Timberwolves 107, Jazz 80: Score, stop, score

Via Getty

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.

Random Notes

  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.
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7 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    It’s always bizarre to see a playoff team get blown out at home by a lottery team and probably one of the true rarities in an NBA season. Obviously, they probably could’ve won even if the Jazz had played relatively well.

    Games like this make me wonder, though; is it better for a team to really battle a good opponent playing well and lose, or is a game like this a better outcome? They’ve had their share of unreasonably easy wins this season where the opponent sat a bunch of players, and now they have this one where the Jazz couldn’t make shots, committed more fouls than average, and had some horrific turnovers.

  2. Jello says:

    This is a great article and I agree with it completely. “Wolves have gone 5-2 and their offense is generating 113.4 points per 100 possessions”. Exactly. The Wolves offense is already great and it’s led by two 21 years olds in usage. Ricky is a huge reason why this works, but using this formula of Rubio-Wiggins-Towns, an already great offense, given three more years together how good can it be? It works. I love LaVine as a player, but the starting unit doesn’t need him. The offense is already great without him and LaVine is a terrible defender. Bring him off the bench when he gets healthy to shore up the second unit and bring a punch there.

    When this team is winning it is their defense that shows up. Three of the last four opponents have been held below 90. This team is going to score, the question is if they will get stops. Adding two starters to the team to shore up the defense next to the Rubio-Wiggins-Towns combination should be a no-brainer. Improve the defense and let Rubio-Wiggins-Towns run the offense. Bazz and LaVine can score for the second unit run by Tyus. Dunn can offer defensive minutes on the wing and Dieng can be moved to the third big role. I’m very excited for next year because the formula for this team getting above .500 is right there. This game is the formula. Defense and efficient offensive execution. Things are looking up for the Wolves.

  3. jmndodge says:

    We miss LaVine – however, his injury has forced Thibs to learn the roster. The Tyus Jones/Dunn – even when coupled without any starters – Aldrich/Bjelica/Bazz played very effectively. Rush is a contributor when given regular playing time – if healthy L. Stephenson might just turn into an important part of this roster. PEK/Payne/Hill provide room for both a veteran and a top draft pick to develop, and the addition of a D-league franchise should be a good foundation going forward.

  4. Tom says:

    It was a very fun game to watch. The bench was very good and Rubio only had a couple passes were you scratched your head, but I love his recent success going to the basket. You knew he could do it, but there was a stretch where Ricky wasn’t even seeing how open he was. Making a couple lay-ins, opens up his passing lanes and then he is about as good as it gets in running an offense.

    I have commented how our two stars (Andrew and KAT) need to become more complete players. We are seeing their defense become more consistent. Still not going to be on any All-Defensive teams soon, but they are playing better team defense and not letting their attention stray. These are good signs. We knew they could score and now they are doing that consistently as well. If we can get Wiggins to get a few more rebounds and assists and KAT to play better help defense, we will be seeing the Wolves move into the elite section of the Western Conference.

    My thought is how many years have the wolves changed coaches and effectively delayed progress? I’m not going to bash Thibs, but Andrew and Bazz and G have had three coaches in as many years. Rubio has had four in five.
    Last year, they started putting it together with Mitch after the all star break. Would they be better now had Flip lived and coached all the way through? My guess is that they wouldn’t, because they played last night the way we thought Thibs would get them to play defense. It has taken a lot longer than we thought it would, but last night the team looked like a good defensive team. How long it will last is anyone’s guess, but it has been a very long time since a Wolves team looked that good on both sides of the ball. Utah was probably tired and mentally down after losing a heartbreaker to OKC the night before, but they still have good veterans and young stars like Gordon Hayward and have rebounded very well this year on the second night of a back to back, so I know that the wolves defense was more of a factor than tired legs.

    It should be fun to see how the end of the year works out. If they play like last night, the rest of the season, I think we at least sit in that 8th spot for a game or two. Didn’t seem possible in December.

  5. pyrrol says:

    Great win. This was weird because of how flat bad a good opponent was against us. Utah was just awful independent of what we were doing to them. Still, it’s clear that we are now in a stage where we are defensively competent most nights and clearly improving, as opposed to the early train wreck on D stuff. This is fun because Thibs has a lot of good D ideas and schemes for these guys but nothing seemed to be sticking. Now we seem past that and who knows what kind of improvement we’ll see on D the rest of this season and next season.

    Rush has not looked that good replacing LaVine in the starting lineup, but I do find myself wondering if he’s played a role in how well we’ve looked on D lately. But don’t let the normal post all star improvement and the roster concessions (playing Jones as back-up PG, cutting into Dunn’s minutes and using him as a wing D guy, allowing Wiggins to play from his spots and PG’s to run an offense with some improv) fool you into thinking this is all because LaVine is out. It’s way too early to relegate LaVine to the bench on this team. In many ways Thibs is a very patient, conservative guy. It gets under my skin when I see things that will immediately make us better and not hurt our future not being done right away (using Jones as back up PG). But more often than not, really testing things, and not being rash about changes is a good thing. I feel like Thibs could have dropped some of his developmental things earlier in the season, but I think the LaVine thing needs more patience and see where Thibs coming from on this.

    Of course LaVine is going to be out a long time. We are going to have to get used to life without him, play on, and we might almost forget what it’s like with him around. When he comes back he won’t be 100% for a while. So Jello will likely get his wish; when Lavine comes back he may start off on the bench playing a mild amount of minutes. I prefer to simply cheer for a LaVine-less team as though he doesn’t exist and not read into what how we play now means for how we should use him when he comes back. Personally, I’d cross that bridge when I came to it and he’s actually back and ready to play big minutes.

    It was odd how Thibs brought in Dunn without Jones in the first bench stint. I panicked and thought maybe he gave up on his new thing he’s been doing with Tyus as backup PG. But he eventually settled back into that. Dunn actually played a few more minutes than Jones in this one, but didn’t put up numbers that seemed to take advantage of the opportunity. Much above talks about how our ability to hold a big lead we get is starting to stick. I think it is part of the natural maturation process, due to some of Thibs’ basic D principals finally sticking, but also because the bench doesn’t go out there and stink anymore. Bjelica looks like a new player on a Jones run bench unit and is getting more and more time with starters. I think our ability to hold leads is in small part because Jones is now leading that unit. And Jones isn’t half bad as a team defender. I like what we are doing, but we have a really tough stretch coming up and I do expect not just to lose a bunch of these but also to have some regression when these teams overwhelm us and we forget what we learned. Still, we should compete better than we did in the first part of the season even against tough teams.

    • Jello says:

      My wish is that LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns all develop into amazing two way players. What I see on the court is unfortunately that if you’re counting on LaVine and Wiggins to guard the other teams wings you’re going to be in trouble. They’re both great offensively but I want to see them both get a lot of their minutes with a defensive wing. Having your two wings both be bad defenders isn’t additive, it’s multiplicative. All the problems with team defense and rotation can be helped tremendously by replacing one of them with a good defender.

  6. Tom says:

    Sadly Pyrrol, I think you are right about some more bumps in the road with this team’s defense. Think of the games tossed away because they thought they could continue to outscore teams or that veteran teams would roll-over if they got down by twenty. We still probably have some nights where veteran teams like the Spurs and W’s coming up that will have us regress. Let’s hope that they finally see what defense can do to make their offense stand up against good teams.

    Not having the kind of talent KAT and others on this team possess, makes it hard for me to understand how they could keep losing games and huge leads and yet believe that they didn’t need to work on defense or have a clue as to why they needed to play harder on that side of the ball, when they got a lead. I guess when you have always been able to beat someone by scoring, you really don’t get the importance of team defense. Having teams like Houston that just try to outscore you and getting season success probably doesn’t help Thibs cause, but it amazes me how many competitors rely solely on beating you offensively and not on both sides of the ball. You’d think that LeBron would be such a beacon for how to be a complete player, but let’s face it, you don’t get endorsements for being a good defensive ball player or highlights on ESPN for good ball rotation.

    Trust is such an important part of winning basketball. Trust the coach to do what is best for your career, even when you are coming off the bench. Trust your teammates to have your back if you rotate over to help defend, so your guy doesn’t score a wide open dunk or three pointer. Trust that a less physical specimen like Tyus can be the catalyst for improvement for guys like Dunn and Belly, by being smart and consistent in his play. It has taken probably to long to make the playoffs, but we are seeing trust in this team and that could bode well for us, going into next year. Provided we don’t drop and add seven new players and have to start the whole process over again.

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