We’ll get to Lance Stephenson’s debut (and the requisite conflicts involved with rooting for him). We’ll get to Wiggins making a great feed to Tyus Jones for the game-clinching three. We’ll get to Gorgui communicating on defense, Kyle Lowry being Kyle Lowry, the little bounces that went the Wolves’ way down the stretch, Bazzy’s energy, Rush’s invisibility, and Pascal Siakam’s tough defense. We’ll get to all that, and more. But I’d like to begin with what happened at the post-game press conference.
If you like the Wolves and want to get a deeper understanding of where they’re at, I can’t recommend watching and listening to Tom Thibodeau’s postgame press conferences highly enough. Behind the usual coachspeak and noncommittal platitudes, there’s a message he’s trying to send. He never gets too high after wins or low after losses; for all his hellfire on the sidelines, he’s perfectly affable once the game’s over. He’s calm, deliberate, and when presented with the right question, extremely forthcoming.
Last night, after the Wolves overcame a double-digit second half deficit to steal a victory from one of the league’s top ten teams, Thibs was hardly overjoyed. He was almost grumpy. And in a media session with more than a fair share of pointed comments, much was revealed. Here’s the transcript:
— Question about Lance, Tyus finishing the game—
“It’s the NBA. Everyone’s gotta be ready. Whoever the next guy is, get him in and get the job done.”
— Faith in Lance to make the right plays in his debut—
“Well, he was in (the facility) last night. Did a good job yesterday. Did a good job in shootaround. The package (of plays for him) was very small. He’s been in a lot of games. Knowing the NBA is a big plus. This is a great opportunity for him, and it’s going to be what he makes of it. How he works, his professionalism, what kind of teammate he is, how he helps us – that’s critical.”
— Lance’s defense on Kyle Lowry—
“He came in and gave us a punch offensively, knocked a couple shots down. He’s got good size. Physical. (He) knows how to play, moves the ball. We’ve got to get him into shape, really work him.”
—On the group who finished the game—
“We were just searching. First half wasn’t good. We’ve got to keep working at it. Working at it, working at it, working at it. It’s our reality. We’ve got to make it happen. The group that was in, they got us back, got the lead. It made it tough (to pull them). It’s about performance.”
—About what his halftime message was—
(Long pause) “You know… we talked about what we wanted to improve. We have one guy who communicates well. But it’s not just the talk. It’s the work, it’s the effort, concentration, getting it done. Not repeating the same mistakes over and over. We have to play with more of an edge. There has to be more of a tenacity to us. There has to be more study, more belief. Our best players have to lead. They have to play defense. They have to. It’s a must.”
—Wiggins’ decision-making down the stretch—
“Andrew was great. Not only shot-making, but playmaking. I think he’s really grown in that area. (Pause) But he’s gotta do more.”
—How Tyus’ shooting helps the team’s spacing—
“Well, his shooting. The way Bazz has shot the three, the way Tyus has shot the three, it’s opened up the floor, and that gives Karl room to go. Tyus is a really good team defender. Still has individual work to do, but he’s very good, team-wise. Lance gives us physicality. Bazz is working at it. Karl has to continue to work. There’s a lot of work for him to do.”
—On physicality and smarts, knowing when to fight through screens and when to go under—
“It’s decision-making. Who are you guarding? What are his strengths? Where is the screen being set? What are we trying to accomplish? If the screen is set out of the scoring area, that one you should go under. If it’s in the scoring area, you have to adhere to the gameplan. Are we icing it? Blitzing it? Showing on it? Switching? And if we’re switching, who are we switching onto? Are we getting immediate contact with our new man? Is our weak side aware? Are we playing out of position? Are we in our stances? Do we have vision? Are we reading the ball?
It’s all tied together. And right now, I think we have an idea of what we should be doing, but it’s not a habit yet. And it has to be better. It’s not good enough right now. There’s more. There’s a lot more to this. As soon as you start thinking you’ve got it all figured out, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”
—Is it more grit, or intensity?—
Both. Both. Both. It’s a combination. It’s your commitment to prioritizing how important it is. And then it comes down to degree of how hard you do it, how smart, and how together you do it. You can be in the right spot, but if you’re not in your stance, and don’t have the necessary intensity, when a guy comes off with the ball, he’s going to see a gap. If he sees a gap, he’s gone. That’s it. Players are too good in this league.
(Voice rising a bit) This isn’t college. There’s a big difference between college and the NBA. Huge. And we’ve got to recognize that.
—Does frustration come in part because the team seems to get it for some stretches, but not all game?—
“We can’t lower our standard. You know who wins in this league? Teams that do it consistently. They do it the entire game. So we can’t pick and choose when we’re going to do it. We can’t rest on the weak side. We can’t say, “I sent someone else.” No. Everyone, you’ve got to do your job. (Rapping knuckles on the table) Gotta do your job. It’s that simple Everyone is counting on each other. Do your job.”
So, what to make of all that?
One thing that seems perfectly clear is that Thibs is not overly thrilled with the focus, and the commitment to improve, of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. No one can deny they’re the team’s two best players, but Thibs demands more. Part of the reason Thibs is so compelling in postgame interviews is because he’ll take unrelated questions and give answers about how he really feels. He was asked about Andrew Wiggins’ decision-making down the stretch of the game (which was objectively very good!) and concluded by saying Wiggins needs to do more. He was asked a question about Tyus three-point shooting and concluded by saying that Karl needs to do more. He turned the question about his halftime message, which is a pretty easy one get by with a boilerplate response, into the (very direct) statement that “our best players have to lead” and “have to play defense,” with the implication that they aren’t up to snuff, yet.
I’m sure none of that is news to Karl and Andrew; I’m certain they hear it all the time. But is it sinking in? Are they getting it? What is the dynamic like between Thibs and his two best players? Are they linchpins of his future success, or hallmarks of potential failure? If you haven’t listened to Thibs much this season, none of what he said above is drastically out of line with things he’s said before. But to hear it after a good win, at home, over one of the top teams in the NBA, is quite striking. The Wolves won, but it took a comeback, and some lucky breaks. They still aren’t a 48-minute team. The fact that the win didn’t seem to brighten his mood shows Thibs is looking at this situation with the widest possible lens. And he’s forthcoming enough to give us an insight into his vision. What will he see over the season’s final 29 games? Time will tell.
Anyway, before this gets too long, here are a few other tidbits from the Wolves’ victory over the Raptors:
— Okay… In August, 2010, Lance Stephenson was arrested for pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. According to the criminal complaint that was filed, he then picked up her head and smashed it on the bottom step. The case was later dismissed. I don’t exactly know how to handle having him on the team I watch and pull for. I don’t want my basketball-related analysis to overshadow that part of his history. I also believe that people can change, and that he has every right to work, but I don’t want to play the “redemption” narrative, either. So I’ll settle it this way: I’m terribly conflicted and uncomfortable about it and I’ll figure it out as I go.Who knows, maybe at the end of his ten days, he’ll be back on the open market. I imagine many Wolves fans are in the same boat as I am. It’s weird. We should talk about it, often. But he’s on the team and that’s that.
— On the court, he was pretty damn good. It’s so interesting to watch a player like him in contrast to a player like Wiggins, who is sometimes too robotic. There’s a feel, a freedom, a spontaneous nature to Stephenson’s game that’s a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, it’s bad – wild shots, trying to make a spectacular play instead of the simple one, etc. But for one night, at least, it was good. Combine that with his physical tools, and it’s easy to see why Tom Thibodeau wanted to bring him in. He signed in the morning and effectively guarded one of the league’s most dynamic players in the evening. That’s pretty remarkable.
— Tyus Jones, a local man, hit a pretty big shot:
Tyus 3 pic.twitter.com/qmnUml7GWX
— StreetHistory (@streethistory) February 9, 2017
— His line of 5 points on 2-of-6 shooting and 3 assists in 27 minutes doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but don’t let that fool you. He was very good, and is really making the most of his newfound playing time.
— Wiggins collapsing the defense and finding Tyus on the wing… perfecto.
— Pascal Siakam, the Raptors’ starting power forward, did a very good job of making Karl-Anthony Towns work. He denied the ball, he pushed him out of position, he fought, he scratched, he clawed. KAT still wound up with 29 and 14, but just 1 assist, and a lot of that damage came against Jared Sullinger, Bebe Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl. Siakam isn’t much to speak of on the offensive end, but you could do a lot worse for the 27th pick in the draft than a guy who’s going to battle like crazy on defense.
— Tyus + a whole lot of weight lifting + a psychopathic mentality = Kyle Lowry.
— A quick story about Lowry – at around the 7:00 mark of the third quarter, he drove to the basket and didn’t get a whistle. The Wolves collected the rebound, and as Ricky started to make his way up the floor, Lowry quickly fouled him. AS LOWRY WAS FOULING RICKY, he was saying something to the ref. The entire time the ref signaled to the scorekeeper, and prepared to whistle the ball back in play, Lowry stood there to belabor the point that the official had missed a call. Lowry literally committed a foul just so he could get some one-on-one time to quibble with a referee.
— Oh, you remember how Thibs mentioned that “we have one guy who communicates”? He didn’t specify who it is, but I will. It’s Gorgui. Gorgui is the guy who communicates. As Gorgui himself put it yesterday, “Even me, I don’t speak English, and I talk.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment, but it’s true. Gorgui is the only vocal guy on that end of the floor.
— And he also hit another corner three! Gorgthree Di3ng, ladies and gentlemen!!!
— Tyus hit the winning shot, and the Wolves won and all, but having him guard DeMar DeRozan in the game’s final minutes was… odd.
— Speaking of DeRozan, he probably deserved an And-1 on his drive with 29 seconds to go in the game. But he didn’t get one, and I’ll take it.
— Wiggins got to ride a pony!
Andrew Wiggins riding Jonas Valanciunas like a PONY pic.twitter.com/BGgm0DAIQH
— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) February 9, 2017
— Bazz’s energy was necessary. Brandon Rush was practically invisible in his 20 minutes of action.
— If we get some Dunn-Bazzy-Lance lineups when Kris comes back from his hand injury… look out.
— According to the official scorekeeper, the Wolves led for just 94 of the 2,880 seconds of game time. #Advanced #Stats #Moneyball
— The Wolves continue their week and a half-long homestand on Friday when they host the New Orleans Pelicans, a revenge game for Lance Stephenson, who was cut by them earlier this season. Oooooh. Drama!