Pelicans 123, Timberwolves 109: Feelin’ young

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NEW ORLEANS — Karl-Anthony Towns sat at his locker, feet splayed with ice packs the size of his shoes wrapped on both knees. A thousand-yard stare intermittently switching to dejection as his eyes darted off into a replay of the game in his mind. Trying to find the moments of this game that slipped away. Trying to find the moments of this season that became derailed. His hand occasionally covering up his face as tried to mask the disappointment and emotion of ending a key road trip sans wins.

It wasn’t that the road trip couldn’t produce a single victory for them in three games. They went into Boston and lost, which isn’t a disaster. They went into Miami and lost, which has happened a lot to teams in the second half of the season. Minnesota went into New Orleans Sunday night and dealt with a team on their own desperation quest for a playoff appearance after so many moments slipped away this season. After a stretch of the season in which the defense was clicking and they were beating really good teams, the Wolves defense went from “figuring it out” to completely falling apart when they needed it most.

“It doesn’t take much to change,” Tom Thibodeau said of his team’s recent defensive failings. “Things can change and they change quickly in this league. Both from good to bad and they go from bad to good. But you’ve got to make it change. It’s not going to change by itself.”

Some will look at the 40 points given up in the third quarter or the 35 points in the fourth as the issue in this game. But it was the way the Wolves ended the first half that showed things slipping away in this game. They came out firing on all cylinders and while the defense wasn’t completely sharp against New Orleans, the offense was putting distance between them. Ricky Rubio was making plays everywhere. Towns was lighting up Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins whenever they were on him.

“Yep, last three minutes of the second quarter — problem,” Thibodeau said after the game when asked about the end of the second quarter. “Second half, come out… no defense. You get what you deserve in this league.”

With 4:15 left in the second quarter, Gorgui Dieng knocked down a couple of free throws to give the Wolves a 52-40 lead. They’d score one more time in the quarter, commit three turnovers, and miss a few shots inside. Minnesota also allowed the Pelicans to close out on an 8-2 run, which doesn’t like much but it’s the world when you’ve gone from controlling the game to losing hold of the rope.

“I wish I could tell you,” Towns admitted when asked what’s going wrong for them in those runs of defensive lapses. “Sometimes, we become young. We start gambling. Start being undisciplined and it hurts us.

“I think we can snap out of it. I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve had a moment where we’ve done this. It starts with all of us. You look at yourself first and then everyone else second. There’s some mistakes you make that you wish you can take back.”

While Davis and Cousins have struggled to find successful stretches on the court together, they were a +17.1 in 24 minutes together in this game. Alvin Gentry rarely had to resort staggering them in the rotation. He was able to use his two monsters effectively on the court at the same time. A big part of that was getting help on the perimeter to create tough and poor decisions by the Wolves defense. When they made mistakes, Jrue Holiday and Jordan Crawford helped torch the missteps.

They combined for 43 points, 17-of-29 shooting, 8-of-12 from 3-point range, and Holiday kicked in seven assists to go with it. Rubio’s streak of four games with 20 points or more came to a screeching halt with 10 points on 10 shots. The Pelicans weren’t too worried about his scoring and Holiday played far off of Rubio most of the night to dare him to space the floor. Rubio did respond with 14 assists and he hit 2-of-5 from deep. He just couldn’t find the rhythm off the dribble.

Towns was his usual spectacular self scoring the ball. For the first time in his career, he outscored Davis in a showdown. KAT had 33 points to AD’s 28. It seemed like 16 of those points came with a quickness for Towns, and the rest of the game was more of a struggle. The scoring binge was something we’re growing quite used to, which is still scary and enticing for a 21-year old. Even when the frustration of losing these key games is coming back to haunt you at the end of the season.

Over his last 32 games (dating back to January 9th), Towns has been on a run that has him averaging 28.3 points and 12.8 rebounds. His shooting splits during that time are 60.1/42.1/82.9 and a true shooting of 66.7%. To put that in perspective, Steph Curry in his unanimous MVP season a year ago had a true shooting percentage of 66.9%. It’s a more ridiculous number for a guard than a big man, but Towns isn’t your traditional big man with how he scores.

None of that matters right now because while Towns outscored Davis for the first time in his career, he lost to him for the fifth time. And they’ve only played each other five times. What was so prescient of good things to come after the win over Washington has become a cloudy grave of reality that too many mistakes this season have ended up costing the Wolves a true run at the postseason in the final weeks.

The Wolves have a road-heavy schedule the rest of the way. They sort of controlled their destiny with three games remaining against Portland (one game back of Denver) and three games against the Lakers. They could’ve turned those contests into a lot of pressure on Denver and Portland to keep their stride.

The addition of Omri Casspi will help cure some of the problems right now, but it can’t overcome everything that has put Minnesota in this position.

“It’s the way it is now,” Towns said. “Can’t go back and change it. We came in with a lot of confidence. The last three games, it seems like we’re going up there with the knife at our own throat. We’ve got to come back strong.”

Dejection will eventually become elation and focused determination. But for a night in New Orleans, the Wolves felt young again.

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  1. I have to admit, I was flipping between NCAA and Wolves game, so I didn’t see much of the disaster which was the second half. It kind of reminded me of a bad team that is such a non-threat to the other team that they look good early only to have the better team put the pedal down after the first quarter and squash their hopes.

    This is where Thibs repeated mantra of “play better defense” astounds me, It is such a throw away line that means nothing to the fan and possibly the players. The parts that I did see, I didn’t think the wolves chucked the defense as much as lost their match up to better players. NOLA has added Cousins and Crawford to the Brow and now they have a better team than the wolves minus Belly and Zack. The game is still constructed to be offensive and so when guys get going that can score, you just have to hope you can match them. However, if the Genius of D, has specific areas of the defense that he would elaborate on, that would be great. I also think he should look in the mirror when it comes to areas of the offense that need to be improved on.

    Thibs has had Pek on the roster, with Hill and Payne basically watching the games all season. While we played three point guards out of our Iron Nine, NOLA had a dozen players get playing time. This has been an issue all season for Thibs. He doesn’t trust or use his bench and all season our starters have logged some of the heaviest minutes in the league. He doesn’t have a complex or even adjustable scheme, He still thinks that Dunn is a great young player. But worst of all, he is the HOBO (head of basketball operations). Has he even looked at D league players that he could test drive like other teams have. Heck the Spurs seem to have found another draft in the D League and they seem to get the lottery pick every year.

    I have heard that this guy is singularly focused on basketball. No kids, No wife, No distractions. Just eat and sleep basketball. So why is he always Johnny-come-Lately when it comes to finding support pieces for his team? If Jordan Hill isn’t valued by Thibs, then why does he keep him? A guy who can shoot like Crawford from three would have been a nice replacement for Zack. I know he tried Lance Stevenson, and he got hurt, but he has had an spot all season with Pek. I see he has signed Omri, to replace Belly which is a good thing.

    The season is over now. I think what Thibs has to do is make sure that his stars stay healthy and play hard when he puts them in. Pick statement games like the Portland games and Utah and get going evaluating FA he needs to look at and draft picks he can get.

    • Not disagreeing with the larger point, but it made very little sense to get rid of Pek when a medical retirement had to wait until the end of January and would help their long-term cap a lot more than using the stretch provision on him. I don’t know why if it hasn’t happened yet because that process takes time or because they don’t see a good reason to do it before the summer, but it was always in their best long-term interests to keep him for most of this season.

  2. On the season, the Pelicans average 9/26 from 3; against the Wolves, that’s 12/26. I just don’t get why they’ve had such problems stopping the secondary pieces this season. This shouldn’t be a team that sweeps them.

  3. I stated after the Miami game that this team is done, and this game certainly confirms it. We have a few guys holding onto the old competitive Wolves, namely Rubio and Towns, but this is no longer a team that seriously competes. They just ran out of gas, or something…

    To gjk’s point, we just got beat by secondary pieces (to put it nicely… I mean we got housed by Tyler Johnson and now Jordan Crawford). That’s vintage Wolves. I think it is important to note how we are getting killed at the three point line suddenly and that’s a big factor in these 3 losses. We allow really good shooting from behind the arc and cannot respond in kind. LaVine being out hurts us here greatly. Rubio and particularly Towns have taken more threes in an attempt to cover for this deficit. It has not cut it in volume, quality of looks or percent. This all is vintage Wolves–ways of avoiding being competitive that are quite irritating that we’ve been doing for years. Get killed at the 3 point line, let the scrubs have career games against us. In this one it was neither Davis or Boogie who beat us–we limited enough to beat them. It was their guard play and 3 point shooting that shut the door, from a team not known for its guard play, and who’s doubled down on bigs carrying the roster. Long story short, ouch.

    I watched this game with great interest because I’ve been watching March Madness. I love the NCAA touney, but man, those kids suck! No, seriously, it is amazing how good these young kids are, but the quality of their skills is so low compared to the NBA. I watched the Duke S Carolina game—that was amazingly ugly. It felt like half the players fouled out and no one could do anything right. It was refreshing to watch Rubio pass, Towns and Davis in the post, guys hit open shots as well as contested shots, competent team play. The contrast between the NCAA and the NBA has never felt quite as high as it did to me on Sunday.

    I have to triple (quadruple?) down on my Wiggins critique. The stats don’t really show how much he sucked in this game. It was like I was watching the NBA except Wiggins was the Duke S Carolina game. He has a way of getting enough numbers so that he looks like he was doing his part, when actually he was an anchor around our team’s neck. There are hints in the box score–5 TOs, missing open threes, 2 rebounds, -14… Beyond stats, he not only looks lethargic, his decision making has been bad lately and he doesn’t step up when we need him. The stats you see that look good, 25pts on 56% shooting, didn’t ever seem to come at moments when we really needed it. Something’s been wrong with him and it is unsettling for a guy with his level of talent.

    The thing with Wiggins lately (other than his ice coldness which even has been at the free throw line) is his decision making. It has regressed as of late. I don’t know if this is because he’s lost interest, or due to slump frustration or something else. But it is odd. Young players are up and down. But you don’t see decision making issues with Towns on the same level and he’s only in his second year. Something cool about Rubio was that he made good team decisions from the outset of his career and has been steady on that since. The last piece is that he seems to have gotten his shooting confidence sorted out so that his notion of when to try to score based on his ability to do so and the circumstances seems honed. That brings us to Dunn. His decision making looked pretty bad. He had a few good hyper aggressive D plays that worked out (or could have resulted in dumb fouls) but otherwise he looked like a guy with no idea how to play. He’s had some burn now and so you have to wonder. I’d like to take stock after the season, next year when these guys are fresh. But we’ve got our work cut out. I’m taking a vacation from Thibs stuff today, but will add that Tom brings up legitimate concerns about his leadership. Hopefully there are some fun games left for the fans. Seems like we never play the Lakers but are about to some. I hope we can finish looking better than we do now. That will be helpful. Excited about Casspi.

  4. Pyrrol’s take on Wiggins is accurate in that Andrew is not himself of late. I wonder if he isn’t a little depressed in how little his game has advanced against the better wings in the league this year. Writers were asking if he was the next Kobe or LeBron. He was playing with pretty good energy until he went against Kawhi Leonard and got shut down. Since then he has played like he isn’t good enough and has lost his swagger. LeBron looked clueless too when he went against Leonard in the Finals three years ago. He needs to play through it and figure out how to hurt teams when they shut down his scoring game.

    Thibs is right that these young guys should not be tired. They haven’t played years of Playoff basketball. However, just like the Twins pitching staff seems to tire in the fifth inning because no one pushed them to close a game, Wiggins may need to be pushed hard to build up the stamina that has eluded him with previous coaches and poor records.

    Early this year, KAT was getting outplayed by Deandre, Boogie and Brow, but this past game you see how confident he is against the better big men in the league. He pushed through it and now I can’t see another big man that can consistently shut him down. With the exception of the Celtics game, he has played like a stud. But Kawhi showed the league how to defend Wiggins and he has let it get to him. I doubt that Thibs is the kind of guy that has a sympathetic ear for that. Mitchell said last year that you don’t push Wiggins by yelling at him like other players. This of course is pure speculation, but he isn’t the same guy that went for forty back to back this year or the guy that wanted to make the final shot to win the game. Just like KAT had to learn to adapt to changes in defense, Andrew has to do the same thing. Otherwise, he will be the next Mitchell Wiggins and not the star we want him to be.

  5. They didn’t need to get rid of Pek until January, because they were terrible until nearly February. However, when they had a chance to make the eighth seed, they still hadn’t gotten rid of Pek and the only reason I can figure is that Glen doesn’t want to pay the non-insured portion of two years of Pek’s contract and would rather wait until the official start of next season, so he can only eat one year of it. I think he would be on the hook for 20% or $2-2.4 million for this year and $2 million in the last year. I also don’t know if ridding the contract means that he is even lower on the NBA floor for team salaries and would have to pay the remaining players more to make up the difference a la the Sam Hinkie Sixers or not. If Glen really wanted to put a winner on the floor to make a push to the playoffs, the reason should be moot.

    If Pek was gone immediately in January, Thibs would have had a place to add a D League player like Jordan Crawford or FA Matt Barnes before the Warriors got him. His place on the roster hamstrings the team just like Jordan Hill and Adrian Payne never leaving the bench does. I realize that I’m spending someone’s ( a billionaire, but not my) money, but so many of our wonderful owners in this state seem to feel comfortable wasting the fan’s money on inferior teams because they have alligator arms when it comes to putting a competitive product for fans to feel like they got their money’s worth. This is where Sid and others will quote owners like Taylor saying that “if Coach wanted to make a deal, money will not be a problem.” Yet for some reason, the coach who is driven to win, doesn’t want to spend the money to rid him of a contract that doesn’t score a point or block a shot for a D league player that makes the minimum to try him out.

    This is where the Dallas Mavericks fans are blessed to have Mark Cuban. He has had terrible luck (DeAndre Jordan), but it wasn’t because he didn’t want to spend the money to win. Since their championship, he has continued to purge and rebuild around Dirk to find some way to help him. I don’t see Glen Taylor doing the same for KAT or Andrew. He’ll sign them because he has to keep the remaining fans he has, but he will cry budget and small market after that and we will see another superstar leave without putting up a banner in a Minnesota owned stadium.

    • Here’s what is unknown:
      – How long the medical retirement process takes. After all, Miami can do the same with Chris Bosh yet hasn’t, and they’re a team that has had a real chance of making the playoffs as opposed to the “if you squint real hard” chances the Wolves have had since their 6-18 start.
      – How much the insurance policy actually covers. All I’ve seen reported is “a majority,” not specific numbers.
      – How much the payout is affected if Pek is waived before the end of the contract and how, if at all, a medical retirement affects that payout. If waiving him this season would require Taylor to pay for all of next season, $9-10 million (the amount that normally would’ve been insured) is a lot to cough up when the team didn’t have a full roster at several points in January and February.
      – Why they kept Jordan Hill on this roster when they’re starting two centers next to each other and only play Aldrich against some teams and never in the second half.
      – How likely it is that any veteran who was bought out would have chosen the Wolves. Casspi chose them because he’s playing for a contract and wants to show what he can do with 20+ mpg; Barnes isn’t risking a smaller payday by choosing the Warriors, even though he probably won’t play every night if Durant returns healthy.

      Here’s what is known:
      – Medical retirement wipes a player’s full salary off a team’s books. It’s really the only option with Pek if the team wants to maximize their future cap space.
      – The Wolves released John Lucas III on 1/7 and waited a month to fill his roster spot with Stephenson, a guy who didn’t play much by Thibs’ choice. Then, when Stephenson was injured, they chose not to replace him and waited for him to return.
      – On 2/1, the Wolves were 2.5 games out of the 8th seed; they are currently 4.5 out. Since that date, 6 of their 12 losses have been within single digits, with one being within 5 points and another being an OT loss. What are the chances that any street free agent keeps them within 2.5 games, let alone gets them closer? Win shares is a flawed stat, but Shabazz is their only bench player with more than 1.6 of them, and even he only has 2.5 for the whole season.

      If they wanted to add someone and keep Pek, they could’ve. They brought in a “veteran” in Stephenson and barely played him before he got hurt. When he wasn’t, they had an open roster spot and enough cap space to sign any street free agent they wanted. Why those things didn’t happen is unknown, but they have little to do with Pek’s presence on this roster.