“It’s easier to win basketball games when you make shots.”
Somebody famous or smart said that once. I can’t remember if I read it in a John Wooden book or an article from the Sloan Conference on sports analytics.
It’s really good insight.
Tonight, facing the Atlanta Hawks for the second time in six nights, the Timberwolves made shots. Specifically, their “Big 3” of Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns made shots. And just like last Wednesday night’s game at Atlanta, the Wolves came away with a win — this time, of the blowout variety. The final 104-90 score is a little misleading, because most of the fourth quarter was devoted to Jordan Hill getting smoked by Kris Humphries in garbage time. At one point, the Wolves actually led by 29 points, 94-65.
This game was not close.
LaVine had 21 points. His 7-16 shooting is more impressive when you factor in that he was 6-9 from three. Wiggins likewise poured in 21. He was 7-14 from the field and 4-6 from deep. KAT led em with 22. KAT didn’t actually miss any shots. He was 8-8 from the field including three threes.
The combined 13 threes that the Wolves trio made on just 18 attempts tells a lot of the story of how this game went their way. They got hot and ran up a big lead.
The other part involves Dwight Howard’s sore back, which limited him to just 21 minutes of playing time, and the poor play of Dwight’s teammates.
Howard had missed the Hawks past three games, including the prior Wolves matchup. In his limited playing time tonight, D12 looked like his old self (young self?), dominating the glass and posting a line of 20 points (on 9-9 shooting (!)), 12 rebounds and 2 assists. As he is in most matchups, Dwight was too strong for Gorgui Dieng around the basket. The Wolves probably would’ve won this game even had Howard played a full load of minutes — his plus/minus was (-9) after all — but they wouldn’t have built the massive lead that they held in the early fourth quarter.
Atlanta suffered from limited Howard minutes and their own poor play. Paul Millsap in particular had an uncharacteristically bad night, scoring just 7 points on a miserable 2-13 shooting. Early in the game, Millsap looked really upset at teammates, opponents, and especially referees. That he later took an elbow to the eye probably didn’t boost his mood any. For Millsap, it was just one of those nights, but he wasn’t the only Hawk to shoot poorly. Kyle Korver and Mike Muscala, normally sharpshooters, shot 2-7 and 1-4 from the field, respectively.
How much of these struggles was due to good Timberwolves defense versus simple mistakes and missed shots, I’m not sure. It was probably a combination. I thought the Wolves effort and focus on defense looked better for most of the night than it did on Christmas at Oklahoma City.
This was a really important win for the Wolves, bouncing back after their disappointing weekend. Beating the Hawks seemed like a tall order after losing at home to the Kings and getting handled by the Thunder last night on national television. A three-games-and-counting losing streak seemed very realistic if not likely. As Timberwolves fans, we’re well aware of how slippery the slope can be from a “disappointing start” to a lost season. Last year, with an even younger version of these same players, they took a major slide in the middle of the season. After a surprisingly-competitive 8-8 start, things went south in a hurry.
You might remember how ugly things got after Sam Mitchell stopped playing his vets (Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett) and went into developmental mode:
When 4-game losing streaks become the norm, and you mix a 9-gamer in the middle there too, and you go 6 and 28 during the middle of the season… that’s when people really stop paying attention, and the players begin to tune out the coach. The year before (which was even worse!) Flip Saunders talked about the “AAU mentality” when young players stop caring about individual games, because there are so many of them and they begin to blend together in all of the losing.
Corey Brewer was on The Ringer NBA Show podcast last week, and he talked about his experience starting his career for the rebuilding Timberwolves, immediately after KG was traded to Boston for a slew of really-young players. About playing with Rashad McCants, Gerald Green, Randy Foye, and Sebastian Telfair, Brewer said:
They’re not bad guys, I had a good time playing with em, but they were young like me. They were, like, second and third-year guys. Now, everybody’s trying to do the same thing. Everybody wants to be a star. Everybody’s fighting to be a star. We were bad. Really bad. It was a tough situation for me, personally, it was tough, going from winning two national championships… to winning 12 games out of 82. My first three or four years were tough.
Brewer went on to say that going to the Dallas Mavericks probably saved his career, because — playing for bad teams, “nobody cares.” He said that, playing with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion, “I didn’t even play that much, but I learned that ‘this is what it’s supposed to be like in the NBA.'”
The gist of Brewer’s remarks were that playing on a really bad team is a qualitatively different thing than playing for a team that knows what it’s doing. That losing too much, without any good veteran leadership, can be a toxic, career-jeopardizing experience.
Now, Brewer’s situation was not the same as the one that the young Timberwolves players are involved in. They have a much better coach in Thibs than those Wolves had in Randy Wittman and then Kurt Rambis. And they have more talent in LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns than the post-KG Wolves had in Brewer, McCants, and Al Jefferson.
But this thing where lots of young talent is thrown out there and the losses pile up… that can be comparable in important ways. Like Brewer said, “Everyone wants to be a star.” When the team gameplan rarely works, selfishness can develop.
Tonight, after a balanced and successful scoring night from LaVine, Wiggins and Towns, Thibs went out of his way to touch on their showing of good teamwork: “All three guys are trusting each other and starting to build some chemistry together and learning how to play off each other and also to play off the double teams, to know where the opportunities are.”
Not to get overly dramatic about one win, but tonight’s against the Hawks was a good one to get. It snaps a losing streak at just 2 games, and gets some positivity back in the locker room. They just beat a playoff team twice in less than a week’s time. Thibs’s teaching needs to begin to correlate with more positive results in games so that the players can understand that it’s all for something, and that — as Brewer said — “this is what it’s supposed to be like in the NBA.”
A few quick notes to wrap this one up:
- Ricky Rubio had 10 assists and 0 turnovers for the second consecutive game. That’s good basketballing. Thibs praised him after the game.
- Thibs also went out of his way to praise Kris Dunn, who had an ordinary game. (1 assist, 1 turnover, in 24 minutes.) Thibs does that. He loves Dunn, even if it’s more about projecting his future than anything that’s actually happening in games.
- Shabazz Muhammad was outta control in this game. He was almost a caricature of his normal self, going Full Tunnel Vision, every time he touched the ball. The Wolves would be better off trading Bazz for an expiring contract who can do the things that Brandon Rush was supposed to do, but apparently can’t: stand and shoot, and play a little D.
- Cole Aldrich didn’t play tonight. Thibs said it was due to Atlanta going small with Dwight still battling back problems and under a minutes limit.
- Next up are the Nuggets, at Denver, on Wednesday night.