Timberwolves 104, Clippers 101: Heating up the Kitchen

Caption this photo, please.

The somewhat surprising outcome of this game hinges largely on two things: Karl-Anthony Towns and the depleted Los Angeles Clippers. Playing without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul (who seems to just about always kill the Wolves in the fourth quarter), the Clippers had to lean heavily on DeAndre Jordan. Jordan had a big night (29 points, 16 rebounds), but the Hack-a-Jordan strategy was effective down the stretch, with Jordan going 4-for-10 from the line in the fourth. Couple that with some spectacularly ineffective offense from the Clippers bench (Brandon Bass was 5-for-5 and they still only shot 34%, due largely to Jamal Crawford’s 3-for-14 and Mo Speights 2-for-9), and you can see the broad strokes of how the Wolves hung in there long enough to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The actual snatching was done by the aforementioned Towns, who had himself a game. He scored 15 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter and tacked on 12 rebounds and 5 assists for good measure.

For a player with Towns’ diversity of skillsets — a player who can post up, make the right pass, shoot from midrange out to the 3-point line, attack in transition, catch lobs on cuts — the major task for him on the offensive side of the ball night in and night out isn’t precisely to do what he does best, but rather to concoct the correct blend of the elements. He took it easy on the 3-pointers, taking two and making one. Matched up against Jordan for much of the night, he got his midrange game going early, then started taking advantage of the Clippers’ small lineup (they started three guards) by getting the ball to Wiggins on cuts and spot-ups. As the game wore on, he ratcheted up his physicality and got some monster putbacks before finally icing the game with the go ahead bucket from the left elbow.

Interesting sidenote on the fourth quarter: In response to the Clippers’ small lineup, the Wolves eventually went small themselves, effectively moving Wiggins to the power forward spot alongside Towns and playing three guards — Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones and Zach LaVine. With that group on the floor, the oldest player was Kris Dunn, at 22 years and 307 days old.

Conspicuously absent from that list of guards was Ricky Rubio, who didn’t play in the second half after dealing with hip tightness. (And no, this is not a condition brought on by ultra skinny jeans.) In response, Jones once again made the case for himself as a capable floor general, particularly in the pick and roll with Towns where he’s a far greater threat than Rubio to score and so sucks in more defenders, allowing Towns to navigate more open space. Dunn also stepped up with one of his best performances so far. In his 25 minutes, he only had 5 points, but he added a block, a steal, 4 assists and 4 rebounds — plus he didn’t dribble the ball off his foot.

Everyone on the TNT broadcast from Chris Webber to Shaq to Kenny Smith had an opinion about this, and it could be boiled down to: the Wolves play too slow when they have this many athletically gifted young players. There may be something to this fundamental point, given that they have the youngest minutes-weighted roster in the league but play at the 25th slowest pace (96.72 possessions per game). I happen to think that Thibodeau is perhaps always going to prefer a slower pace given his history with the Bulls, but I also think he’s not just turning them loose because he doesn’t want the energy to shoot off all over the place. Right now, they’re building the conduits for that athleticism to flow naturally into. Sam Mitchell took the restrictor plates off toward the end of last season and the team got better, but I remain unconvinced that they had a path to get much better from there.

Basically, if you’re a person who thought the Oklahoma City Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were great but underachieved because Scott Brooks relied too much on letting his stars dictate the game by freelancing, you have no leg to stand on when you say Thibs should give his young stars a longer leash. I think Thibs is very cognizant that there’s really only two ways to genuinely contend in the NBA: 1.) have the best player on the planet and 2.) have a disciplined system. If you can combine those things, so much the better.

But. Let’s go with the idea that the Wolves need to speed it up. A few of the commentators bemoaning the Wolves’ pace believe they need to play Dunn and Jones more, because Rubio is too deliberate. Let’s look at that a little.

Again, the Wolves’ average pace is 96.72 possessions per game. Rubio on the court without Dunn results in 96.73 possessions per game, which isn’t surprising given that Rubio has played the lion’s share of point guard minutes (1,201). But Dunn has also played 707 minutes without Rubio and in that time the team’s pace is … 95.76 possessions per game.

Jones pushes it a bit more, eking out 97.72 possessions per game when he’s on the court without Rubio, but that’s just one more possession per game — not a huge difference. Basically, if you think pace is the problem, it comes from Thibs, not the point guard position.

Honestly, the pace being pretty consistent is a credit to the players, whether or not you think it should be faster overall. And as far as that goes with respect to Thibs, I’m going with a cooking analogy. I used to cook everything on high heat: grilled cheese, pasta, whatever. I would turn the burner on high and cook pasta in bubbling water plus end up with basically blackened grilled cheese sandwiches where the cheese wasn’t completely melted. What, thought my twentysomething self, was the point of having a high setting if you didn’t use it?

I only learned much later that it’s often better to cook things at a medium heat for longer, than crank it up to finish it off and get that nice sear on it. I think that’s what Thibs is doing: once this team is nice and seasoned, plus heated all the way through, he can turn up the heat and watch them cook.

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8 Responsesso far.

  1. Tom says:

    The beginning of last night’s game was as upsetting as the finish was elating. Slow pace, poor shot selection and virtually little to no defense after the first half of Quarter one. Then Thibs went small in the third, (Creativity for Thibs is when one of his Iron 8 get hurts, he puts in a different combination with positive effect) and the pace got better, the team climbed on two of their stars backs and rode it to victory. Thibs needed to go with Tyus because of Rubio’s hip and the young guard played a cerebral game, calmed Dunne down and in limited minutes showed he is a crafty NBA veteran in a 20 year old body.

    It is becoming obvious, that when two of our three stars are playing well, we have a chance against most teams. It is also obvious that Thibs bench has to be modified to extend beyond the BBC (Belly, Baz and Cole). Those three have had moments of play that have supported the starters and helped the team. They have also had games where they look like the D League is their best option. We have also seen Rush and Tyus play well, and many is the game that it would seem their talents would be helpful to the starters only to get DNP-CD for their payday. Last night, playing small was helpful to right the ship and allow KAT and Wiggins to carry the team. Zack had a tough time getting on track, but next game he may go for off for 30 and KAT could struggle against the Big Goons of Denver, or if Wiggins is in a funk.

    Baz is not going to draw any more trade attention, if some of his minutes are taken by Rush or Tyus. NBA execs aren’t going to offer more for Baz because he plays every night. They may be more interested in our players if we win more and the bench is used to fill the needs of the starters.

  2. gjk says:

    Aside from Towns and Wiggins’ scoring, this wasn’t exactly one of those inspiring wins. They beat a depleted team that had an off shooting night and needed to do it with one of my least favorite “strategies” in the NBA. It’s fun to see Towns make that many plays on offense, but Steve bullseyed it with “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”

    Another hip injury for this team; fatigue? LaVine still doesn’t look right, either. That’s the reason they need to scale back minutes since it’s clear Thibs isn’t prioritizing winning this season.

    As for pace of play, no one pushes the pace more than Rubio; if his wings aren’t running hard after stops, there’s no one to pass to. Also, pace is a measure of how many shots a team puts up over 100 possessions; that connects somewhat to transition but is more about how quickly a team shoots in the halfcourt. There’s still value in making these youngsters run an offense against a set defense, and a lot of their bad spurts have come with quick shots in the halfcourt. If they can get more stops, they absolutely need to push the pace, but Rubio is looking for it every time he gets the ball. When LaVine or Wiggins get it, they’re looking to slow it down. Think about how good their transition game was with Love and Pek; that was because Pek ran hard in transition and got tons of layups, and Love got back into the play enough that he could take a trailing 3 if it was there. That’s not happening with Towns/Dieng/Bjelly.

  3. Jello says:

    The Clippers were depleted but they are still a battle tested veteran team and it’s a good win for this young bunch. For me, the biggest takeaway from this game is how much a shooting PG helps Towns. For all the people who clamor for more playing time for Tyus, yes, I agree. But I don’t think you can overlook how forcing a defender to stay with the PG helps Towns just dominate on offense. The defender often sags off of Rubio, leaving Towns with only the three pointer and the double teams off of Rubio lead to turnovers. I love Rubio and want him to work out, but I can’t deny the benefit from a guy like Tyus. And let’s be honest, Tyus is average at best, but he can shoot. If we can bring in a guy who is a better version of Tyus we will see Towns really ascend into that best in the NBA category. I just wish Thibs would give Tyus more minutes because it’s obvious Towns loves playing with him, which he should.

    • gjk says:

      This season, Rubio is shooting better than Jones at the rim (46% to 41.7%), 10-16 feet (58.3% to 57.1%) and from 16 ft to the 3 point line (44.1% to 33.3%). *A* good shooting PG would help, but Tyus is basically a good 3-point shooter who *looks* like he can make shots at other spots on the floor.

      A good comparison to any new player and Rubio is to compare them to what Rubio looked like in his rookie season before the opponents started taking him more seriously. Rubio was a dominant part of those early wins; Tyus has been a nice secondary piece in games they already had a good chance to win where another teammate was dominant. We see the warts in one player’s game and not in the others because one is a starter who the opponent knows and has played against, while the other is someone they haven’t seriously prepared for because a) it’s a single game in a long season and b) he’s not a starter or even someone who regularly plays.

      • Jello says:

        In my post I stated that Tyus is average at best. Players sag off Rubio and double KAT because Rubio can’t hit threes. Tyus is not a driver but he can hit jump shots which is why his defender doesn’t sag. That is what gives KAT room to work on the elbow and get one on ones in the post. My whole point is that a player like Tyus who has good control over the flow of the offense and a jump shot (with hardly anything else) can compliment Towns’ game extremely well. Getting a guy with those two skills and more would heighten this even more and if we want to eventually have a shooting PG (like Tyus but better), then it makes sense to develop KAT while playing with Tyus running the plays we need him to be good at.

        Also, Tyus is shooting 53% on adjusted FG% to Ricky’s 42% and Tyus has the highest PPS of any Wolves player. That’s the power of being just a “good 3-point shooter”. I’m not saying Tyus is the future, I’m just saying if a three point shooting floor general is what Thibs wants in the future he should give Tyus more minutes to see how the offense flows and get guys working on it.

  4. Tom says:

    As I mentioned earlier. Our bench is bad by NBA standards, with players that don’t deserve dedicated minutes. However, each has some strength to their game which at times fills a need for our starters. If Thibs would use his bench to fill a need, instead of working a rotation that has Cole, Bjelly, Dunn and Baz join either Wiggins or Zack as a second unit, if he rotated those four, Rush and Jones and (god forgive me) Payne and Hill on an as needed basis, he would get better production out of his team and probably more rest for his starters.

    It should also be noted, that our bench players play best when they play with the starters (especially Rubio) and not as a second unit. Most wolves fans believe that Zack, Wiggins and KAT are getting contracts to stay. I believe that Rubio and G have contracts that allow them to transition from starter to key veteran bench players in the years to come. That means a lot of this bench will be gone in the next year or three, either because they want more money or we replace them with draft picks. Giving them minutes to round out their skills, seems like a waste of time.

    Speaking of draft picks. Kris Dunn is not the type of player I expect to get significantly better. His shooting is suspect, his ability to run an offense is poor and his defense is frenetic, but not dominating. He does not appear to be a McCollum or Lilliard. Players that also played four years at a small school and were more prepared to play in the NBA and were natural scorers. When you look at the PG’s available in next year’s draft (five of the first six picks could be point guards), you wonder if Dunn is the player that should be in trade talks and not Rubio. A lot of GM’s thought highly of Dunn, so maybe we could get more from him than our starting PG that they league feels can’t shoot.

    • Jello says:

      Yeah, I’m a bit worried about how Dunn fits. If he can refine his defense and become a defensive stopper that we put on the opposing teams best guard then that’s good but I’m not sure how much more to expect from him. He’s obviously not Russel Westbrook with better defense which is what I think people who were high on him were hoping for. He’s athletic but not that crazy athletic and with his age I’m not sure how much better he can get his overall game. I hope he can focus on defense and at least bring a great defensive presence off the bench and be a passable slasher on offense. We will have to see though but he definitely doesn’t appear to be the starting PG of the future.

  5. pyrrol says:

    On pace: I actually agree with Thibs that a young team needs to learn to play well at a deliberate pace. Yet, I have two problems with how he’s going about it. One, we need to play to strengths. I don’t want to see us running and pushing it all the time like we have our heads cut off. But at the same time, we should be mixing in more fast pace stuff (and as stated in the article, it is clear Thibs is the one curbing or at least not teaching and encouraging this). It’s one of the few advantages youth brings. Second, when Thibs is teaching slow offense and deliberate half courts sets they often look stagnant, inconsistent and lack creativity. It’s easy stuff for opposing D’s to lock down on. If this is his major focus on offense–teaching proper, deliberate half court sets–it seems like he’s not doing a great job of teaching it.

    On heavy minutes: I think we are starting to see some blow back from Thibs’ heavy minutes load and small rotations. Rubio’s injury is a fatigue injury. Gjk is right—LaVine still doesn’t look right and I also think that’s a fatigue thing. Some have pointed out Rubio’s weird shooting season. He’s shooting well on those mid-range pull ups, but well below his career average from three (and corner three). It’s not too hard to figure out. Rubio’s legs just aren’t their for the threes. Fatigue doesn’t affect the twos as much, but when he gets tired his threes go flat and to the side. If Thibs continues with this short rotation and heavy minutes for the most important players, expect more of these issues to develop. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    On the PGs: I was unnerved by KAT’s huge shout out to Dunn in his post game interview on the court. Dunn came in and played OK against bench PG’s in Rubio’s absence. But Tyus came in too, more cold from lack of play and had perhaps a greater impact. I don’t exactly hear much KAT appreciation for everything Rubio does, nor for his much needed leadership. His praise of Dunn seemed to be way over the top ‘the NBA is lucky to have him!’. I mean, what? Just strange. I still don’t think Dunn is going far. He’s buried himself pretty far in as far as my expectations go. His OK showing didn’t help that much. He’s got to show way more, much more often and he’s getting the minutes where he should be able to at some point if he has it. He could turn out alright but it’s not an assumption at this point. I think the clogging due to sagging off of Rubio is overrated. The sample size for how much better this would be with Jones is too small and it isn’t better with Dunn. As far as overall effectiveness, there is no contest, Rubio wins by a country mile. He gets players the ball quicker and in better spots and consistently runs the offense as well as being a bright spot on D. It’s unrealistic to expect either Jones or Dunn to be a starting level point guard for a long time, if ever. That said, between the two, I thought Jones looked better than Dunn and think we need to play him more (and this is close to the best we get from Dunn at this point–real good play for him). It does feel like this team is playing with PG fire what with the rumors and endless Dunn praise. Careful what you wish for…

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