) corralled the rebound. That wasn’t the end of the moment though. LaVine was then waiting like a wide receiver looking to break downfield on a broken play. Rubio played the part of the scrambling quarterback and let the pass fly from about 70 feet away. Initially, it looked like it would be too much for LaVine as the pass sailed a bit. Channeling his Randy Moss, LaVine corralled it home. From potentially being down one on that play, the Wolves found themselves up four.
Lately, it feels like those late game outlets are getting away from the Wolves. This one didn’t.
At that point, the Wolves have a cushion to play with, but they still have to find another stop to all but seal this. The Bulls go to Jimmy Butler on the next possession on an inbound pass in the frontcourt. Butler never hesitates with Andrew Wiggins on him. He jabs steps right from the right wing, takes two hard dribbles to his left, steps back to create space, and gets off a highly contested mid-range jumper.
Why was it highly contested? Because despite everybody parachuting in the past couple weeks pretending to have a clue about Wiggins and the Wolves, Andrew is a very good defender. He makes some mistakes and he’ll lose the rotation in help defense occasionally (especially out to cover a 3-point shooter), but overall, this is what he does. He absorbs a good move by the opposition, learns from on-ball mistakes of the past (remember Butler drawing those clutch free throws on rookie Wiggins?), and takes away personal space like a Disneyland tourist. He does all of this without fouling.
But please, tell me how steals and blocks would make you feel like he’s producing more as a defender. Monta Ellis and Darko Milicic are all ears.
The third play wasn’t the block on Wade that sent him screaming at the ref and into the locker room early. It was this example of why I want Rubio directing the Wolves offense in late-game situations this season. Wolves were running down the clock with a four-point lead and about 40 seconds left. Rubio wanted a pick-and-roll with KAT, and the Bulls were daring Ricky to take a jumper with their defensive positioning.
Before KAT even showed for the screen, Wade was in a BarcaLounger in the paint. Butler was showing from the weak side wing, and Nikola Mirotic was cheating off of Gorgui Dieng in the strong side corner. The paint was packed and Rubio had a lot of room to be dared into a jumper. But Rubio doesn’t do that often. He’s patient and he knows how to create space for his teammates even when the defense has no business allowing him to.
Wade went under the screen as Butler and Mirotic retreated enough to potential spot-up shooters. And Rubio managed to get Robin Lopez gravitating toward protecting a layup as Towns caught the ball with no defenders around him. He managed to have a lowly contested runner in the lane that didn’t drop, but it showed that Rubio creates for others when the defense knows that’s exactly what he wants to do. I’ll trust even a struggling Towns in that situation all the time.
Sure, everything has to break right for the Wolves sometimes, but doesn’t it have to do that for most teams?