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.