Mavericks 98, Timberwolves 87: Laying an egg on a bench
Laying an egg is an idiom that apparently came from Vaudeville in the late 1800’s, originally, but didn’t really take off until the 1920’s or so. During the stock market crash in 1929, Variety had the first mass usage of this phrase with a headline of “Wall Street Lays an Egg.” Since then, it’s been in the lexicon mostly relating to complete failures and people or groups of people failing to show up in an important situation or performing on a big stage.
I don’t know that I’d classify a Sunday matinee game against the Dallas Mavericks in January as a big stage, but the Minnesota Timberwolves saw their bench lay an egg on Sunday. Maybe the start time being moved up to not battle with Aaron Rodgers ripping the heart out of the Dallas Cowboys had something to do with such a sluggish and unfocused game by the Wolves and their bench. Or maybe this was just regression to the mean after the Wolves won three straight games and played top 5 defense over the last month of the season.
Whatever the reason is for Sunday’s loss, it was just a showing for the team that seems to be making progress. Maybe it means that the progress was just the product of a favorable, home-heavy schedule over the last month and taking the show on the road is a wake-up call for the Wolves. Or maybe it’s just the reminder that no NBA progress is completely linear and sometime you get knocked back a step or two, and sometimes you get knocked to the side when you’re expecting to take a step forward.
Regardless, the egg was laid in Dallas against a Dallas Mavericks team that just isn’t very good. Maybe how bad the Mavs look right now, coupled with the Wolves mostly handling them at home in the recent past in a game they held on to win, factored into the poor effort and focus by the Wolves.
The Mavs started out with a small lineup featuring Seth Curry as the starting shooting guard and Dirk Nowitzki as the only big man. The Mavs showed a zone on the first couple defensive possessions, and it looked like they might get gimmicky with trying to confuse the young Wolves. I wouldn’t say it worked or it didn’t work, but it certainly gave the Wolves a look they’re not used to seeing. Shortly thereafter, the Mavs decided to go zone and get more traditional after Dirk’s first stint on the court.
From there, it was more about grinding out a slow-paced home victory for the Mavs and they took advantage the most when the Wolves’ bench came into the game. Despite Nemanja Bjelica making shots in the first half, the game definitely turned into the control of the Mavs during that second quarter. The same problems we’ve seen with the bench were magnified against Rick Carlisle’s bunch for some reason.
Bjelica played awful defense. Kris Dunn played like a rookie on defense (which had been much better lately) by getting into early foul trouble and not being able to get into the heart of the defense to force decisions on offense. Cole Aldrich just didn’t fit in this game with the Mavs trying to go heavy with mobile big men. Shabazz Muhammad went scoreless in 12 minutes and did nothing to contribute on defense.
Like many fans and analysts, I hoped for more minutes to Brandon Rush, who I think should be an integral part of this rotation off the bench. But he only played three minutes and didn’t manage to have much of an impact in his short stint. He probably should’ve received more minutes than he did, but Thibs also tried to switch things up a bit with a dual point guard lineup in a couple of stretches. They simply didn’t work and Rush was relegated to watching instead of getting another chance to contribute on the court. If I had one quibble with any of the tactics in this game, it was Rush no longer getting an extended chance.
In 64 bench minutes, the Wolves produced 10 points (all by Bjelica and most of those coming in the first half) on 4-of-19 shooting. That doesn’t seem ideal. It was a reminder of just how good Bazz had been before this game and how important it is just to get competent play from the bench on most nights. Because when it doesn’t happen, the Wolves’ starters are asked to be perfect and they certainly weren’t perfect.
Gorgui Dieng had a great third quarter and looked to be part of a charge to take control of the game after halftime before the third quarter petered out. Karl-Anthony Towns had nice numbers but he wasn’t effective establishing himself as the best player like we’d seen over the past week against much tougher match-ups. Andrew Wiggins was great keeping the Wolves afloat early in the game but couldn’t navigate a sea of non-spacing in the second half. Zach LaVine looked rusty in his first game back. Ricky Rubio was too sloppy and a start contrast to the player we saw in the previous three games.
When I was watching the Memphis Grizzlies take on the Golden State Warriors a couple of weeks ago on ESPN, the interview with Grizzlies coach David Fizdale between the first and second quarter stuck with me. Steph Curry went for 17 points on eight shots in the first quarter, and Fizdale was essentially asked about the effort of his veteran group defending the two-time MVP. His answer back to Doris Burke was pretty simple.
“We’ve got too many guys with that selective amnesia right now,” Fizdale said. “Like, ‘Oh that’s my fault.’ Right, if you go under on a pick against Steph Curry, he’s going to shoot. We’ve just got to get our minds into this game and start playing our game.”
The Wolves know what they need to do against these teams. Their 8-8 stretch over the last month coming into this game against the Mavs was fueled by defense instead of mostly offense. When they remained solid within their roles and game plan, they end up having a puncher’s chance of taking the W. But they didn’t seem to have their minds in the game on Sunday. They blew opportunities due to poor spacing. They blew opportunities covering the 3-point line. And they never established their skill levels as overwhelming in either controlling the pace of the game or forcing the issue with their athleticism to get to the free throw line.
It wasn’t just the bench’s fault, but it was magnified by the egg they left in the American Airlines Center. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just the end of a winning streak. Let’s see if they respond by building a new one.