After Monday evening’s 110-109 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Tom Thibodeau was asked if he liked the fight his team showed, earning a win over a decent team after his own had already been eliminated from the playoffs.
Thibs didn’t seem to accept the premise that missing the playoffs somehow excused poor performance for the remainder of the season.
“I expect them to be professionals. We have a lot that we’re playing for, in terms of building habits, improving. This isn’t about taking days off, relaxing, and having a good time. We didn’t make the playoffs, so if we wanna end that we’ve gotta put the work into it.”
Monday’s game was the Timberwolves 76th of the season. Eliminated from playoff contention and close to many other lottery-bound teams in the standings, losing it instead of winning it arguably would’ve better served their interests. And it ended 25 hours before they would tip off in Oakland against the best team in the league.
Despite all of that, here were the minute totals for Thibs’s starting lineup:
This is who Thibs is. Two years ago for Grantland, Jason Concepcion wrote the greatest paragraph anyone will ever write about Thibs. The intro to his “Just for Fun: Which Teams Should be Trying to Trade for Tom Thibodeau?” post — during the final days of his Bulls tenure — followed a funny photoshop involving Thibs with a crazy smile on his face. Netw3rk wrote:
Gaze into the eyes of a madman. A hard-ass. A stickler. The type of dude who refers to spinal meningitis as “viral something something. Flu-like symptoms, whatever.” A descendant from the Pat Riley–Jeff Van Gundy school, where practices aren’t measured by normal units of time, but by how many times world-class athletes vomit like candy-asses running their first 5K. See the murderous glint in his eye as he orders you to run another round of suicides. Hear the bellicose foghorn voice booming from the sack-of-potatoes body that sounds like the last god of the walruses choking on a garbage bag filled with broken glass, commanding you, “Box out. Box out. Box out.”
Every one of the Wolves (entering Monday’s) 7 remaining games is a chance to “close the gap” between last year’s 29 wins and the 40-plus typically required for playoffs candidacy. The win over the Blazers was the team’s 31st of the year, demonstrating improvement, even if not enough to appease fans in the short term. But more importantly, these remaining games serve as a reps, reps, and more reps. The defense seemed to be improving after the All-Star Break. Then it was bad again. Thibs plans to keep working on that, and he will be devoting as many in-game minutes to his most important players as possible before they go their separate ways for the summer, out of his direct control and supervision.
As the one-point differential suggests, the Wolves-Blazers game was exciting. It ended with Damian Lillard — one of the league’s premier late-game assassins — dribbling left on Ricky Rubio and pulling up for what would’ve been the game-winning shot at the buzzer. When it barely missed, the Target Center crowd cheered in celebration of their team for the penultimate time they will get to see them play this season.
Before the game got so close, it had a couple of big runs that shaped its arc. The Wolves played a strong first quarter behind a lot of Ricky Rubio passing (9 assists (!)) and Towns and Andrew Wiggins scoring (10 and 12 points, respectively). The 29 to 23 lead after one also reflected decent defense played by the Wolves against one of the more dangerous offensive teams in the West.
The second quarter was more of what we have come to see in recent Wolves games, however, and the defense of the early going was nowhere to be found. The Blazers ripped off 34 points (allowing only 20) and took a 57-49 lead into the half. Portland would extend that lead to 12 early in the third quarter before the Wolves dug in and started to play some defense again. Living at the free throw line on offense, they outscored the Blazers 33-18 over the last 9:41 of the third. From there, the game was back and forth.
Towns and Wiggins for the Wolves, and Lillard for Portland exchanged baskets, and eventually the Wolves won by a point. It really was a classic case of a game that could’ve gone either way and the ball bounced in Minnesota’s favor on the final shot. But probably more important than the result for Thibs were the repetitions that led to it. The shots for Wiggins (29 points) and Towns (34) and the passes for Rubio (16 assists). The on-ball defense and help defense of C.J. McCollum and Lillard who combined for 42 points, but only after 35 shot attempts. Those repetitions are the work, the investment. Thibs will squeeze every ounce of opportunity out of the season’s remaining 6 games, whether the fans or players like it or not.
Another one Tuesday night, this time against the Golden State Warriors on ESPN. Until then.