Timberwolves 119, Rockets 105: A Respite from Repetition

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A good NBA season has chapters within it. Things need to happen to change the way that the team and its players are viewed. Fans need segments smaller than 82 games to process what they’re watching in interesting and entertaining ways; to establish a narrative that makes the whole experience feel meaningful. Taken as one big pile of possessions, a season of hoops wouldn’t draw many followers. NBA season chapters might arise due to one player’s ascent or another’s downfall. There might be a trade, or a 10-day contract; a winning or losing streak. The coach might get fired and replaced. Or somebody might get injured, leading to a lineup change.

This need for chapters is especially true for fans of a losing team that is not heading to the playoffs. When the regular season is the whole show, some variety is needed to spice things up. Timberwolves followers know this all too well, and have experienced all sorts of season chapters in the past decade since Kevin Garnett was traded away to Boston.

To name a few:

  • Wittman’s Last Stand: terrible start to 2008-09 season wherein fans booed Coach Randy Wittman into mid-season termination. Glen Taylor then forced Kevin McHale to coach the players that he assembled; a rare and sort of cool power move by Papa Glen.
  • January 2009: The same Wolves that were losing under Wittman inexplicably earned the league’s best record in the month of January. Randy Foye played the best basketball of his career and Al Jefferson looked like a star — until he tore his ACL, ending this chapter.
  • Love & Beasley: For a minute there, it looked like Kevin Love and Michael Beasley would be a formidable combination of forwards. No less authority than John Hollinger even wrote for ESPN.com that, “the Wolves’ new tandem provides the one thing that the league’s forlorn franchises find most difficult to sell: hope.” (!)
  • Ricky!: Ricky Rubio’s arrival was one of the most fun NBA regular season chapters in history. Until he got hurt.
  • Post-Ricky’s ACL Tear: Hey, nobody said every chapter is a fun one. The end of the 2011-12 Timberwolves season was sadder than most funerals.
  • Shvedsanity!: Russian guard Alexey Shved was acquired in the 2012 offseason which coincided with the Summer Olympics. After the David Blatt-coached Russians surprised the world with a bronze medal finish, and Shved was the breakout star, Wolves fans were understandably psyched to see what they had in their rookie guard. Shved lived up to the hype and then some… for about 20 games, before the league learned to steal his jump passes and get physical with him out court. Much like “Linsanity” (perhaps the greatest NBA chapter ever) it was fun while it lasted.

You get the idea. These stories that take shape for parts of seasons keep us watching.

This year’s Timberwolves season has had exactly one long chapter to it, and it would be titled, “Repetition.” Coach Tom Thibodeau has chosen a strict rotation of players and is committed to teaching them The Right Way to play basketball. This rotation involves the same starting lineup and the same bench players entering and exiting games at the same times, almost totally regardless of situation or results. Thibs’s starting lineup is the league’s most-used 5-man combination by a wide margin. Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins are both near the league lead in minutes per game, and Karl-Anthony Towns is not far behind them. The Timberwolves with the best plus-minus numbers (Tyus Jones and Brandon Rush) remain buried on the end of the bench, leaving fans wondering what might be if Thibs tried this or that.

This pattern amid an extremely disappointing first 38 games has left fans uneasy and thirsty for some experimentation. Shuffling the lineup would be a respite from the repetitive cycle of losing that we’ve borne witness too.

On my own personal wish list of things I’d like to see Thibs tinker with, “staggering Wiggins and LaVine” has been at the top. Mostly, I have wanted to see more lineups that include Wig, but don’t include Zach.

The x’s and o’s of a slasher and shooter pair makes good theoretical sense, and I understand Thibs’s desire to expedite chemistry between his dynamic, 21-year old wing duo. But at this early stage of each’s development, and with both now 20-points-per-game scorers, I really question whether sharing the floor so much is the best way to learn. To me, that invites “taking turns” more than “reading and reacting.” Mind you, they not only need to get their own buckets and share the ball with each other, but they have to incorporate KAT, the franchise-pillar big man. LaVine and Wiggins are bucket-getters, and having two of those at the wing spots can lead to less-than-ideal chemistry, particularly when the players involved are so young, still trying to prove themselves, and have yet to master their own fundamentals, let alone the nuances of anticipating defensive schemes and making the easy pass instead of the difficult shot.

In Thibs’s youthful starting unit that includes all of LaVine, Wiggins and KAT, there seems to be a bubble of ambitious upside that bursts down the stretch of close games.

When both LaVine and Wiggins have been on the floor, the Wolves have been outscored by 81 points in 1,040 minutes, which is a per-48-minutes differential of (-3.7). Heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Houston Rockets, lineups with Wiggins and WITHOUT LaVine outscored opponents by 41 points over 359 minutes; a per-48 differential of (+5.5). There was one early-season game against the Lakers that LaVine sat out with knee soreness. That night, the Wolves won by 26 points and Wiggins dropped a career-high 47 on just 21 shot attempts.

Forgive me for wanting to see a greater sample size.

I got my wish last night, thanks to a Zach LaVine (minor) hip contusion injury, and the results could hardly have been better. The Rockets came into town with the midseason MVP favorite and a 31-9 record on their side.

The Wolves won the game going away and looked as good as they have at any time in the Thibs Era.

By subbing Brandon Rush in for the injured LaVine, the ball tended to be in Ricky Rubio’s hands a lot more often. Rush is a smart veteran and a great spot-up three-point shooter. Rubio made a series of great cross-court dishes to Rush, leading to 4 threes for the little used wing. This specific action — Ricky looking at the post or the roll man before whipping the ball over the entire defense for a three — is one of the main ways that he makes a difference on offense. It has been sorely lacking this season due to the ball simply not being in his hands as much for playmaking responsibilities, and due to his young and dynamic teammates not having very good catch-and-shoot instincts. (For as pure a jumper as LaVine has, he does not have a particularly quick release off the catch, and often dribbles into his shots.) Rush is the absolutely perfect complement to Ricky Rubio, who dominated this game and ended with 17 assists and just a single turnover in 35 minutes of (+12) basketball.

Whether Rush-for-Zach had any directly positive impact on Wiggins was less obvious from “eye test,” but Wig did score 28 points, including 15 in the first quarter that helped set the tone and allow the Wolves to (Thibs voice) “play from a lead.” He hit 2-4 from three, 4-5 from the line, and ran the floor for some opportunistic transition baskets. Wig also defended Harden, which makes the big scoring night a bit more impressive. His (+9) performance now has those LaVine-less numbers updated to (+50) in 397 minutes, or about (+6.0) per 48.

Shabazz Muhammad, who has been playing shockingly-better basketball of late, gave the Wolves a scoring burst off the bench that made the difference between a competitive game and an easy victory. Bazz scored 20 points on 7-11 shooting (2-3 from three) and pulled down 7 rebounds in 30 minutes of (+13) action. He scored in a variety of ways, including transition dunks (off of spectacular Ricky passes), post-ups, hustle points, and jumpers. Over the last 9 games, Bazz is averaging 12.1 points per game on 51.4% shooting, including 61.9% from three. In a marked deviation from career trends, Muhammad leads the entire team (among regular rotation players) in net rating (+2.5). Even stranger, Bazz’s good plus/minus numbers stem from DEFENSE, which has always been considered his biggest flaw — possibly even a fatal one for his continued NBA career hopes.

When Shabazz Muhammad has been on the floor (635 minutes), the Wolves have allowed 99.5 points per 100 possessions. For some perspective, the Utah Jazz have the best defense in the entire league, and they allow 101.4 per 100. The Wolves have been playing elite-level defense with Muhammad in the game. I am not prepared to say that he’s the cause of this stinginess, but at minimum, he’s not screwing up and getting in the way of a good collective defensive effort. His recent surge of all-around bench play is one of the brighter developments of the season, to date. Late in last night’s game, Ryan Anderson poured in a few uncontested threes that caused Thibs to lose his shit as bad as any time all season. After a timeout, Bazz put the game away for good with a three from the right wing. Hitting the dagger shot was a fitting conclusion to a great Muhammad performance.

LaVine is going to come back from that hip contusion injury, and that’s great. Given that he almost gave it a go last night, I’m guessing he’ll play tomorrow against the Thunder. This game wrap is not about criticizing him. Zach is an undeniably-huge talent and his upside remains one of the most exciting aspects of this Timberwolves team. But in a season filled with repetition and disappointment, it was nice to have a game where Thibs was forced into experimental mode. We saw what Ricky Rubio can look like when paired with a steady spot shooter in Rush. We saw what Wiggins can look like in an organic pecking order slotting him as the playmaking wing next to a passer and a spot-shooter.

Chronologically, this one-game sample size is too short to qualify as a season “chapter.” But if nothing else, it provides us with some fodder for discussion beyond the recurring cycle of second-half collapses and Thibs barking from the bench. It was also a phenomenal win that could help jump-start this season in a better direction.

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10 thoughts on “Timberwolves 119, Rockets 105: A Respite from Repetition

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when talking about Thibs strategy for this season. Personally, I agree with this tactic as if you aren’t going to win it all the best thing to do is develop your players and set yourself up to get more assets that can help you win it all in the future. I do think that at some point this team needs to focus on winning, perhaps the last third of the season or so, as culture and a winning attitude are almost as important as cultivating ability and BBIQ. However, a complete focus on winning over the course of a full year at the cost of letting certain players coast on their limited skill set would be a bad choice and would lead to problems in the future. Let the speed bumps happen now so they can put the pedal all the way down in the future.

    The stuff on LaVine/Wiggs is interesting. I think when Wiggs is in alpha dog mode, he’s a much better player. Usually this happens when he has personal motivation but I’m sure it could be when he’s seen as the definitive number one option as well. I wonder if sharing the court with LaVine makes him more hesitant and takes away from a “destroy” mentality. The discrepancy in +/- could also just be from having too many young talented players that get stuck trying to do too much instead of making the easy play. Removing one of them might just mean the ball moves more efficiently and gets stuck or turned over less. You hope that they all learn to play like the Spurs, but for a 21 year old with the green light to shoot I’m sure it’s hard to fight your instinct to try and make something happen yourself and take that contested mid-range jumper or work 15 seconds of the shot clock dribbling aimlessly trying to find a seam to get a sick poster. We’re seeing Towns make strides toward passing to open shooters/cutters more frequently (albeit he needs to limit the turnovers) so hopefully that can happen with LaVine and Wiggins as well.

    From what I could find, there are only three teams that have three players over 20ppg. Those teams are the Cavaliers, the Warriors, and the Wolves. When you look at the Warriors and Cavs, those three players averaging over 20 also average over 15ast/game combined. The Wolves three average 8. We are definitely built for a big three but the thing is that they are currently inefficient. We need to get more assists and better flow from them if they are to succeed together. Otherwise you get too much hero ball, a problem that even the Cavs and Warriors (this year) have to deal with occasionally. What makes the Cavs/Warriors big three’s so dangerous is that if you rotate to cover against one of the three scorers you leave another with an opportunity and they are good enough to obliterate you for it. The Wolves aren’t there yet but that’s definitely where we need to get. Great win and great ball movement leading to easy shots. Fun to watch.

  2. Your best line of the article: “Shabazz Muhammad, who has been playing shockingly-better basketball of late”. I have always like Shabazz, but I also always thought that he was missing something intangible – like intelligence or concentration. It will really help the wolves if he can play the important role of spark plug off the bench. Future Sixth Man of the Year?

  3. Since Brewer was traded to Houston in 2014, he has a total of 40 points against the Wolves. Thought that was funny.

    Last night’s Rubio game reminded me of Brewer’s 51-pointer against Houston in how Rubio generated points in transition. Houston was getting guys back, but those passes were perfect, similar to what happened on Monday against Dallas. When it comes to staggering, there’s a good argument for playing Rubio and Towns with Muhammad and other bench players. You’ll never see Muhammad run faster than when he knows Rubio has the ball in transition.

  4. First off, this was a great game by the guys, and was really fun to watch. It was one of those games in which everyone on the team seems to play well at once. Sometimes it all clicks, mostly without clear reasons to explain everyone being on.

    I’ve been quite critical of Thibs lately. I would agree with having him open to making some changes in the rotations and strategy, but I wouldn’t call this ‘experimentation’. Perhaps adjustment is a better word. It’s not like we’re just asking him to F around. I think fans would like to see adjustments based on results and performance to date. An obvious one is play Tyus more and Dunn less for now. Just based on what both look like 90% of the time they are on the floor, the clear better winning option now is Jones. Having him DNP almost every game seems silly.

    That said, I have to side with Thibs over Andy here. How can we not expect Wiggins and LaVine to learn to play together? We must. They must learn this. And if the main culprit in making this duo not work together that well is Wiggins, why does it seem like it is being suggested LaVine should be the odd one out? Let me be very clear: Wiggins is the player who has trouble playing hard some nights and ‘getting himself into the game.’ This isn’t just a Zach vs. Andrew thing–Wiggins has this problem more than anyone who gets regular minutes. So, the burden is on him to get better at that, which includes learning to play with LaVine and others.

    Of course, this isn’t a black and white issue and I agree with Andy that we can maybe push the minutes those two don’t share the floor a bit. As Andy says, on paper they should compliment each other. Though Zach is happy taking a ton of shots, he plays well with limited shots, too (not as true for Wiggins). Zach is a pure shooting guard, while Wiggins is a guy who’d like the match ups at SG but has the skill set more fitting of a SF. In other words, Zach fits his role better, and it’s still a work in progress for Wiggins. Even if the SG position was cleared out for Wiggins, he doesn’t fit there because his ball handling (he gets stripped a lot) and three point shooting (though slightly improved) aren’t good enough. SG’s that don’t have those skills are rare, but when they occur they are hard nosed defensive stoppers, which is not really how one should describe Wiggins at this point.

    Quite frankly, going forward we need LaVine’s 3 point shooting. Even with Rush shooting competent and a resurgent Shabazz, we are going to need LaVine’s shooting in starter minutes. I think it is also misnomer to suggest that Rubio is going nuts with assists because LaVine isn’t taking the ball away from him. We all know that the primary person who has been taking the ball out of Rubio’s hands is Wiggins. And a lot of guys have here and there because it was ordered by Thibs as part of his offense. The reason Rubio is racking up the assists (and we are playing so well on offense in general—and note how much good offensive flow helps the same defense out) is because for some reason Thibs has relented and allowed it.

    Now, Rush looked good out there. I’m looking for him to get more minutes. It’s a little hard with Shabazz playing so well, but I think there is a way to work some minutes in for Rush with everyone healthy. Rush is good because he’s a vet, a pro, and knows how to play within his abilities. He defends and shoots threes. Tonight he was blocking like a PF and hitting catch and shoot threes like a SG. Interesting! We could use that on the bench. Even at his best Shabazz is a mediocre 3 point threat and the idea he’s some defensive juggernaut is ridiculous. Perhaps he’s been improving on D, but the idea that those numbers come from what specifically what he is doing on D, specifically how he improves the D seems silly. You just have to carefully watch games to see that he’s not a very good defender. He tries hard, and maybe is improving a bit, but let’s not fool ourselves. On O, his upswing has been dramatic. He’s basically doing all his limited but potent Shabazz things, but suddenly they are working and he’s not pressing so much anymore.

    Perhaps Rush compliments Rubio very well, but I believe that LaVine can just as much and probably much more. Part of this comes down to what the coach is emphasizing for him. I am quite certain that Zach can get better at catch and shoot if he puts his mind to it (on that topic, Towns needs to catch and shoot threes, and if that’s not a good enough look pass or drive. No step backs or dribbles). If Zach is actually a reason Rubio doesn’t have the ball in his hands enough (I tend to think that’s all on Thibs when it happens) the coaches can tell him to hog the ball less. All our young players are too good at stopping the ball, too willing to be ball hogs. Of the big three, perhaps LaVine is the least bad offender in this respect.

    These last two games were an assault on Rubio naysayers. The biggest one, due to his position of power is Thibs. I wonder if he sees Rubio’s value yet, understands what this team can do with him running the offense without random caveats. When I say ‘what the team can do with him’ I don’t just mean win. I also mean develop. Do you not think games like the last two were better for our development than most?

    It looks like Thibs’ D is starting to sink in a little and I like how it looks.

  5. Thibs is forced to try new combinations. That seems like we are talking about a team that is doing really well, but has to try some new line-ups due to injury or illness, not a team flirting with the bottom of the Western Conference. Some of us question why Thibs is committed to the same rotation he has played all season. The fact that when he has had to put a Tyus in the game, or play Belly with the first team or last night, remembering that a pretty good three point shooter in Rush is available to him, we get positive results, yet he seems determined to go back to his rotation. That is something I would love to hear Thibs explain to the common fan. I think Thibs gets bull-headed and sometimes out-coached, playing his core to exhaustion and mistakes.

    When I see good things happen, I see:
    1. Ricky Rubio running the offense and putting people in good positions, not sitting in the corner waiting to shoot.
    2. KAT playing down low and using that baby hook or passing out of double teams, not enamored with his long range shooting.
    3. Wiggins getting the ball on the move and not going one on one all the time.
    4. LaVine playing pick and roll with G and either hits a dagger or feeds G for a set shot, not trying to go one on one.
    5. Baz playing with energy and posting up lighter guards, not forcing a shot. Running out and getting clear runs for dunks not trying to dribble his way to the basket. He is pretty good with just a simple catch and shoot.
    6. Tyus Jones coming in and playing smart and controlled winning basketball, not Dunn coming in out of control and not making his teammates better. I think Dunn will be a good player, but right now he plays like he wants to be on SportsCenter more than run his team.

    Great teams have players that play the part they are given. Everyone wants to be the star, but with only one basketball, you want each player to play to their team strengths and develop a style that wins games. Look at the Spurs and how Duncan and Ginobili helped their team play the Spurs way, sacrificing their own stats for wins. Last night is a winning style for this team. They can beat a lot of teams playing like that. I think the big three on this team can play like this, but it means not having point Wiggins, or point LaVine most of the night and pulling KAT out to pick and roll with them. It means Rubio is the leader, KAT is his low post counterpart and the rest of the guys feed off them. Between Baz, Belly and Rush you should have enough shooting that one-three of them will help the starters on most nights. Thibs just needs to adapt to what works and not force his players to play a way that works for some teams, but not this one right now.

  6. I hate to say this, but how much of the Timberwolves much improved play the last two games (vs. HOU and OKC) has been because LaVine is out of the lineup? LaVine has amazing athleticism – his basketball IQ leaves much to be desired, however.

    1. Well, you could say that x2 about Wiggins. We have to learn to win with LaVine in the lineup and can. This streak is more about some things sinking in for the guys and allowing Rubio to fully run the offense. It has also shown that Rush should be getting some minutes.

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