Wolves 110, Blazers 109: Continuing to fight because that’s what professionals do.

Rob Grabowski – USA Today Sports

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.

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6 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    Like: Thibs not letting us give up despite no chance of playoffs. Dislike:Thibs playing the starters for an average of 38.4 minutes.

    To elaborate slightly, not giving up is a great way to continue teaching to press and compete. It helps us finish with a good tone and start off the next season well (which was a problem this season). But playing the starters that many minutes risks injury, and skirts the important task (which we will need to do to function next season) of developing a bench, or at least, at this late juncture, auditioning bench roles for next year. It’s not being a hard ass. It’s being stupid, reckless and incompetent. Thibs has been unable or unwilling to develop a true bench all season, as well as playing the starters too many minutes. It can’t keep happening. We give up leads too much and it is for two reasons–bad bench play which sparks collapses, and bad defense. If we decide on a true bench, and coach them up and let them build some chemistry then we won’t die off so much when the starters sit. And we have a basket of problems with our D, but one is fatigue. Guys like Towns and Wiggins just can’t play the minutes they do with pressure to be primary scorers and defend with great intensity. I think, all else equal, a small cut in mpg for those guys will improve the defense.

    I hope Rubio can get a bit of his scoring mojo back soon. But he had a good game. Important on D and the 16 assists speak for themselves. Maybe more impressive, he looked a little tired and off. He threw a few uncharacteristically off passes. His shot was flat and out of alignment. But he played through it, defending, putting up some points, and DISHING.

    Wiggins played well. He still had almost no ‘do *hit’ plays or stats (I mean, like shockingly few–3 reb, 0 ast, 0 stl, 0 blk). But he played well in crunch time and shot 3-5 from three point land.

    That said, the real story every night (so we just get sick of mentioning it) is Towns’ dominant play. Yes, he needs to defend better, but he is turning out great numbers every night (tonight 34 and 12). He’s amazingly consistent. Jim Pete keeps calling him all NBA and it’s hard to argue.

    This is the Rush we signed. Too late. Good-bye.

    It’s a little hard to follow what Thibs is doing sometimes. I suppose most coaches are mysterious. Suddenly, his pal Dunn only played 6 minutes. We did most of keeping the Portland starting backcourt under 36% shooting and 3-14 from three with Rubio and Rush. Tyus also played little, but he had a nice pass and a nice shot.

    Payne played… Not sure why we can’t play him or Aldrich a few more minutes to save legs.

    Shabazz is back. He’s our only bench scorer. In the off season we’ll need to a) keep him b) get one on the market or c) use LaVine in that role.

    To close on a positive note, I feel like Thibs’ pressing at the end is good. We don’t need to play for ping pong balls. It’s like if you want a girl to like you. You don’t tank for her, make it super obvious that you’d throw away your self respect to date her. You act like you don’t care, and just go, ‘oh… by the way, while I’m at it.’ That’s what we need to do. Act like we don’t even need the draft (in a way we mostly don’t–we’ve got too many young guys with demanding levels of talent and expectations). Just waltz into the ping pong balls, grab one, put up the collar of our leather jacket as we strut out and then use whatever that ball happens to be to max potential (i.e. NOT a Dunn). At the draft we need to not get nervous, not get too complex, just be smart. I can agree with Thibs on one thing. We’re SO over tanking.

  2. Tom says:

    Sadly, we can’t expect our young team to continue working hard against G-State or any of the remaining games. It was one hard fought win, but consistency has eluded this team all year. Let’s hope that our key players are getting the message that this is their team and only they can drive the franchise to the playoffs.

    Thibs has the belief that HOF players want to take all the minutes and never want to come out of the game. That is an archaic idea, because as we are seeing more and more in this league, having fresh legs for the playoffs and for the important stretches of the game is now the new norm from such “softies” as Pop, Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra. None of the stars on their teams are league minutes leaders. There are actually only a couple exceptions in superstar players getting heavy minutes in Hardin and LBJ, but Hardin plays very little defense or physical play, LeBron, is the star of the league, and all these minutes he has logged will possibly come back to bite him. I’m not worried that Andrew and KAT at this early stage of their careers need a huge amount of rest, at least until they are a regular playoff participants. I just don’t see Thibs getting the results from all the minutes he demands of his star players.

    I have mentioned before that Jack Nicklaus line about working hard on your game: that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice does. This year we have seen Ricky Rubio get better arc on his shot for a couple games at a time, but seems to go back to his dart throwing ways too often for all the time and energy he must put in. KAT still has games where he floats out and shoots long distance shots, early in the shot clock when he has become such a force for teams to handle in the low block. Andrew Wiggins gets caught in mid drive instead of passing out to an open teammate and not getting as many rebounds as he should. No one seems to know how to spread out and fill the lanes for a fast break. This and many other lapses show that this team isn’t focused on correcting the errors in a manner that breaks bad habits. Minutes don’t always improve that part of the game. The more minutes you play, the more bad habits show up from fatigue. It is that muscle memory that was discussed when we thought the defense was finally sinking in with our team.

    I think that Thibs should be rotating his bench in more with his key players that are playing correctly and when they start showing bad habits, you make them sit. He typically has had one, or at times two starters out with the bench playing minutes, but mainly he has rested his starters as a group. He should be thinking that outside of KAT, Andrew and maybe LaVine or Ricky, those two key cogs will be playing together and will have interchanging parts to support them on the court during their careers as T-wolves. They need to compliment each other and they need to lead whomever is on the court with them. Thibs is hardcore, but I wouldn’t say that he is a great teacher because of it.

  3. gjk says:

    A good defensive game plan was neutered a bit by two non-shooters (Aminu and Harkless) getting hot, by the refs calling every breath on Lillard and McCollum, and by their inability to punish Portland’s small lineup. It was hilarious to see Aminu airball that 3 in the 4th where it fell into Rush’s (?) arms after having gestures after every make.

    Assessing the bench,
    – I don’t really see how much they have to develop or really use as a threat to lackadaisical play. Unless their backup is coming for their job and/or their future $, the threat doesn’t exist. The only one currently under that threat is Rubio. Additionally, the point of a bench is not to coddle a threat to a starter; the point is that the bench player consistently provides that threat by being productive immediately and forcing the coach’s hand. No one on the bench is doing that frequently now that Tyus’ open shots have dried up, and even he wasn’t a threat in every situation because it depended on whether they could go small in the backcourt. Last night was a great example of how size helps a defense, something he doesn’t have.
    – Building cohesion for a group with no future makes little sense. Aldrich isn’t a guy who can play when an opponent goes small with their bench, and everyone else besides Bjelly, Tyus, and Dunn is likely to be gone this summer, with Tyus and Dunn being somewhat redundant. If Casspi didn’t look 3 steps slow, they could see how he stacks up doing the things they asked Bjelly to do, but that’s not happening. Arguably, Muhammad needed more minutes throughout the season, but his production has fallen off so much that it’s tough to justify playing him more now.
    – Thibs is playing his starters a lot, but that has more to do with his options. He played 10 guys 19+ mpg in ’14-’15, 9 guys 16+ mpg in ’13-’14, 9 guys 20+ mpg in ’12-’13 and ’11-’12, and 10 guys 12+ mpg in ’10-’11. He will play his bench if it has enough guys who can contribute. For all the reverence thrown to the Warriors’ egalitarian rotation, David West plays roughly the same mpg as Tyus, Javale McGee is under 10 mpg, and they play 7 guys more than 14 mpg when factoring in that Matt Barnes and Durant haven’t played together. They’re all at 32-33 mpg because the starters don’t have to come back in late in the 4th like the Wolves’ do. Now, if the Wolves had 2-3 consistently good bench players and then rotated spots 8-10 depending on the matchup (like the Warriors), I’d be all for that.

    • Andy Grimsrud says:

      gjk–
      Good observation about Aminu hitting those threes; above the break threes, I might add. He was pretty happy with himself before launching that last one into mid-air, nowhere near the basket.

      I pretty much agree with your take on building cohesion as well. It’s worth pointing out that the teams typically preserving players have long and taxing post-seasons ahead of them. The Wolves have an extended amount of vacation, just like every other year.

  4. pyrrol says:

    C’mon guys? You seriously think playing starters for an average of 38.4 minutes is a good idea?

    The idea of playing a cohesive unit off the bench is not specifically because we expect to have this pretty crappy bench in place next season. We do not. It is to help maximize what we have now, win games, build confidence and not grind the starters into getting injured. In the process it may help decide who we are going to keep for the bench. It’s sort of hard to experiment with a lot of bench players when the starters are getting 38 minutes each.

    To be frank, this bad bench is partly Thibs’ fault as PBO, and he, at this point, needs to prove that he can actually trust a bench with a normal amount of minutes. It’s unlikely that will happen until next season and we upgrade the bench. But it didn’t help us as a team that he was not able to do that much at all this season.

    This also relates to development. Yeah, playing young, important guys tons of minutes down the stretch is good practice. But 38 minutes? They are likely too gassed to put in the effort on D that Thibs and the fans want to see. This doesn’t resemble what the situation will look like (hopefully) next season when we upgrade the bench. So a lot of the situations in these big minute games for the starters both don’t resemble what they’ll be doing when we are a playoff team and actually may encourage lazy, energy conserving D habits. I really don’t see the benefit. I see playing them a normal amount of minutes being beneficial, but I think Thibs is currently out of the norm. Not to mention the greatest threat to development is injury and playing guys huge minutes raises the odds of injury.

  5. […] playing his starters long minutes in Monday’s win over Portland, Tom Thibodeau did something unusual in the fourth quarter last […]

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