The Minnesota Timberwolves were rolling and the third quarter was here. Months ago, this was a surefire sign of disaster for Tom Thibodeau’s young team. They’d acquire a lead, they’d take it for granted, and soon enough they were drowning in quicksand. It was a pattern of behavior that seemed both detrimental and frustration-inducing. Thibodeau would become embittered at the repetition of mistakes. Fans would become reviled in the “same ole Wolves.”
While some painted the Wolves’ approach as the definition of insanity, Thibodeau and his coaching staff believed eventually the message would come through. Create good habits. Make them muscle memory. Generate success from the work you put in. A few minutes into the third quarter, the Utah Jazz were desperate to generate some success of their own in this game.
A long offensive rebound became a corner 3-ball for Dante Exum to cut the Wolves lead to 19. The Jazz came back down on defense, snuffed out a lob to Karl-Anthony Towns from Ricky Rubio, and then Rudy Gobert swatted Towns’ shot inside. Gordon Hayward missed the 3-pointer on the next possession, but Gobert positioned himself for the put-back slam. It was down to 17 and the Jazz were trying to regenerate their tired legs from the back-to-back, and put the Wolves back into that familiar sink of quicksand.
The Wolves still had a big lead though, and their new mindset now is to absorb the run by the opponent before rebuilding the cushion in the score.
“The big thing is try to build your lead,” Thibodeau said about that moment in the third quarter. “Play tough with the lead. That’s something early on in the season we had problems with. I think we’re getting better at that. Teams are going to make runs, but if you can build that lead and not get careless with it. You get it to 18 or 20. Now if they get a couple of scores, you get a timeout. You come right back.
“You get a score, stop, score. You have the cushion again. You never let your guard down. That’s something you have to learn and unfortunately we may have learned that the hard way.”
Quin Snyder’s team is more than capable on back-to-backs. Headed into this contest, Snyder’s Jazz teams were 28-22 on the second night of a back-to-back since he took over. They went through the perils of being young, learning to perform in crunch time, and figuring out how to stop shooting yourself in the foot.
The Jazz weren’t done with their hustle plays though. Minnesota created a turnover and Hayward ran down Nemanja Bjelica for a chasedown block. Joe Johnson secured the rebound against Brandon Rush. But Utah couldn’t get the lead down more than 17 the rest of the way. Rubio came down to make a layup against Gobert. Rush hit a 3. Bjelica hit a 3. The Wolves kept going to the free throw line. And throughout all of these scores, the Wolves had peppered in those defensive stops that used to be so elusive.
It’s one thing to have Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins going on the tear they’ve been on. Their two-man chemistry continues to grow and evolve. Their individual efforts continue to be too much for the men assigned to stop them. Towns is a monster inside. Wiggins is a surgeon everywhere else. Dissection and survival seem to be the theme of the Wolves’ burgeoning offense. However, the defense is what’s carrying Minnesota right now. They’ve found a comfort in their understanding of where to be, which helps them brush off giving up 142 points to Houston. They learn from it, instead of sulking through it.
“I think it’s just the discipline,” Towns said of their recent defensive success. “We’re executing, no matter what happens. We’re sticking to our principles. That’s the show of a team that’s growing. The best teams — the Spurs, Golden State, Cleveland — when it’s going their way, they’re doing the same thing. When it’s not going their way, they’re doing the same thing.”
Over the last seven games, the Wolves have gone 5-2 and their offense is generating 113.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s phenomenal offensive efficiency. Just to put it in perspective, the Warriors lead the league with an offensive rating of 114.0. The Rockets are second at 112.0. But the offense has been good for this team all season long. They’re ninth in the NBA over the course of the season. It’s the defense they’ve played in these last seven games that has carried them as much as anything.
In a seven-game stretch that includes the Wolves giving up 142 points to the Rockets, they’ve allowed just 100.0 points per 100 possessions. Some of the opponents in this stretch aren’t great offensively. They’ve done it against the Bulls (17th), Mavericks (22nd), and Kings (19th but no longer have DeMarcus Cousins). The Cavaliers (3rd), Nuggets (6th), and now Jazz (12th) are also in this stretch of games.
The constant yelling/teaching of Thibodeau and his staff, the shootarounds before games that serve as mini-practices, baptism by fire of past mistakes — they all have contributed to a better understanding and the creation of muscle memory in what they’re supposed to do on defense. That comfort has developed over time and is growing even more now.
“It took some time,” Towns admitted when asked how long it took him to feel comfortable in the defensive system. “It’s different. It’s more structured. Sometimes, I fall in the habit of trying to do my own thing. Trying to make a heroic play, a crazy defensive play. Sometimes it ends up great; most of the time it ends up bad.”
If ever there was going to be a test for what the Wolves have developed recently, it comes through the end of this month. They’re surprisingly in the playoff race and watching the standings. Eight of the next 14 games are on the road. The next four games are in San Antonio and then home to the Blazers, Clippers, and Warriors.
“A big part of learning is trial-and-error,” Thibodeau said. “You want to teach and you have repetition and you do it in practice. Then you have to see where you are in the games. The games reveal exactly where you are. But when you’re young, you don’t have experience. The good thing for our guys is they’re getting a lot of experience this year. They’re growing. They’ve taken on the challenge.”
The experience is coming in huge waves and the Wolves have learned to swim. Thankfully, this isn’t the same team we saw months ago. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
- Ricky Rubio is stupendous on the court. He had another great game, and did it against one of the top defensive point guards in the NBA. In this seven-game stretch, Rubio has had one negative plus/minus game and he’s a +76 overall. He also had this fun highlight:
Ricky Rubio drops the dimes. Shabazz flushes it home 👌 pic.twitter.com/WQjj8QYTj8
— StreetHistory (@streethistory) March 2, 2017
- Karl-Anthony Towns has five straight games of 20+ points and 15+ rebounds. Anthony Davis did that earlier this season when he was on a personal tear. This streak has only been bested twice since 1983-84. Kevin Love did it six straight games and Charles Barkley did it six straight games. For KAT to match that, he’s going to have to be a monster against the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio.
Per Swanny, KAT's 5 straight 20p/15r games match the longest streak in the NBA this season and is one shy of matching the most since 1983-84 pic.twitter.com/RCCl8jmXQT
— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) March 2, 2017
- Andrew Wiggins extended his franchise record streak of 20-point games to 19, and could’ve done much more damage against Utah. The blowout kept him at 20 and allowed the rest of the Wolves to feast on what’s usually a very good defense. Over these 19 games, Wiggins is averaging 27.3 points on 50/38.2/81.7 shooting. Everything is in rhythm. Almost nothing is being forced right now.
- The last time Wiggins didn’t score 20 points in a game? It was back on January 17th. The opponent and the place? The Spurs in San Antonio. So much of what is going properly for the Wolves right now is going to be tested by the Spurs and what they do. That’s usually what happens in the NBA.