Suns 118, Timberwolves 110: A Hard Loss in the Valley of the Sun

Let’s get the immediate sting out of the way first: the Timberwolves were defeated Saturday night in Phoenix, 118-110, by a depleted Suns team.

Phoenix should have been easily disposed of by the new and improved 2017-18 Timberwolves. Playing without star guard Eric Bledsoe, who was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this week, the Suns came into the game with a 4-9 record. The Wolves’ entered the game at 7-4, arriving in Phoenix after a trouncing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, which ended a five-game winning streak that was the Wolves’ longest in over a decade.

Saturday’s game was a good opportunity for Minnesota to turn things around. For a team with playoff aspirations in the Western Conference, a loss to Golden State isn’t a big deal, but a loss to the Suns is–kind of.

Saturday’s loss was disappointing for a sanguine fan base that believes it has a merit-based reason to wipe the sleep from its collective eyes and tune in to winning Wolves basketball. But the Wolves suffered a 4th quarter meltdown last night that was reminiscent of some of the most-disappointing moments of last season. The Wolves were ahead 88-85 after three quarters, but were outscored by the Suns 33-22 in the 4th en route to the loss.

For Phoenix, Devin Booker and TJ Warren combined for 70 points.  Booker scored 35 in 38 minutes on 13-22 from the floor, including 5-9 on threes. Warren also scored 35, in 39 minutes, on 15-22 from the field. Booker and Warren’s 22 combined points in the 4th equaled the total amount Minnesota scored in the period.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the loss. I won’t dwell on it–you can find it on Twitter or any Wolves message board today–but I’ll quickly single out two issues that need a closer look as we get deeper into the regular season: Jeff Teague’s inconsistent play, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ defense.

First, Teague was bad last night. In 30 minutes, he was 3-10 from the floor for 8 points. He did add 5 rebounds and 5 assists, but he turned the ball over 6 times and and had a plus-minus stat of -23 on the night. Teague has the misfortune to be succeeding popular point guard Ricky Rubio in Minnesota. And expectations are high for Teague, a veteran who has always put up solid numbers as the starting point guard on (before last season, which he played for Indiana) Atlanta teams that won more than they lost. He has the dual misfortune of being ahead of Hometown Hero Tyus Jones on the depth chart. Minnesotans are impatient with the highly-paid Teague when he has a bad game–specifically when Jones looks better in games where Teague struggles, and generally when Ricky has good stretches of play for his new team, the Utah Jazz. Teague is a professional and should be fine. That said, and while this can’t be quantified, his body language on the bench isn’t ideal. Sometimes he looks frustrated, confused, and pouty. Any professional, in any profession, won’t be happy when he or she isn’t performing well, particularly when they’re in a new job, as Teague is this year for Thibodeau’s Wolves. Anyway, it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Second, KAT’s defense was bad again last night. He was a team-worst -27 on a night full of missed assignments and unforced errors. If you’ve been following this site, you’ve already seen plenty of coverage of KAT’s defensive woes. What stands out to me is the extent to which KAT appears to dismiss defense as a problem for him. The most commonly cited model of grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Karl still seems stuck in the first stage. How long will it take him to get past the fact that his defense needs improvement and fine-tune it, like he does his offensive game each offseason? Granted, the analogy isn’t perfect, and for his, your, and my sake, I hope he doesn’t have to complete the full cycle to embrace defense and accept that he still has a lot of work to do.

To close, I remain optimistic about the Wolves’ prospects this season. Wolves fans have every reason to be disappointed about the team’s performance last night, but I’m not ready to say this year’s team is 2016-17 redux. The team is better–just having Jimmy Butler is enough to ensure as much–but last night’s game was a useful if unpleasant reminder that on any given night, any NBA team can beat any other team.

Until next time.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. gregory1976 says:

    A lot can be broken down and analyzed about that game, but “1” rebound and “0” assists, no defense stick out to me. Forget the 27 points, time to evolve. I’m tired of waiting. Same ole’ same ole’.

  2. Tom says:

    You certainly identified the two main culprits in last nights putrid performance. KAT and Teague have been less than stellar this year, and they are two key components for any future success this team has going forward. However, this team has deeper troubles than two of its main cogs not having a good night. They played the Suns like they played the Warriors. Both our opponents started out poorly and we didn’t really take advantage and put pressure on them to respond or fear that they may not be able to respond. We let them hang around (Golden State for the first half and Phoenix for the entire game.) We don’t have the sharp shooters to go on a big run ourselves, so we have to work the game plan. Make the other team foul us and not make mistakes. Both teams had scorers that if you let them get in rhythm, they can start making shots even if you guard them well. We gave them the time to get that rhythm and then we folded like a cheap suit.

    KAT is floating away from the basket (maybe because of Taj and his need to be around the basket). If we have to go back to G starting or Belly starting to give KAT the low block, it should be soon. He is taking more crappy three pointers and twos away from the low block and that is hurting his team. He is at his best when he uses his moves to get baby hooks, dunks and short jumpers, than moving out to the arc and casting away. He needs to work hard to get position or pass out and reset.

    It is early in the year and you hope they get themselves together soon, but more and more teams are going to play the wolves like the last two games and that means Thibs is going to have to be creative and get a game plan in place that gets KAT down low where he belongs and gets Teague comfortable with his teammates and creates passing and back cuts more and dribbling into trouble less.

  3. pyrrol says:

    To be fair, I expected (I think others also did) Phoenix to be one of the worst teams this season. So far, they’ve been a little better than expected. It’s weird too… they’ve been going through a lot of instability. But they play like a stable if under talented team. We play like we have talent, but we coast and are wildly unstable acting in some ways even though we don’t have stars quitting and asking to be traded or have a coaching ‘situation’.

    On that topic, before I do a little dissecting of the dead frog that is the Timberwolves, it is worth pointing out that there’s a lot of weirdness still shaking itself out in the NBA, which includes overachieving (Phoenix being OK, Boston refusing to lose without Hayward even though it feels like they shipped out all their role players to get him) and underachieving. Aside from the Wolves, two teams I’ve been following casually also fall into this underachieving category. The Jazz have been confused and awful looking. I get they don’t have a go to scorer yet (Mitchell should fill the role soon) and are puny as an offensive team, but they are playing into that role a bit too much, including Rubio who suddenly seems assist averse and is taking a butt load of shots. To an extent I get this as a route to find themselves offensively, but it’s been ugly. And their D has been inconsistent at times. I was also hoping Milwaukee would be better–I like that franchise and they have some very interesting young players. With The Greek Freak topping everyone’s list for the next MVP and scoring like 30 points a game while also defending, you’d think it would be easy to win in the East. Some of the issues on paper (I am unable to watch them most of the time) seemed to suggest PG was an issue, but they had a young core thing going just like we did. Maybe it’s not just more baking in the oven… maybe it’s that Brognon isn’t good enough to get this team where it needs to be. Bledsoe might actually really help. The one game test suggests it will. The Wolves also fit into this confused and disappointing group which includes OKC.

    Gregory makes a good point. As much as we like to imagine Wiggins turning a new leaf, he’s never going to. He’s just going to add little improvements over time, but he’s not going to shake his inconsistency, his lack of do sh*t mentality, and his lack of alfa. I mean seriously, how is it even possible for a bouncy 6’8″ SG/SF who plays 38 minutes to only get 1 board? Wouldn’t the ball accidently fall into your hands 2 times in that many minutes? It’s a little nuts. Also 0 assists. He’s a bit more efficient so far, but one would expect that with the reinforcements he’s gotten right? You’d actually expect a bigger uptick in that given the situation…

    I don’t mean to pick on Wiggins, though. Other than his crazy lack of do sh*t numbers, he did his part, I guess… at least as much as anyone. Perhaps a bigger, or at least more surprising issue is Butler. I’ve been seeing a lot of gushing about the guy. Yeah, it is nice to have a vet who plays hard and knows how the game works. But we PAID for this guy in treasure and salary. This guy is an All Star and offensive force, in the past. He looks really off. He’s not a ‘shooter’ so to speak, but he shot is very off. But he’s brain farting all over the court. He keeps stepping on th ebase line. He’s not like this great point forward creator some suggested he would be yet and he’s even had notable lapses on D. He is currently a shell of the player we expected. Don’t get me wrong, he still does lots to help us. But this isn’t what we thought we were getting and we’re going to be middling until he picks it up. I no longer subscribe to the ‘he has so much more here to work with, of course all his numbers are going to take a cut!’ argument. To improve as a team we need Jimmy to play better.

    As to what Patrick did a nice job of addressing… The Teague issue is pretty head on. When Teague plays well, he looks exactly like the PG we need. But he’s been so inconsistent. And when he looks bad, he looks really bad and doesn’t do anything to help us win other than dribble a lot. I think that’s why people wanted Teague (no, not to dribble)! Because he’s the kind of player that when he’s really on you can say, ‘that’s a big reason we won tonight’. Scorers tend to have an easy 1 to 1 equation in that respect. But the flip side is that when he plays bad you can say, ‘that’s a big reason we lost tonight.’ One thing about Rubio is that he shot pretty poorly overall, and was wildly inconsistent with his shot, but otherwise, everything he did was remarkably reliable. You got the great Ricky effort, good defense, good leadership and body language, well run offense, controlled pace with pushing of pace, good passing that could break down D, and yeah, getting crumbled by a screen or two a night. It’s easy to forget that we might not have liked Rubio’s shooting but we were spoiled by the other stuff. And so far we can’t trust Teague at all with that other stuff (or even scoring for that matter). He could still be getting used to the team, but I’m surprised the inconsistency is so pronounced at this date, and that the lows are so low. Him just being an OK 11-7 type PG who takes care of the ball, tries on D and doesn’t dribble too much every night would probably be enough… This isn’t in fan’s heads, either. Even famously inflexible Thibs benched him for an long stretch in favor of Tyus (who was playing better) in the second half. He eventually came back in late, and sucked. That Thibs benched him says a lot to me…

    It is now very fashionable to dis Towns’ D. I’ve done it a ton. And he deserves it. But here’s another way to look at it. We are awful defensively. Our D gave this game away. This isn’t any one guy’s fault. Phoenix shot 53%. That’s bad defense. Lest we think it’s just this game, it isn’t. And lest we think it’s just Towns, it isn’t. Targets of blame should include, Butler (not up to his par yet) Towns (potential is just a word) Wiggins (will his feel for the game and personality ever allow intense D?) Teague (we kinda knew we were swapping out a good D PG for a not good one but didn’t seem to think it would matter. Maybe it does) as well as the way the bench is put together (only Bjelly and Gorgui seem OK at it). And lets not forget our coach who as earned a share of the ineptitude blame by now. It’s a big problem and I’m sick of beating one dude with it. None of this means we are going to be bad, though. It feels like we lack confidence and are out of sync. If we get on a roll, a lot of this starts to look better right away, on it’s own. But we have underlying issues, and if we don’t work very hard on them, long term we will disappoint.

  4. pyrrol says:

    I just got done saying ‘lay off Towns’ but I forgot to add on thing: He needs to stop taking so many threes and floating between midrange and 3 point land. We need him in the paint and on the blocks no matter what the other team’s D is doing. He needs to pretend he’s Tim Duncan except a version that OCCASIONALLY takes a three. Why is that so hard?

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