Blazers 95, Timberwolves 89: New Year, Old Habits

The Portland Trail Blazers were struggling and short handed when they arrived in Minneapolis for a New Year’s Day matchup with the Timberwolves. They were 7 games below .500 (14-21) and playing the worst defense in the NBA. Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ superstar guard averaging a career-high 27 points per game, was out with an ankle injury. The Wolves, coming off a decisive victory against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, were favored to beat Portland by 6. That proved to be the exact margin of victory, but it was Portland’s; not Minnesota’s. Behind a career night from combo guard C.J. McCollum, the Blazers handed the Wolves one of their most disappointing losses of the season, against strong competition.

In the first quarter, both teams looked out of sorts; sort of how you’d expect a bunch of 20-somethings to look on a basketball floor on New Year’s Day:

Portland led much of the opening quarter by 5 to 6 points, but the Wolves cut it to 1 before the break. The game turned hard in Minnesota’s favor in the 2nd Quarter, behind the play of Kris Dunn.

Dunn drove hard from the top around a Cole Aldrich ball screen, flew right into Meyers Leonard under the rim, took the contact and scored. A few possessions later, he played great on-ball defense on a C.J. McCollum drive, leading to a wild miss and transition layup the other direction. (Any good defense on McCollum in this game is noteworthy, because his 43 points on 16-25 shooting often looked like a walk in the park.) He hit a three from the left wing, and then he had one of the more spectacular blocks that a guard will make this year:

Dunn had a nice dunk after diving baseline when Karl-Anthony Towns drew a double team on the opposite block. He checked out of the game with 4:48 left in the 2nd Quarter, with the Wolves leading 38-30.

The starters would build that up to a 49-37 halftime margin. Things were looking good in the new year.

And then the third quarter happened.

The Blazers came out of the half and blitzed the Wolves. On their first possession, Rubio was burned to the hole by Allen Crabbe, leading to a dish-off to Mason Plumlee for an And-1 basket. Next time down, Towns was out of position and couldn’t help on a McCollum pick-and-pop. He buried the jumper over Wiggins, who did his best to help when it wasn’t his assignment. On their next possession, Al-Farouq Aminu took Towns off the dribble for a lay-in that seemed easier than it should’ve been.

When McCollum scored and got fouled, missed his free throw, and then somehow rebounded his own miss to score again, it felt like the game was really slipping away. On the next trip down, he buried another jumper off a double ball screen where KAT didn’t get a hand up. The game was tied, Thibs called timeout, and things never really got better from there.

On offense, neither Towns nor Zach LaVine could get it going last night. LaVine ended with 13 points on 5-12 shooting. KAT had just 11 points on a miserable 3-15 shooting. Rubio missed all 5 of his shot attempts. Wiggins shot pretty well from the field (10-20) but made just 3 of 7 free throws, limiting his point total to 24. He had a poor playmaking night, racking up 5 turnovers compared to just a single assist. Against the league’s worst defense, the Wolves young core turned in one of its worst scoring nights of the season.

Against Rubio and the starters, McCollum simply kept on scoring and the Wolves couldn’t keep up. There was a glimmer of 4th Quarter hope when Dunn was back out there, once again playing superior defense on CJM. He also did this, which was completely ridiculous:

Dunn ended the game with 11 points on 5-7 shooting along with 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks (!) in 21 minutes of +12 basketball.

That was the bright spot.

The not-bright spot was almost everything else. After the game, Thibs talked about the third quarter slide and how the Wolves need to become a “48-minute team.”

“The thing that is concerning is the big half-time leads that we don’t protect and we don’t come out with the urgency and the understanding of playing a full 48 minutes and how important that is and how hard you have to play. The double-team should mean that it’s easy offense; get rid of the ball quickly, hit the first open man in front of you, and trust the pass, let that guy make the play. We have to do better in that area and we didn’t play good defense in the first half or good defense in the second half. Game play mistakes, not staying on the body, not trailing, or making it up.”

He mentioned the “willingness to get rid of the ball quickly” a second time in a not-so-veiled shot at KAT, who has been receiving double teams and trying to make what Thibs calls “the home run pass.” Clearly, Thibs would prefer to see a quick and simple kick-out to initiate more ball movement.

If there are any potential short-cuts to success, it should be clear by now that Thibs will not be taking them, and he will not allow his players to take them. Fans discuss ideas like staggering LaVine and Wiggins more — maybe even starting with LaVine on the bench. That isn’t going to happen. Sometimes Cole Aldrich plays well and seems to deserve more than 12 minutes per game. But until Gorgui and KAT can learn how to play better defense themselves, they’ll get 36 minutes per game of continued training. Ricky Rubio has shown that he can orchestrate good offense if he’s handed the ball and given some leash. But Ricky Rubio Improv is not this team’s long-term system, so there won’t be time wasted on it now in the interest of short-term wins.

If someone like George Karl were coaching this roster, they might have a .500 record and be a league pass favorite for its quirky gimmicks. But it also might not learn anything and at least one of the “big three” would probably be banished on the end of the bench if not traded.

The trade deadline is on February 23rd, a little less than two months away. At that time, it’s possible that the Wolves will make a trade to get better by adding a veteran, or to get worse by trading away Rubio and completing the last detail of their rebuild. But until that time comes, I expect to see more of the same — heavy minutes for the young starters with constant attention to details. Some nights things will click like they did against the Bucks and other nights they’ll fall apart like they did against the Blazers.

They play at Philly tomorrow night against the Sixers, a team that knows a thing or two about patience and process-trusting.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. Tom says:

    If the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”, our wolves are completely off their rockers. Last night was as predictable as it was disgusting. Our boys get a nice half time lead on a team that is in free fall, and with it’s best player out and they basically self-implode again in the third. No one is suggesting that Portland clamped down on our boys with Piston or Memphis like defense or that Portland scored with the precision of Golden State or San Antonio. There was a big time effort from CJ McCollum, but as Pre Pippen Jordan vs Celtics proved, you can’t beat a team 1 on 5. Yet, the Wolves, in front of a nice crowd that seemed to be growing with a few wins, played like pigs in the second half and got slaughtered. This is not a case of big guys over powering our guys, or veterans beating a bunch of youngsters, it was a team that was given life by our team and saw that they could steal a win and did it.

    This was a must win for our team, if they ever had any ideas of getting back in the playoff hunt. We are now an O-fer in our Division. I don’t know what motivates our players, that they don’t see how important Division rivalry games or home games are for playoff teams. They are sloppy, undisciplined and constantly playing selfish, lazy basketball after a half time lead. If we accept that Thibs is a top flight coach, he must put this group of players on notice, that they will be broken up if they continue to blow leads like they do. I can’t imagine paying Andrew or Zack top dollar if they can’t get a sniff of the playoffs in three years. They will want max type contracts, but are they really any better than Kevin Love, who Kahn actually predicted correctly as a second or third wheel on a playoff team? KAT was playing inferior inside players last night and instead of pounding them down low for scores and free throw opportunities, shot and missed 6 three pointers and got five FT attempts? What shot blocking legend was he pulling away from the lane, so others could drive to the basket? You can tell they weren’t “motivated” in this game, by the FT shooting exhibition that they put up. First, very few attempts (18 total) means non aggressive and then missing 6 of them in a game you lose by six is insane.

    I will not be watching this debacle again until they make changes in the asylum and win three divisional games.

  2. pyrrol says:

    I expect inconsistency from a young team, and over the course of this season my expectations have been lowered (like most of us, whether willing to admit it or trying to get on the high horse and act like this is exactly what one should have expected). Still, a game like this is pretty pathetic. Our offense looked out of sync, confused and bad against the worst D in the NBA (at the moment). Two of our big three had off games, and Wiggins didn’t exactly light it up and show the determination he displayed in the Bucks game. On D, we basically had to just defend OK, and the only major threat to focus on was McColumn We allowed him to score a career high. I get it. We’re a young team. But this is like a caricature of a young team.

    I’m not really Tom level disgusted here. We’re at the point (like it or not) where we are almost incapable of stringing two respectable efforts together, and thus 2 game win streaks are rare. Kind of a sad place to be. But I’m not going to stop watching until they improve on this because I’ll be bored all winter. In a way this is OK, because consistency is one of the last things to appear for a young team. Still, the level of inconsistency we display, player-to player, in game, and from game-to-game is alarming and should concern any serious fan.

    On the other hand I’m not in the Andy line of thinking on our development, that what we see is simply a really good coach who refuses to take short cuts like that crappy ole George Karl. Don’t get me wrong, I was as excited as anyone to get Thibs, a touted coach that wanted to come here. But frankly, what we see here is simple. The Wolves are bad right now, and behind developmental schedule. And some of the onus for that falls on Thibs’ shoulders. More specifically, there is this line of thought some people are following that everything Thibs is doing is for our quality, long term development, no matter how much it makes us stink now or how questionable it’s actual developmental value is. And it is such an easy out to look at everything bad about this current product and imagine it away in the future because it’s all a master plan. Suddenly Thibs’ widely known predication for overplaying starters becomes playing them until they learn to play better. But the issue is playing guys too many minutes for energy and health–our starters are going to get plenty of minutes to learn every night either way, and the heavy minutes burden doesn’t seem to be accelerating development. This is just one example of this magical thinking which at times feels like sophisticated (and elitist) excuse making.

    Personally, I’m between the Tom and Andy perspective. I still think Thibs can do good things with this team, but I don’t think every decision he makes is a masterstroke of long term development, either. I’m getting increasingly disgusted with the season, and worried things aren’t going to come together (re: banking on Wiggins being a go to NBA star night in and out). I feel interested and optimistic enough that things will come together to keep watching, but not happy with the present product at all even given our challenges in the present.

    A little PG talk: This was maybe the first game where Dunn actually looked like he was supposed to. Rookies that are high draft picks are supposed to look inconsistent. But Dunn has actually looked consistent—consistently bad, with only a few wrinkles of potential now and again. Thus, his play in this game seemed more like a nice fluke than what we’ll see every game next year. Of course I like seeing it and it gives me hope, guarded hope. At the same time Rubio had bad game. The gulf between Rubio’s defense and Dunn’s on McColumn wasn’t quite as large as some people seem to think, but Dunn was marginally better in that respect. Rubio was cold even for him, while Dunn along with Shabazz was one of the few players that wasn’t uncharacteristically cold this game. Someone on the internets said that they liked seeing Thibs go with whoever was playing better in the 4th (Dunn) for the good of the team. You could interpret this decision two ways: One as a desperate move to win this game, or as a developmental gesture–to hand Dunn the keys he’ll someday get all the time when he’s playing well. But both have a potential to undermine. Rubio is the vastly superior player right now, but has confidence issues. We need him. Pulling him in the 4th isn’t good for his confidence and isn’t good for the team winning. And giving Dunn the closer roll in a game just because he’s having one good game (out of 34) isn’t exactly forcing him to earn things. I’m not sure free (or close to free) keys is a good way to develop guys. Rubio, even when very young, always earned his PG minutes by running the team exceptionally well and defending, showing great decision making. Dunn hasn’t really shown most of that yet. I’m super happy to see Dunn play like this–it was encouraging and a lot of fun. But giving him the keys didn’t get us a win, and we looked bad down the stretch. I’m also not entirely sure what the developmental advantage is. Tom speaks a bit above about player accountability and it does seem like Thibs is pretty lax and inconsistent in this respect. Maybe that’s smart and maybe it’s not.

    • Andy Grimsrud says:

      pyrrol:

      I take your point on being too much of a Thibs Apologist, but I should clarify something. I do think that “everything Thibs is doing is for our quality, long term development, no matter how much it makes us stink now.” My suspicion was (I think, anyway) confirmed by Jerry Zgoda’s latest report on the bench situation in the Star Tribune:

      “When asked how much he needs an improved bench to help rest his starters, Thibodeau said, “I think everyone’s good. We just want to be consistent with our starters and our bench. We have young guys that need to play. They need to learn. I’m good with what they’re doing. It’s a group that has worked really hard and they’re in great shape. I think it’s a plus.””

      http://www.startribune.com/wolves-reserves-hill-rush-getting-few-opportunities/409408455/

      However, that just gets to Thibs’s intent and the method behind the madness. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all going to work out perfectly, or even well. It might not. If Glen Taylor made the mistake of hiring me to replace Thibs as coach, I’d be inclined to play Brandon Rush and Tyus Jones more minutes with Andrew Wiggins, just to see what happens when his slashing game is surrounded by more spot-up shooting. But I think Thibs wants his best young players to learn how to play “the right way” and to learn how to play together. To this point, that has meant pairing Wiggins with LaVine for most of their respective time on the floor, and continuing to develop Kris Dunn, who is viewed as a piece of the young core much more than Jones is. Agree with it or not, there’s a logical basis for it, even if it tries our patience.

      But I am definitely a fan and admirer of Thibs as a coach for the simple reason that he’s got a long track record of success in the assistant and head coaching ranks. He’s never taken on a project quite like this one, doing it from the ground up with so much young potential, but I think he at least deserves a huge benefit of the doubt when he’s 34 games into his 5-year contract.

      Thanks for all of the comments, and I apologize for replying so rarely.

      • pyrrol says:

        Andy, thanks so much for your reply.

        It’s not as if I think there is no logic to what Thibs is doing. I look at myself as relatively slow to catch on to the Thibs playing the starters too much worries. A lot of fans were harping on it as a weakness before the hire. I just laughed it off as something that was overblown in a situation far different from what we have here. But I’ve started to wonder how sustainable the minutes demands he’s put on the starters this season will be going forward (as well as his understandable mistrust of the bench). Does the developmental advantage of extra starter minutes over an extended period outweigh the risks to energy, confidence and health? I think it is a question worth asking, particularly given our record and slowness in showing any real linear improvement this season.

        I’ve dropped some pretty big hints that it’s not my personality simply to give someone or something an extended chance because of it being conventional wisdom of the moment. Thus my shocking lack of patience with Thibs. In some ways this is a personal defect on my part, yet I will say that I opened the season with great excitement over adding him to our team. My questioning of some of his decisions and the ceiling of his abilities in this situation is based solely on the product we’ve been forced to view this season. I try to look at the bigger picture, as is so often encouraged on here in enlightened ways. But it is hard. Both because it requires large amounts of faith and imagination, but also because of how strained my patience is after all these years following the team. It feels like we press the restart button on the rebuild every year sometimes. Again, we have a new system and coach, players like Wiggins playing like somewhat advanced rookies in their 3rd year and are staring another season looking a bad record down the barrel. And we keep losing to teams that are supposed to be behind us or at our level as far as youth and rebuild go. So these things aren’t just in my head. That doesn’t mean we’re not not the right course this time, but these things fuel skepticism.

        On this topic, I actually agree with Thibs in the most basic sense. In my mind winning is the object of basketball, but we do need to focus greatly on development at this time. I’m not one of these guys advocating trading for Noel or moving LaVine to the bench. I agree with playing Wiggins and LaVine together a lot, because they need to learn how to play with each other as our future stars. None of this really demands excessive minutes and DNP-ing Rush and Hill into the sunset (a little vet seasoning is good for development!). I’m no advocate of forcing Rush into a lot of minutes, but I worry for several reasons how razor thin our bench has been used and the minutes forced upon cornerstones. Still, for me it is a minor concern. More major is the lack of visible progress in team and individual development. We aren’t seeing a lot of ‘the right way’ yet. When will we start to see it? I admire anyone who’s successful in the NBA over an extended period. With Thibs, though, my admiration is limited because I think what he did in Chicago given the pieces he had doesn’t seem in proportion to the admiration he has as a sure thing great coach and great fit here that I hear from so many (and being a good assistant doesn’t always translate to great head coaching). In the product, I’ve seen precious little evidence of this. The assumption is that this will change with time as Thibs’ plan and teaching sinks in. But the signs so far (though early) have made me and perhaps some others uneasy. I think part of why, beyond general dissatisfaction, is the amount of money, time and power we gave Thibs. It’s too much for someone unproven in a POBO role and who has not had to rebuild a team or work with so many young guys at one time. If feels like the Wolves got a little overly excited to land a consensus contending coach and were willing to give him whatever he wanted (which ended up being a lot of power and money, greatly limiting our flexibility if it doesn’t work out). This does not mean it won’t work out, there are good chances it will and I hope it does. But it puts the franchise in a high stakes bet.

        Thanks for all the work you and the others do on here!

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