Timberwolves Win at OKC: Figuring Things Out a Game at a Time (with a little help from Andrew Wiggins)

The Timberwolves played in Oklahoma City on Sunday evening. The outcome was 115-113, when Andrew Wiggins and the Timberwolves bested the Thunder and Russell Westbrook’s late-game heroics via a last second shot for the win.

As exciting as the game-winner was, it was not the game’s full story. The story was that the Wolves were the better team than OKC. The Thunder, with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George flanking Russ, is a formidable opponent. But the Wolves, for most of the game, looked like the better team.

The common theme, until the end, is that both teams are trying to figure out what they have. The Thunder has the newcomers mentioned above, and the Wolves have Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague as newcomers to their starting lineup.

Let’s look a bit at the game’s dynamics.

So, Wolves versus Thunder. Andrew Wiggins was the hero. His buzzer-beater was the hoop that won the game.

However, the Wolves are now helmed by Jimmy Butler–Thibs’ right-hand man and a killer on the court. Along with the theme of figuring out what we have in our new players, we’re also still figuring out exactly how newcomers like Teague and Gibson fit into the Wolves’ team concept.

The same goes for the Thunder. We know there has been tremendous personnel tumult as well. The keys, of course, were to complement All-World Guard Russell Westbrook with other top-tier players. And the Thunder did just that, adding both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to the roster. Along with Westbrook and Steven Adams–(Editor’s Note: I wish Adams were still here in Pittsburgh)–the Thunder have put together a formidable lineup of veteran stars and high-quality role players. So tonight’s game was an interesting matchup. The Thunder are, on paper, better than the Wolves. But not necessarily by a lot. Which means that the Wolves should be gunning for teams like OKC, which they did tonight in enviable fashion.

In the first half, the Wolves played well. They got the ball to Andrew Wiggins where he could score. And he did. That’s what Andrew Wiggins is arguably better than any other Wolves player. Jimmy Butler didn’t score a lot, but that’s fine. He set up the offense by putting pressure on the defense while still playing within the team’s half court sets. Butler has not scored like he did last season with the Bulls, but for the Wolves, it mightn’t be appropriate. Butler is currently more valuable as a playmaker who creates easy looks for his talented teammates than he is as the 23+ ppg he averaged last season in Chicago.

One nice look overall was that Jeff Teague played well. He didn’t have the Westbrook assignment on defense for the most part–Jimmy Butler spent a lot of time guarding Russell–but Teague played the offensive game we expected. He pushed the tempo when appropriate, made some shots, and set up players for good shots. This was encouraging. He continued his solid play in the second half, ending with 19 points on 12 FGA, to go with 9 assists and 6 rebounds. Jeff Teague finally looked like Jeff Teague, which is reassuring for fans pining for Ricky Rubio after the Spaniard outplayed Teague at Target Center last week.

Steven Adams dominated the first half. He exposed our biggest weakness: the lack of a strong defensive big who can mix it up with physical bigs like Adams. Taj Gibson played a nice first half, but Adams’ combination of strength and energy, when OKC needed it, was a real problem for Minnesota.

The Wolves had a 13 point lead heading into the 4th quarter, but had to win on a buzzer-beater by Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is especially interesting this season because he seems much more comfortable scoring in Thibs’ system than he was last year, when his ascent to being “The Man” was forced if necessary. Now, Wiggins seems able to get buckets when the ball comes to him, often in difficult situations. The Wolves have some amazing weapons–Butler, Towns, Wiggins–but for Wiggins, scoring is his comparative advantage. Butler and Towns can and are doing other things to make the team win. Wiggins is scoring to make the team win. It isn’t always efficient, but he’s looked so far like the player you go to for a last-second shot when you need to win or preserve a game. That’s nothing to sneeze at for the so-called third-option on this good team. (Editor’s Note: Yes, I’m jumping the shark and declaring the Wolves a good team.)

Tallying the results, Wiggins ended with 27 points on 10-20 shooting. KAT had 27 and 12 on the night. Jimmy had 16, 6, and 6. It was a team effort throughout, even if on this night, the starters had to carry the second unit, which had an off night.

For OKC, the results are unfavorable. Paul George looks like an afterthought. Melo gets his shots because he’s Melo. But OKC still relies far too much on Russell Westbrook’s improv. Billy Donovan’s reputation as a lackluster NBA coach is only mounting, as he fails to adapt the team to the new weapons he has. It’s extremely early–far too early to judge–but the fact that the Wolves–another team starting over with a lot of talent–beat the Thunder on their home court with Westbrook doing his thing says as much about the Thunder as it does about the Wolves.

Until next time.

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9 thoughts on “Timberwolves Win at OKC: Figuring Things Out a Game at a Time (with a little help from Andrew Wiggins)

  1. This was an extremely fun end to an at times dull game. Aside from the last second heroics, it was fun to see Wiggins that excited. I’ve never seen him like that. It seems like a bit more joy and fire is in his spirit this season. That was cool to see. Something very encouraging thus far is how totally comfortable Wiggins looks on this team. He looks like a different player–much more opportunistic, a bit more efficient, and starting to show subtle signs of doing other things, beyond scoring. The write up above takes pains to underline the fact that Wiggins’ value is as a scorer. But if we are really going to be a good team this season, he’s going to have to do more of the little things. And others will have to score. This already seems to be happening. While Wiggins had a showy scoring night and has natural scoring ability, it’s good to remember that in this same game Towns also scored 27 on less shots and at a 64% clip rather than Wiggins’ 50%. In other words, with seemingly less effort, with less team focus on setting him up, Towns was able to score just as much, more efficiently. Part of this is that bigs have a natural shooting % advantage with their close to the basket game, but Towns also can hit shots from anywhere on the court. My point is that ‘our dynamic scorer’ can be any number of guys on this roster. The big takeaway is that Wiggins looks more comfortable and natural out there with more help.

    Teague played like we should expect this year, finally. He did his thing. He’s no wizard at setting up offense like Rubio, but he’s OK at it. He hits some shots, dribbles a lot, snags a steal here and there, passes the ball decent. And yes, we had to cover up for him a bit on D, but that’s OK with this roster (though not preferred). This type of performance is what we can expect from him most of the season, and it helps to have him getting on his feet. Butler showed signs of getting more comfortable, but he’s still out of sync. There seem to be implications floating about that he’s not going to be a scorer here, that he’s just a point forward, tough D dude. The truth is that he’s too talented a scorer for that limited a role. On this roster he may score a little less and have a few less touches, but he’s not going to look this mediocre all year. He’s going to have big scoring nights, and be a feared weapon on offense. He’s not there yet…

    Gorgui looked a little less confused in this one. When he gets on track he’ll be a nice tool. A. Little. Less.

    Crawford looks good, but he’s Thibs’ pet, even stealing some PG minutes from Tyus. We might have to consider cutting his minutes down if we want him all year.

    I don’t think OKC is better on paper at all. The team is basically Westbrook, George, Anthony, Adams and some guys. Adams is a solid center, but he’s not KAT-like star. And there is something to diversity on rosters. In today’s ‘positionless NBA’ this is laughed at, but I think it is a problem that they play 2 SFs who have nearly identical games. Carmelo is a little slicker on O, a bit more of a natural shooter and not a good defender. George is a good scorer, but also plays some D. Otherwise they are the same size and skills. Melo can throw his baby bearin’ hips around a bit, so I guess he gets the PF title… Even Wiggins and Butler are much more diverse in skills and styles (although it would be nice if they didn’t overlap quite as much) thought they are pretty much both SF SG tweeners who play kind of a mid zone between those roles. It’s not a good look for OKC. Also, they have 2 major ball hogs (Westbrook and Anthony) and a guy who also requires a bunch of touches (George) making for difficult chemistry. So to be fair to Donovan this is actually a hard puzzle to solve. I actually wondered if one of the two new faces would be a 6th man. Pretty silly, I know… But their offense looks pretty lacking in action, and movement. They have holes on D. They might struggle if this keeps up. The Wolves… they were the better team, I think they are the better roster and still they almost crapped the game away. I’m not worried. In a month we’ll be gelled and rolling OKC in games like this and the down to the wire win gave us confidence and loosened Wiggins up.

    1. You can make an argument that the Wolves are as good as OKC on paper. Just looking at the Vegas preseason odds, the over-under on OKC wins was 51.5 to the Wolves’ 48.5. Given that Westbrook is the best player on either team and the Wolves have a long history of disappointing performances, I’d still argue that OKC looks better on paper to most folks.

      Crawford was off last night, but I think he is going to have an extremely positive impact on this team. I like Jones a lot, but I like sets where Crawford plays the point along with Butler, Wiggins, Gibson, and Towns. Crawford can attack a defense better than Tyus, and that lineup–or one with Bjelica instead of Taj–gives him a lot of options from the top to put pressure on the opposing defense.

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting.

      1. I don’t pay attention to Vegas odds–that’s interesting! I’d say the conventional wisdom is that OKC has an advantage due to star power. All three of their big 3 are established. With ours, Towns and Wiggins are so young still, and only Jimmy is an established all star guy. But in my mind, our talent is greater. We know what Melo is by now and he’s past ripe. George, I like better as a player, but he’s pretty redundant with Melo and even some things Westbrook does. Westbrook is a great talent, but I’m not sure how much better he makes his team. I think there is a cap on how far Westbrook can go. He takes a lot of oxygen. He can only go so far alone (last year) and has trouble working well with others (Durrant). But even if this is not true, beyond the big three they seem thinner than us. We have young Tyus, Crawford, Gorgui, the D of Gibson, plus Teague with some other filler that might bloom (Shabazz) aside from our big three. Anyhow that’s my perspective I was aiming at communicating. We’ll see how it plays out. From what I saw of OKC, I wonder not only if they will be less good than us, but if they will have general struggles and come in below expectation. Lots of interesting things to monitor this season across the league.

        I’m very pleased with Crawford. My point is that he’s 37 and looked not so fresh last year, so keeping minutes down is very important. I think we are relying on him a bit too much so far if we expect him to help us later in the season. And he seems really important for the bench, so we should take care of him. But I’m happy with what he’s going out there.

        Thanks for your hard work and speaking with the commenters–that’s cool!

  2. Great game where the wolves played tough shot for tough shot against three great scorers and came out on top for once. Not since KG was our only star have we had that kind of counterpunch. KAT had half a great game, but was forcing himself in the first and letting Adams own him on the boards. He will relax and let his opportunities come I think these next two games before the rematch and be our brightest star. Wiggins played a good all around game, looking more like a DWade or Ray Allen in a big three offense. Butler is the KG, Bosh guy and KAT is the LeBron, Pierce. I hope those three meld together so completely that each can rotate those roles as needed. Then losing leads in the fourth, even against great teams may be less frequent. I noticed Thibs shortened his bench, but so did OKC. The bench wasn’t helping much either. Teague played well. I do still wish he was taller, Spanish and named Ricky, but for the first time, for sentimental reasons and not ability. Except for Thibs not saving a timeout, even the coach’s game was good.

    1. Regardless of one’s favorite comparison, what I like about the Wolves Big 3’s prospects is that they have time to grow together and for each member to find his proper role. With enough talent, a “Super Group” like the James/Wade/Bosh “Heatles” is inevitably going to figure out how to win, and win big. The Thunder’s Big 3 is pretty amazing and should get better over the course of the season, but that group seems less likely than the Wolves to develop the kind of longer-term cohesion that should make us a very competitive team for years to come. It’s still early, so I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. I always appreciate the takes in our comments section, even if I don’t always chime in.

  3. It was surprising to see OKC essentially not even play a PF for 5ish minutes in each half, which gave everyone the chance to see Dieng try to guard Melo. And he only went 1/4 and had a turnover! That was an interesting minor detail, Dieng as stopper of All-Star wings.

    Wiggins bailed them out after Butler and Gibson botched the pick and roll D that led to Melo’s 3 (of all the guys to botch that…). It’s fun to see him getting more and better looks at the rim this season; it was always his offensive strong suit (along with his underrated post game), and it always bugged me when they’d go away from that just so he could engage in some Kobe cosplay. Too many of their good players have been bad at finishing through/around contact at the rim (even KG) that it’s nice to see his skills used more there.

    1. Good points–especially about Butler & Gibson’s broken play near the end.

      It’s definitely fun to see players who can get to the rim and finish. This was always my frustration with Kevin Love–at least until he developed his potent perimeter game, which more than made up for it. Love was always great at drawing fouls down there, but he had the yips for a long while for fear of getting his shot blocked by longer, more athletic bigs.

  4. You know many of the scribes had OKC as a serious threat to the W’s and Houston for top spot. They are still going to be crazy good, but it will possibly take even more time for those three to meld because they have been the solo alpha dogs on their teams and possibly because they aren’t sure if they are going to stay a trio. Is this just a pit stop for Paul George? Will he sacrifice his production for the good of a team, he may not stay with. Has Melo become more a spot shooter and not the driving force that created a lot of FT for himself? The West is so crazy good, that maybe the Thunder are not quite as good as the sum of their parts. So far, the Wolves are moving in the direction of being a better team and maybe an identity that gets them somewhere in the playoffs.

  5. It is nice they are winning close games, but I am not sure if this is what they had in mind. They have still blown a double digit lead twice. Buzzer beating 3s is not really a sustainable path to victory. I hope as they settle in they just maintain a few of those leads.

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