Wolves 104, Hawks 90: Shots Falling, and “What it’s supposed to be like”

Photo – Bruce Kluckhohn, USA Today Sports

“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:

Yeah.

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.

Way more.

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.
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  1. Last night we saw what can happen when the big three play for the team first and then play for themselves second. We win going away and they still score nearly 20 points a piece. Of course we also saw that they still can’t stop physical big men from scoring at will, but hey a win is a win.

    My question today is what happens next? Do they play Denver with the same passing enthusiasm, play tough defense against a large front court and not let Gallinari hit uncontested threes or play the refs for FT, by playing good defense and knowing that he will sweep through you or initiate contact on a drive, then grunt and demand a call? If they have learned those lessons they could get another game in the win column and prove that they are learning and getting more cohesive as a team. That would be a huge jump in their development and prove that a good coach can mold them into a team that is formidable night in and night out.

    It was nice to see our wolves impose their will on another team. Let’s see if they can sustain it for a while. Until Jan 11, they have a slew of winnable games, which would be great to see them get back into the playoff picture.

  2. Boy was this fun! We sure have Atlanta’s number. It’s strange, because we struggle more against much lesser rosters frequently. I’m not sure what their problem is. They don’t shoot the 3 great, and they’ve been sloppy in the games we played them. How much of that was our D? In both games against them, our confidence was very high, and that did translate to more active D. But not super far removed from the D they’ve put on the floor in our other games either, which has proved to be inadequate.

    This also goes for our offense. The guys were a little extra energetic and confident and Rubio was allowed to run the offense most of the time. We did move without the ball a little better and share the ball a little better than usual. But it’s not like there was something fundamentally different about the way we played. Sometimes you just get hot. Wiggins came out of a 3 point hibernation with astounding suddenness in the 3rd quarter. We shot 48% from three at high volume, and I don’t even know what our % was for the third quarter. Were some of these looks better than normal because we were playing a bit better fundamentally? Sure, but we also made a bunch of shots we normally miss. What I liked best is that we rarely have an on night for all of our big three. They take turns. But tonight they all were red hot and didn’t need to dominate the ball to do their damage. Red hot: Towns 8-8, (3-3 from 3) Wiggins 7-14 (4-6 from 3) LaVine 7-16 (6-9 from 3) and this doesn’t even describe how we looked in the pull away period in the 3rd quarter.

    Not to be overlooked is how much of an asset Rubio is, despite the constant griping about his scoring. This was a classic example game showing that Rubio doesn’t need to be a scorer. We’ve got that. We have three guys lusting to be our top scorer every game, and many games it doesn’t feel like there are enough shots to keep them all engaged and doing other things (part of this is on them, as they should always be doing the little things to win). Rubio rarely needs to be a scorer of any kind for us to win. It’s hard to exaggerate how helpful it is having a guy who can run the offense, direct traffic, and get 10 assists without a turnover when you are playing against a sloppy team like the Hawks. (I’ve not been following them, but perhaps that’s where they miss Teague the most—they’ve looked sloppy in both games we’ve seen them.)

    Hopefully this will help us turn a corner into being a slightly more competent team. I’m not expecting miracles because most of this was a fluke. A lot of our problems still linger. Shabazz never improves on his rookie-esque weaknesses. While Dunn had 2 very entertaining steals, he otherwise wasn’t helpful. Bjellica only looked OK in garbage time, but maybe it mended his fragile confidence some. Our O system still walks the line with our youth of not moving the ball enough and not having enough off ball action. Our D is a very rough work in progress, but a little extra passion went a long way in this game and maybe that will stick in the guys’ heads. What is Wiggins going to do for us on a nightly basis when his 3 isn’t falling (most nights)? Will he learn something about efficiency from a game like this? I never thought I’d say this, but both Towns and Wiggins could learn about efficiency and when to take what shot from LaVine. Will this happen going forward, when the hoop isn’t a hula hoop? Are we showing progress on D, or was this an outlier? I see more trouble in the immediate future, but hope we can build a little on a game like this.

  3. Didn’t see the game, but congrats!. Do an online radio show every Monday… The Sports Court thebridgeoflightradio.com from 7 – 8pm Central. Call in and talk to me about our Wolves or whatever else.