The Minnesota Timberwolves fell to the New Orleans Pelicans Friday night by the score of 122-106 in another disappointing display of inconsistent effort and putrid defense.
Though you wouldn’t know it by the final result, the Wolves, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns, were destroyers of worlds in the first quarter. Towns appeared to take his matchup against the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis personal, as he’s wont to do when he’s going up against a player in which he feels like he has something to prove, and vaporized New Orleans to the tune of 19 points and five rebounds as a result. The Wolves lead 40-28 after the first 12 minutes, with only a flurry of jumpers by Davis keeping the game somewhat close.
But as soon as the second quarter got under way, everything started to go south for the Wolves. The offense began to sputter, Anthony Davis continued to be Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Pelicans began to heat up. To make a long story short, the Wolves once again forgot that defense is an integral ingredient for winning basketball games. But before I discuss the Wolves defensive ineptitude (yet again), a word on Anthony Davis.
Anthony Davis is a special player. He’s such a unique talent; his combination of touch, fluidity, and size is so unnatural, the only reasonable explanation for his ability is that he was concocted in a clandestine, governmental lab deep underneath the streets of Chicago. Speaking strictly athletically, he puts Towns to shame, which is truly something when you think about it.
What makes Davis so special is the shear amount of ways he can beat you on offense. He can beat you from behind the arc; he can beat you from mid-range; he can beat you near the hoop; he can beat you off the dribble. The list is nearly endless, especially when you consider the individual branches of moves and options that each of the broad categories in the previous sentence entails. And, boy, did he tap into many of those moves and options against the Wolves Friday night. Davis lit the Wolves up, posting 42 points on 22 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds; his 42 points were the most points he had scored in a game since dropping 45 on the Wolves on November 23rd.
Now back to the Wolves defense.
After building up a 12-point lead in the first quarter, the Wolves were outscored 94-66 for the remainder of the game. The defense completely fell apart with the Wolves getting burned on back cuts and in the pick-and-roll consistently throughout the night. Much of the collapse seemed to be attributable to a lack of effort and communication.
When asked after the game by the Pioneer Press’s Jace Frederick about what happened to the Wolves’ defense, which had been playing well until recently, a noticeably annoyed Tom Thibodeau explained, “You got to do it every night, you got to do it every day, it’s got to become a habit, it’s got to be consistent. Right now, we’re down a guy, so you can never underestimate how hard you have to play on every possession. If there’s a loose ball, you’ve got to be first to the floor, if there’s an opportunity to take a charge, you’ve got to take a charge. You’ve got to fill in, sink and fill and get to a body. You’ve got to hit, you’ve got to fight. It’s not easy to win in this league and if we’re not going to do the little things it’s going to be impossible to win. You’re short-handed, you’ve got to play with great intensity. If you don’t, you won’t win. If you do, you can beat anybody. It’s that simple. You can’t take a possession off, you can’t take a play off, you can’t take a day off. You’ve got to go.”
When asked if the players thought the rest of the game would be easy when they were up 15-plus in the first quarter, Thibodeau said bluntly, “I don’t know why we would think anything would be easy…I don’t know why we would think that way. It’s the wrong mentality to have. We’ve got to fix it.”
These are pointed statements and if you read between the lines, you can get a sense for who they are directed at. As Bill Bohl noted in his recap of Wednesday’s Wolves win against the Raptors, Thibodeau doesn’t appear to be pleased with Karl-Anthony Towns’ and Andrew Wiggins’ approach to improving and his comments after the loss to the Pelicans seem to further reinforce this notion.
The Wolves need more from Towns and Wiggins defensively if they ever want to take the next step and become true contenders for a playoff spot. And while some (perhaps most) of their defensive improvement will come with age and experience, at least some of this improvement could happen this season.
I think the common misconception is that “taking the next step” entails Towns and Wiggins becoming elite stoppers. I don’t think that is necessarily what the Wolves need or what Thibodeau wants. He wants communication; he wants trust in the system; he wants a consistent effort. And they’re giving him that on offense, but that isn’t where the team needs to grow. The team needs that communication, trust, and effort from the Wolves’ two centerpieces on defense and until that happens, the Wolves will be stuck as a below average team.
The phrase “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” came to mind while watching the Wolves flounder on defense yet again. With Thibodeau and his knowledge of and dedication to defense, the Wolves have not only been lead to water, but they have been lead to a Lake Baikal-sized body of water. But instead of drinking from the largest fresh water supply on Earth, thus far the Wolves have decided that they want to go thirsty, save for the occasional sip here and there. That’s not good enough and until Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins decide that that’s not good enough, the Wolves will continue to wade in mediocrity.