Last night, after his Timberwolves beat the mighty Golden State Warriors at Target Center, Coach Tom Thibodeau was asked if it was the biggest win of his Wolves tenure.
“Oh yeah, no question. I think everybody will agree that we have now ARRIVED. We’re here. The work is done, and now we just win ballgames and enjoy the ride. Buckle up, get your popcorn ready, let’s get it.”
okay he didn’t actually say that
Here’s what Thibs really said:
“It’s up there. It’s a good measuring stick for us. Going down the stretch there’s a lot of head-to-head stuff. I thought at San Antonio was a good measuring stick. It also teaches you a lot. And that’s the important thing for us to improve, for us to go through those situations and you also learn from that, and so, the San Antonio’s, the Golden State’s, every game they play their game. Like Steph and Klay, Draymond, I’ve been around those guys with Team USA and I know their competitive spirit, but I also know their mentality. They just keep going. There’s no backup, they can miss a shot, that doesn’t slow em down. They play the game and that’s the mentality that we have to develop.”
With an answer that would’ve made Sean Spicer blush, Thibs said a whole bunch of words that had very little to do with the question asked. It’s fine — nobody expected him to break character and start celebrating what’s in the past. Thibs practices the “don’t get too high after wins or low after losses” that he preaches to a pretty incredible degree.
But just because Thibs remains militantly focused on the day-to-day grind doesn’t mean that the rest of us need to be. Last night’s win had me thinking back over the past decade of Timberwolves basketball, and it makes a strong case for the most significant that the team has had. Last season had a cool one over the same Warriors in Oakland. There have been a handful of big wins over the [Russ & KD] Thunder. In Ricky Rubio’s magical rookie season, they beat the Spurs a couple of times in ways that announced their for-real-ness, before his injury. But I think the magnitude of Friday’s win over the Warriors at Target Center is greater than anything since before Kevin Garnett was traded to the Celtics.
This is for five main reasons.
The first one is the most obvious: the Wolves were facing the Golden State Warriors, winners of 73 regular season games last season and the championship the year before that, and owners of a 52-12 record heading into their contest at Target Center. Yes, Kevin Durant is out with a knee injury, but what remained was the entire core of their recent dynasty. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala were all healthy and in the lineup. It’s one of the best foursomes of players in modern NBA history. Beating them is incredibly challenging.
The second reason is that the Wolves entered this game playing the best basketball of their season, showing signs of real progress toward becoming a Tom Thibodeau Team; a team that hangs its hat on getting stops and plays every game with a fiery edge. Ricky Rubio was finally playing free and in charge of the offense, and everybody else had finally seemed to learn how to play defense. The Wolves went into Utah and beat a good Jazz team by 27 points. Then they lost a drag-out defensive brawl in overtime at San Antonio. After that (and a weird slippery-floor game cancellation) they smoked the full-strength LA Clippers by 16 at Target Center.
These performances along with the team’s defensive stats after the All-Star Break signaled some honest-to-goodness improvement, the likes of which we haven’t seen around here in a long time. With Golden State coming to town on the heels of this improved stretch of play, we would find out how much — if any — of a fluke the recent success was or was not.
"This will be a good test for us, it'll tell us exactly where we are." –Thibs
— Punch-Drunk Wolves (@PDWolves) March 10, 2017
That the Wolves built a double-digit lead, took the Warriors swings coming back in the fourth quarter, and held on to win by a point was a really strong sign that the team has turned a corner. Winning against THAT opponent, in the context of an improved stretch of play, carries so much more meaning than if they happened to catch GSW on a really cold night (Curry was 1-8 from downtown, but at least some of that is attributable to Rubio’s defense, and Klay shot the ball like normal Klay), or on the tail end of a back-to-back when Draymond got ejected, or anything weird like that. This game went down to the wire, both teams wanted it, and the Wolves did enough things to earn the W. It seemed a whole lot like the San Antonio game, in terms of flow and the intensity that their top-tier opponent threw at them down the stretch. That night in Texas, they came up short in overtime, but looked every bit worthy of that level of competition. On this night on their home floor, they got just enough breaks to win by a point. For a visual comparison of the Spurs and Warriors games, check the game flow graphics, courtesy of ESPN.com; Spurs game first, Warriors second.
The third reason is that the Wolves didn’t even play particularly well — at least offensively. In other words, it wasn’t a fluky result of hot shooting. That was nowhere near the best game Karl-Anthony Towns has played this season. He turned in an awesome first half and a terrible second. The 23 & 9 he posted was below his recent averages. Andrew Wiggins made some clutch shots, but struggled for long stretches against Klay, and didn’t register a single assist. He made the final pair of free throws to win the game, but only after missing a pair that could’ve easily cost it. Gorgui Dieng, a poor matchup against the quick and ball-handling Draymond Green, was limited to just 24 minutes of action. Nobody aside from Ricky Rubio turned in, by their own standards, a “great” performance. If Thibs views tough matchups as “measuring sticks,” then a win that comes without hot shooting should be an extra-reliable gauge of where his team is at. They won this game by the way that they played more than by luck.
The fourth reason that this victory was so significant for the Timberwolves is that it came in front of an enormous home crowd.
Tonight's crowd announced as a Wolves all-time record for Target Center, 20,412.
— Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) March 11, 2017
Despite having some of the league’s most exciting young players, the Wolves have not drawn good attendance this year. I’m sure there are a number of good reasons for this, but a few that I can name are:
- Minneapolis/St. Paul has professional baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, and Big Ten athletics. It isn’t a huge market to have essentially every American sports option. The competition for ticket-buyers is real.
- Timberwolves tickets are expensive.
- The team doesn’t win enough games to stay relevant.
With this typically-poor attendance, there is something special about the rare home matchups against the league’s most popular teams, and there is nobody more popular than Steph Curry. Steph’s popularity first sunk in with me when my 6-year old nephew asked me for his jersey for Christmas. I had gotten him a Wiggins shirt when he was 4 (he barely knew what basketball was, but I wanted to not-so-subtly nudge him toward the game) and a LeBron jersey when he was 5 (seemed like an easy choice to continue building interest). It wasn’t long after that that he was telling me that he wanted a Curry, next year. Mind you, I don’t think he knows anything else about the NBA other than those three players. Somehow, Steph Curry has penetrated the elementary schools of America, even to kids who never watch NBA games.
This was evident in the Minneapolis skyways last night which were invaded by an army of tiny Steph Curry’s. The blue number 30 was everywhere; it couldn’t be avoided. Ninety minutes before the game, thousands of fans were there to watch their favorite player… shoot hoops?
The Wolves have had some exciting games on the rare occasions when an opposing superstar draws a sell-out crowd. LeBron’s Cavs and Heat were both taken to the wire at times, but always prevailed in a close win. These Warriors have been battled to the end at Target Center in recent matchups, but always came away victors. Last night, the Wolves finally got the job done in front of the biggest collection of potential repeat customers that they will see.
Crowd and arena atmosphere has to be a little disappointing for players like Wiggins and Towns, who played a season at Allen Fieldhouse and Rupp Arena in front of maniacal college fans, before joining a lottery-bound NBA team in a mediocre NBA market.
This needs to improve. The Target Center has to become a fun NBA atmosphere that is difficult for opponents to play in. It’s obviously a two-way street: the team needs to win and command fan attention, and the fans need to show up and cheer. Wins like last night’s will go a long way in re-establishing a home court advantage that hasn’t really existed since Garnett was The Big Ticket and the Wolves sold out home games.
The fifth and final reason that last night’s win was so important was Ricky Rubio.
I don’t need to rehash Rubio’s entire career here, or even the dramatic ups and downs of his time in the Thibs Era. We know that he struggled to adjust to his different role for the first month or two of the season. We know that his name was prominently involved in trade rumors. We know that Thibs-Layden, LLC drafted a point guard (or they thought they did, anyway) with their first lottery pick as Wolves decision-makers. We know that Thibs brushes aside attempts by media to praise Ricky; often taking the question as a chance to say something nice about Kris Dunn.
All of that is now changing and last night was an emphatic statement by Ricky that he is this team’s point guard now, and that he should be this team’s point guard for the future.
Last night, Rubio outplayed Curry and was arguably the game’s MVP. (Klay Thompson would’ve been his chief competition.) He had 17 points (on 10 shots), 13 assists, and played consistently pesky defense against the reigning two-time MVP who probably-not-coincidentally shot 10 for 27 from the field. Throughout the game, Rubio and Thibs could be seen updating strategy by the sideline during free throws. While I don’t want to say that never happened earlier this season — and this is probably some type of confirmation bias — it seems like the two have built more of a connection as Rubio has played better basketball.
After starting this season terribly, Ricky’s stats have been fully rehabilitated. His PER is up to 15.8 and his win shares per 48 minutes have hit a career-high .120. I think that some Rubio numbers worth watching are his mid-range field goal percentage, free throw attempts, assists per game, and net rating. While he will never be a good three-point shooter, he has had times when his mid-range J looks pretty decent, and he’s able to coax defenders into committing enough reckless fouls to generate double-figure points. Here’s a little chart of his month-to-month measures in these categories, leaving out November because that’s when he had his injury.
In this recent stretch of awesome Wolves play, Rubio has been more aggressive. That shows in the extra fouls drawn and assists, and perhaps even in the lower mid-range percentage. He’s taking shots, attacking defenses, and being proactive. It might not always look pretty in the half-court, but the good has been dramatically outweighing the bad. As the team has tightened up its defense (putting it mildly) Rubio has gotten more traditional fast break opportunities, boosting his assist totals. His defensive intensity is pretty much the definition of leading by example.
One game does not make a huge difference in anything, and Friday’s win over Golden State — by itself — will not decide what happens next for Ricky Rubio and the Timberwolves. But it was a statement, and one that was noticed by more Minnesota sports fans than any other this season.
The show goes on and the Wolves play a winnable game tonight in Milwaukee against a similarly situated Bucks team. Who knows how that one will play out, and we know they had no time to celebrate last night’s huge win. But that doesn’t mean the fans can’t take a day to bask.
It feels like a real corner has been turned and the things we hoped to see from these players and this coach are becoming the new reality.