2016-17 Season, Game Analysis

Timberwolves 115, Pacers 114: Does going over the screen change anything?

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During the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 115-114 road victory over the Indiana Pacers, Jim Petersen and Dave Benz were having a conversation about defenders going under the screen against Ricky Rubio. As we know, Rubio hasn’t been the sharpest shooter we’ve ever seen during his career. He’s gone through stretches in which it looks like he’s headed in the right direction. Mike Penberthy seemed to really make some progress with Rubio’s jump shot at one point. But for every step forward his outside shot has taken, we’ve seen a step or two backwards.

The last month has been different… so far. Rubio is making jump shots. Not only is Rubio making jump shots, but he’s been on kind of a scoring tear — for him. Over his last 29 games, Rubio is averaging 14.2 points and 10.2 assists. He’s shooting 43.6% from the field, 38.1% from 3-point range, and 89.6% from the free throw line. He’s made 41.4% of his jumpers, 43.9% of his jumpers off the dribble, and 40.9% of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.

Rubio is hitting shots like he never has before, and at a certain point that makes the defense go over the screen on your pick-and-roll/pop plays. Or at least, they have to entertain the idea. In Jim Petersen’s opinion, teams aren’t quite buying this as the future of Rubio and something you have to worry about. I tend to agree. Rubio gets a lot of clean looks based on defenders going under the screen on him. In the past, this meant he had a pretty clear vision of the floor as he came around a pick. And he exhibited the patience in this space to make a play for someone else.

Now? He’s making plays for both himself and his teammates. There is rarely a hesitation on pulling the trigger on the jump shot. And if he can force teams to start switching up their coverage with him, it gives the Wolves more options with him dissecting the moment.

Over his last nine games, Rubio’s numbers look even more eye-popping. He’s averaging 18.0 points and 10.0 assists. His shooting splits look like 48.2/42.9/97.6. That’s a 61.3% true shooting. This is Rubio as a threat — a real scoring threat. It is unrealistic and highly optimistic to think he’ll keep something like this up into the future. He’s not going to be an 18 and 10 guy. But being a 14 and 10 guy seems doable. If he can do it with the expectation of having an effective field goal percentage over 51%, it makes him an official scoring threat.

Against the Pacers, we saw him do this quite well. He drew a ton of fouls (something he’s done the last two seasons) and he knocked down jumpers. On the Wolves’ final offensive possession, Rubio received a pass from Andrew Wiggins, turned the corner on a quick Gorgui Dieng pick on the right wing, and drew a foul against Jeff Teague. He ended up hitting all three free throws, which counted as the game-winner. Wiggins and Rubio forced Paul George into a pass that resulted in a late missed shot by Monta Ellis on the final defensive stand of the night.

The interesting thing about that play in which Rubio drew the foul? Teague chased him into the screener. Part of that could be pressing up in the final seconds of a defensive possession, but there was also not effort at all to go under the screen. Because Rubio brings Teague into the screen on the high side of the play, it allowed Rubio to draw the foul when Teague caught his left arm in the cookie jar.

I’m not sure that happens a month ago. Maybe it was a fluke that it happened in that possession, but Rubio made something out of it. Moving forward, how many makes will it take for Rubio to force defenders to go over the screen? How many easy buckets will he get baffling a defense that doesn’t think the shooting will keep up? Or will it subside like we’ve seen in the past and eventually it’s back to the same old thing we’re used to seeing?

That’s the intriguing part of this Rubio run — trying to figure out what it changed in the future. Not only for the Wolves on the court, but what does it change for the Wolves off the court? Is this run enough to convince Tom Thibodeau that this is bridge point guard between the present and whatever Thibodeau believes the future entails? There have been plenty of rumblings about Rubio getting shipped out this summer. And I think some of them are legitimate.

The thing that brings pause to the decision is the assumption that Thibodeau is dying to just dump Rubio to get to the Kris Dunn era. I don’t believe that assumption to be correct. Thibodeau may not believe Rubio maxes out the team’s future at the position, but he also knows that Rubio’s defense, passing, and leadership are big in helping this group grow. So to get rid of him means you’re absolutely trying to obtain real value in return, and that will always be a difficult thing to figure out with Rubio in a trade rumor.

Is there any part of what’s happening with Rubio now believable in the future in Thibodeau’s mind? That could be a fascinating twist to this offseason. Just what are the Wolves willing to believe with Rubio and this second half of the season?

This game wasn’t all Rubio. Karl-Anthony Towns was unreal once again. His 37 points matched George’s 37. With Wiggins struggling on offense for much of the game, Towns and Rubio carried the offense. Dieng knocked down a couple of 3’s and Kris Dunn had one of his better efforts. The defense he played in the first half kept the Wolves from reeling at times, and he was an effective scorer in small doses. The combination of Dunn and Tyus Jones is working right now.

Wolves are still winners of one of their previous seven games, so it’s not like the team is moving in the right direction. There is no linear path for them. The defense we saw following the All-Star break got flipped on its head. But the end of this season is about development, survival, and seeing what they have moving forward.

If Rubio making jumpers and eventually forcing opponents to chase him around picks becomes a thing, just what does that mean for the plan in the front office? It’s crazy to think about, but it’s what spoke the loudest during this game.

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7 thoughts on “Timberwolves 115, Pacers 114: Does going over the screen change anything?

  1. I hope the league never trusts Ricky as a scorer and he gets constant open looks, because the guy is a competitor and will hurt you if he can. How many PG contribute 35-50 points for their team with scoring and assists, night in and out? Only the elite PG do it, many with more breaks from the refs, a lot more shots and reliable options to pass to then the young spaniard. As KAT, Ricky, Zack and Wiggins play together, his assist totals should get more gaudy and his open looks more frequent. Ricky is also getting better at drawing fouls with the head bob to highlight holding, making contact and getting a shot off to get FT, which he makes at a high level. These are things Wiggins needs to learn if he is going to be elite.

    A good win for the team, with paybacks to the Lakers coming up. Maybe they can finish on a high note, and spoil Portland’s late surge to take over the eighth seed.

  2. The Towns FTAs thing (7.1 per 100 possessions) confounds me. One could say he’s too young to get calls, but Embiid averaged over twice as many FTAs per 100 (15.1). An argument could be made he shoots a lot of jump shots, but so does Anthony Davis (11.9 FTAs/100). I haven’t watched closely enough to figure out whether he’s getting enough calls, but he’s always absorbing some sort of contact at the rim, contact that seems to result in more free throws for other players. Per 100 possessions, he averages fewer FTAs than a lot of guys not known for repeatedly taking it into the teeth of the defense: Devin Booker, Melo, Love, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari, Damian Lillard, along with scrubs like Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Boban, and Alan Williams.

  3. Towns is our future and I love him. BUT, until he expends energy on defense beyond rebounding, and, even more importantly, he shuts the hell up to the refs, tli believe the calls will fall the wrong way for him.

    1. One more thing. On my android phone this article jumped all over the screen and if I lost contact with my finger and the screen it would revert back to your homepage. I had to click the link to get into the article at least 15 times.

    2. Let’s not pretend that receiving foul calls should be a reflection of anything beyond “did he get fouled on the play.” He doesn’t complain any more than other high-caliber players, nor does he play any less defense than many top scorers.

  4. Shew, we needed that win. I was sweating bullets at the end. It always amazes me how guys can calmly hit free throws in the clutch.

    I’ve been in the camp that thinks we should keep Rubio as our PG even when he was poor shooting Rubio. The good always out weighted the bad, and Rubio is a unique, hard to plan for player. Specifically on this team the Wolves are trying to build, there are almost too many scorers who want the ball in their hands a lot, with Wiggins, Towns and LaVine. So Ricky (or any great distributor) is a really good fit. Not only does that cover his scoring weakness, but his pass first mentality is perfect for the team we are building. That style of PG not a burden in this format, it actually makes our team that much more dangerous.

    On some level, it doesn’t matter whether guys are going over or under screens with Rubio. He can kill them either way with his passing. And with his improved shooting, he can make them pay when he’s open or has some space. Whether guys go under or over, teams just can’t afford to worry about Rubio as a primary offensive threat with Wiggins, Towns, LaVine (eventually) and others on the prowl. So, either way, Rubio will get space for shots or angles for drives from time to time. He’s begun to discover ways to take advantage of this. I have to say, I’m pleased and taken by the quickness and consistency of Rubio’s scoring improvement, but not completely surprised. Rubio has been working hard on his shooting for years and has improved his motion. He’s been working on ‘finding his places’– shots and situations in which he feels comfortable shooting or driving, and that he can hit at a decent clip. Perhaps the biggest wall for Rubio the scorer was confidence. His own head was often his worst enemy and he was never quite able to put together the right ingredients to have a streak like this that would solidify his confidence as a scorer and make him say, ‘I can do this. I can get back to that. I know how it felt and what I was doing.’ Now he has that going for him, finally in place. He’s not going to be on a streak like he is now all the time, but I do also think he’s turned a corner and stepped up a level as a scorer. Not all of this is going away.

    It’s hard to explain why this Rubio scoring tear is happening. It seems sudden and extreme. He’s not just not a bad scorer anymore, he’s actually been a decent NBA scorer during it and many a night he’s ended up as the second scoring option. Some factors: Thibs was messing around with this team a lot. For a big part of the season, he didn’t give Rubio the keys. Rubio needs the keys to orchestrate the offense and he’s not a stand in the corner and hit a three type of scorer. He has to find his shots at his moments. Does that make him a ball hog? Not at all; he needs the ball in his hands but he’s not a hog. He shares the ball with passion as his first priority, and orchestrates offense that involves the whole team with amazing competence. But you have to give him the ball and some latitude to work. Thibs was simply unwilling to do this. Then he gradually was willing to do it, but it isn’t an instant thing. Then Rubio needed time to get ‘warm’ to adjust to running the team in this system with the keys and that isn’t and overnight kind of thing. With some time (as well as more and more trust) things have clicked. They clicked doubly because Rubio needed a confidence boost period in terms of his scoring to elevate above his mental wall. In this environment of trust, Rubio eventually found his spots and rhythm and then his confidence kicked in. We’ve been waiting for it. Some will be bewildered by it, but I think some people knew the ingredients were there and were waiting for the right situation to incubate them. Going forward, we can expect Rubio to be more able as a scorer. Perhaps he won’t keep this level of competency up, but he’s building his game and is going to be enjoying more scoring fruits from now on. I wonder how this sits with Thibs. He seems like a surprised casual fan about Rubio. Almost as if, had he known Rubio was capable of playing like he has since the break we would have encouraged it right away. But he had no idea, seemingly. Even to Rubio diehards like myself, the suddenness has been a jolt, but there is a big told you so aspect, too. It’s almost like revenge. It’s fun to believe in someone and see your faith pay off. Is Thibs learning on the fly here and how much? I’d swear he started his tenure here with an anti Rubio ideology–not my type of PG (never mind all the effective things he does or what a good fit for the team he is). I think Thibs has built a lot of new trust and respect for Rubio. The question is how much. Does he have Rubio and his value in the correct context going into the off season?

    Coinciding with Rubio’s scoring tear, and perhaps a situational contributing factor, has been Wiggins’ sucky play. Lately we just can’t count on him on offense. He’s inconsistent, not aggressive and taking bad shots. He not only is not the advertised 1st scoring threat (that title deservedly goes to Towns) he’s often not a 2nd threat, either. Some games Rubio has been the 2nd threat and when he’s not he’s padding Wiggins’ lack of production and consistency. This is a bit surreal… But Rubio just goes about business with a blank stare forward. Next man up–no matter the inexplicable reasons that Wiggins is such a mediocre, disinterested player at the moment. In this game had 17 pts on 35% shooting. That’s not very good in some respects, but it was worse than it appears on paper. He didn’t play consistently and we could not count on him. Towns and Rubio were there all game.

    Teague is a dirty player. He didn’t simply get caught on the screen or ‘with his hand in the cookie jar’ he was aggressively holding Rubio down by his arm, counting on the fact that the refs wouldn’t call it at that late juncture. Just too shameless. I’m always surprised when the Wolves get calls. We got 2 calls late, although I don’t think that out of bounds off Towns was correct, so we had one tough call, too. Not sure why Indiana isn’t clicking more. I dislike Teague but he’s decent. George is a really good player. Myles is a good young big. They do not mesh, though.

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