2016-17 Season, Game Analysis

Timberwolves 104, Pelicans 98: Don’t look now but we have a winning streak

Anthony Davis drives around Karl-Anthony Towns (Credit: NOLA.com)


The Timberwolves beat the New Orleans Pelicans 104-98 Wednesday night at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

The Wolves enjoyed a lead for most of the game, a lead which grew into double-digits in the 4th quarter. Because it’s the NBA, the Pelicans made a run. Starting in the middle of the 4th quarter, the Pels chipped away at the Wolves’ lead, with DeMarcus Cousins and Tony @aa000G9 Allen scoring 8 apiece.

New Orleans would eventually tie the game at 96 on an Anthony Davis dunk with 2:22 remaining. Andrew Wiggins gave the Wolves a two point lead with 2:02 to play on a nifty midrange floater. Cousins was difficult to stop all night, ending with 35 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 blocks, and 3 steals.

Things got dicier when Cousins drew a Taj Gibson foul to get to the line for two shots with 1:45 remaining and made both to tie the game at 98.

That would be New Orleans’ last point of the game, however.

The Wolves pulled away to a 104-98 advantage thanks to clutch shooting by Jimmy Butler, who made a three-point play with 34.7 to go and iced the game with three more free throws in the final seconds. Butler had 23 points on the night and again came through in the clutch. But Jimmy’s shot looks off, especially from distance (he was 0-3 on threes), and the Wolves would’ve been better served running more offensive sets through Butler to exploit his ability to set up teammates for good looks.


The game itself was odd: certain aspects were cool and fun to watch–DMC’s beast mode killer offensive assault, the improved performance of the Wolves’ backups, for two–while others were boring and hard on the eyes–the sluggish and sloppy play by both teams, and a general feeling that the Wolves are finally a much better team than the Pelicans and were able to control the game despite not turning in their best performance and not matching up well with New Orleans’ superstar bigs.

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take a win any time. But this game wasn’t the kind of victory that affirms a team’s dominance and standing in the Western Conference. It was ugly. And one might characterize it as “low energy.” The Wolves coasted at times.

The starters were listless. They got nothing from star center Karl-Anthony Towns, whose two points on 1-7 shooting was a career low for KAT. (Editor’s Note: KAT’s previous career low was 6.) Towns really struggled with Cousins and Davis. KAT appeared rattled by BOOOGIE! and never got into a good rhythm. I expect a strong KAT revenge game the next time the two teams meet.

Meanwhile, the other starters played mediocre (aside from Butler in #WinningTime). Wig scored 18 on 9-21 shooting. Jeff Teague was quiet on offense, scoring on 5 points on 2-6 from the field and handing off 9 assists. Until New Orleans’ push late in the 4th quarter, the game had a feel of malaise that kind of felt like some players might’ve been out late on Bourbon Street last night.

Finally, this win will bring a special sense of satisfaction to hardcore Wolves fans. Before tonight, NOLA had ANNIHILATED the Wolves in recent matchups. Last season, the Pelicans meted out double-digit losses to the Wolves all three times the two teams met. Anthony Davis was the next coming of Wilt Chamberlain. The Wolves had the better team on paper. It didn’t matter. Nola had ‘Sota’s number. But not no mo’.

Improved Second-Unit Play

The Wolves’ second unit picked up the slack from the starters on Wednesday night. All five members of the second unit–Jones, Crawford, Dieng, Bjelica, and Muhammad–had positive +/- stats on the night. Of the starters, only Taj Gibson (+1) had a positive +/-. Some of this is because New Orleans simply lacks depth. Tony Allen was the only Pelicans reserve who scored in double-figures on Wednesday.

I want to call out three Wolves reserves for their contributions on Wednesday: Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, and Nemanja Bjelica.

Jones played a nice game backing up Teague. Tyus played only 12 minutes, but he had 5 assists, 4 points, and had a team-best +/- of 15.

Crawford hit a half-court three to end the 1st half, and finished the game with 11 points on 3-4 shooting and 3 steals. Equally important, Crawford displayed a veteran’s composure during his 16 minutes of burn.

#Analytics even reveal that J-Crossover is the most prolific from (very) deep.

(Editor’s Note: If you haven’t yet read the recent Sports Illustrated feature on J-Crossover, stop reading this and check it out immediately. It’s outstanding.)

Meanwhile, Bjelica’s improvement this season has been impressive. The dude just looks more comfortable and confident. He is playing looser this year. He finally appears to be having fun playing basketball for the Timberwolves. (Editor’s Note: Maybe it’s the new ‘do.)

Nemanja Bjelica in 2016-17 (left) and in 2017-18 (right).

Regardless, Belly now makes the threes he passed up on last year. Going into Wednesday’s game, he ranked third in the league in three-point accuracy at 57.9% (11-for-19). Last season, Belly shot just 31.6% on threes. On Wednesday in New Orleans, Bjelica was 5-6 from the field and 2-3 on threes.

Overall, leaving New Orleans with a road win, breaking their bad-karma losing streak against the Pels, and quietly starting a nice little three-game winning streak–these are all positive factors for the Wolves. They will try to extend their winning streak to four games against Dallas Saturday at 7 PM at Target Center.

Here are some highlights in case you didn’t catch the game.

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6 thoughts on “Timberwolves 104, Pelicans 98: Don’t look now but we have a winning streak

  1. In the plus column for my quest to get more into cheering for this team: A close game, we won it, we could have played a lot better but still pulled it out.

    OK, that was fun. The negatives are still big, in my eyes. We only show flashes of the kind of ball movement we should be using all the time. KAT showed immaturity and questionable mental toughness in this one. This was not Wiggins’ best performance, but he did rebound a bit and he made difficult shots. However, even with Butler back, he has the tendency to take too many difficult shots. Butler… yeah his shot is off right now. But he’s sloppy, making some bad decisions (not noticing the shot clock) and is stunted even in his playmaking and defense at times. He’s just not comfortable out there yet. And don’t get me started again on how ugly his game is (though he has a cool reverse layup in this one). He’s enough of a vet and a trooper to still help us in crunch time, but this isn’t the Jimmy we paid for yet. I await his arrival. Teague… Teague… Teague… He has been very inconsistent. In this one (where other players were struggling) our shinny new scoring PG netted 5 points. Lest you think the 9 assists mean he was running the offense well, it generally looked like a rusty gate. He also had 4 turnovers, including a pass that appeared to hit a Pelican in the *ss and then bounce in an area surrounded by three Pelicans. One of his assists was an ankle biter to Dieng which pinballed off Pelican shins before Gorgui was able to pick it up off the ground. I guess what I’m trying to say is that 9 assists seems inflated, and does not describe the ugliness with which Teague runs the offense. A bizarre footnote: So far this season Rubio is focused on… scoring! He apparently had 30 points, and 11 in overtime tonight. How is this for a surreal Rubio line: 30pts (47.1%) 5 rebs, 1 assist, 3-6 from 3. Guess he was our scoring PG all along? In all seriousness, he’s continuing his improved scoring from last season with a vengeance, in part because he’s focused on it. The Jazz still seem to be finding an identity and Rubio (as well as the coach?) is using the opportunity to try some things with scoring. This is indicated by the low number of assists, though also a factor is Utah’s superior team ball movement compared to Wolves teams of the recent past. Anyhow, that’s a weird thing going on…

    So I heard during the broadcast that Shabazz wants to legally change his name to Baz. Like one word. Like Cher. I might be starting to understand why he has had such a hard time learning defense…

    NO is bad. I mean, their big success in this game was to get KAT to *hit his pantaloons. But when you spend so much dough (and offense) on two guys with so many overlapping skills, it’s a problem. Other than ‘get the best players you can no matter what’ as a method, this is not really a team building strategy. On top of that, they have a lot of issues. They are awful at D and that’s despite having a really good defender (Davis) on the team, and the fact that Cousins is at least a large wall you have to maneuver around. Don’t let the score fool you. Both these clubs played bad defense tonight and seem to have issues on that side. And they played sloppy. Like really sloppy. And they shot poorly even while being defended not well by us. This is a little of the pot calling the kettle black, I guess. We were very sloppy in this game, our defense is bad, and two of our highest paid dudes have a lot of overlap in skills and role. But we just have more diversity and talent strewn about our roster.

    The bench played well. Our PG playmaking has been awful this season, but Tyus showed flashes and outclassed Teague in this respect. It’s a bit of a sad state… But overall the bench played well. It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out Bjelly deserved more minutes even before this one. Crawford had one of his crazy buzzer shots. Gorgui basically had to replace KAT and did fine at it. The wizard of Baz actually did things that might have been helpful. One hopes this encourages Thibs to lay off the starters a bit, but even the numbers tonight suggest this is a mirage. Only Dieng played way more minutes than usual, out of need. Side note: Thibs plays favorites a lot and it’s gross. And it often doesn’t have to do with putting our best foot forward and winning. It is truly playing favorites. I shouldn’t be too harsh. If I was a coach, I’d probably end up doing the same thing. Anyhow, he seemed to have Bjelly in his favorites even when he was Shved Bjelly. I saw potential there so I got it. But now that he’s playing really well and with swagger, he doesn’t get that many minutes. It’s odd. Again, we have a lot of work to do if we expect to beat the top teams. The next 2 weeks will be interesting.

  2. This was a game that showed how Jimmy Butler can change the fate of a team. Last year, this would have been another double digit defeat, due to the poor mental preparedness of our young stars. Instead of staying within the defense and offensive game plan, they would have tried to match Boogie and Brow and got wiped off the court. KAT still tried to do that last night and the results were abysmal. Wiggins floated in this game, until he hit a couple in a row and then he was engaged, although not really a max star performance. Teague was so-so at best. So how did NOLA get such great games from the two big men and still lose? Because, as the Celtics used to show Jordan, you can’t beat five guys with one, or in this case two. We shut down their pedestrian teammates for the most part and did just enough to stem the tide and walk out a winner. Jimmy Butler worked his magic to get fouls that veterans do (and also make a circus shot at crunch time). Tyus Jones played crafty enough for most of the game to outshine another Wolves killer Jameer Nelson. Ghorghi was solid, if not spectacular, showing how to defend superstar players by just continuing to compete and not worry about the box score. Taj was what you pay him $14 million to do, play tough defense and use your fouls prudently. And Belly, as mentioned above, was not the Belly of old.

    I have to say that the referees in this game provided some of the game flow issues that bogged this game down a lot. This is a trio that needs to be split up and each one put with a more experienced crew. Stars can take such an advantage with inexperienced refs. If Boogie doesn’t get to the playoffs in basketball, maybe he has a career in soccer. His acting was getting a bunch of yellow cards for the wolves and he was mad they didn’t get red cards. He is the worst whiner in league history and it gets tiring. I hope that KAT doesn’t emulate that part of his game and keeps running old tape of Duncan and Hakeem instead.

    Lastly, I hope that KAT doesn’t try to “make up” for last nights bomb, the next time he plays NOLA. I would much prefer he not try to match these guys and instead just play within the team and maybe not score 20 points, but stay in the game and compete. At the end, he can point at the scoreboard and say, great game Boogie and Brow. To bad it wasn’t enough.

  3. I forgot to add that I’m already sick of Petey and Benz. They really don’t add anything positive to the evening. I know Kevin Harlan isn’t going to come back and do the play by play, but there has to be someone better than Dave Benz. As for Petey, some people can’t coach star powered teams and Petey may be one of those that can’t handle success as a color guy. He could be just getting on my nerves, because Benz is so irritating. How I miss the days of Kevin Harlan, McHale and Hanny.

    1. Ha ha. I have a love hate thing going with Jim Pete, but he’s in constant danger of being more annoying and dense than insightful. He seems to be getting more and more obsessive, where he’ll harp on one point, often not something even relevant to the current action. I don’t think you can be a color announcer for a team without being somewhat of a homer, but Jim takes it so far. A good example is Teague. Before Teague was a Wolf, he had no like for the guy, and was at times critical of him while admitting he was a decent player. Now, he instantly loves Teague (even though he’s been very inconsistent) and if he does something moderately good, we’re in danger of hearing a lecture of how refreshing it is to have what Teague brings and be rid of what Rubio brought. In general he’s gotten more sycophantic than ever, and winning a bit more (so far) has given him fuel and cover for this. Something that was fun about him in the past is that he was a bit of a curmudgeon and would point out flaws with the team he thought we needed to improve on or that were making him mad. This year it’s all ‘how GREAT is it to have THIS on the team!?’ even as we have quite a bit to be critical of, still. There is something almost gloating about it, but as a fan I fall flat on the same things. Our new acquisitions feel artificial, thrown together and bought, and certainly need some time in the oven to finish cooking as a real [playoff] team. In Jim’s eyes this is the most Wolfy team that ever did Timberwolf and they are good to boot, so we can get cocky about it. I’m not there yet. Still he has good points now and again. This season he mentioned the seemingly basic concept that teams (including the Wolves) often overlook–you have to do things to make you hard to face. On both O and D. It feels like this isn’t something the Wolves are doing, and they are coasting on their not totally gelled talent. But against better teams, our approach might not be enough. Our ball movement and D rotations just aren’t pesky enough to be hard to face from a style perspective.

      Benz… I never liked him. But the more he goes, the more you realize he’s bad and overpaid. There is an odd, clueless likeability to the guy. And even though he’s bought and had no experience with the team, he does seem to legitimately enjoy cheering the Wolves on. But his eyes don’t work. Every game he gets something totally wrong by sight that both Jim and us at home can clearly, instantly correct him on. This isn’t misspeaking–he’s not seeing correctly or paying enough attention, so the color guy has to correct him. He also misspeaks a lot, too. He also isn’t that insightful, though I will occasionally agree with him. He doesn’t have a cool Lawler type voice. He seems a bit mickey mouse, which would be one thing if he was a homegrown guy like Hanneman, who really put his time in here. We sort of bough Benz to feel big time (I’d hate to hear what the guy makes) and imported him from the West coast. Why? Hanneman was just as good, and his eyes were better. In a perfect world, I’d have Hanneman back with a little sharper Jim Pete, but honestly, Tom Hanneman wasn’t that great. He was solid but has kind of an annoying, lame earnestness about him. But his eyes work, he’s not prone to make mistakes and he put his time in here. Overall, I like Jim Pete’s willingness to say interesting things and his passion for the details of basketball, but we really don’t know what good NBA level home announcers are compared to some markets. So I’m not nostalgic.

  4. I think Pyrrol you hit on something with his eyes. John Gordon was loveable because he was such a kook and butchered play calls to such an extent that he was endearing. Benz isn’t that, but he is annoying because he doesn’t get much right and the thing I hate the most is that he is constantly bringing up the most negative of trends. I wonder if his producer or support guy is undermining him? He gets these things handed to him from someone and that is probably who should be blamed. I also loved your assessment of Petey. He does seem to go off on goofy tangents and also seems to have forgotten how great he thought Rubio was (“perfect passing into the shooter’s pocket”, a magician, etc.), now that Jeff Teague plays the position. Makes you wonder if he also is getting lines fed to him from someone and doesn’t believe any of it. That was what made McHale so great and even Tucker more interesting. They seemed to be talking to you as if you were sitting next to them at the game. I liked Hanny because he just called the game and that is all I ask of the play by play guy. That and being the straight man for the color guy to explain stuff. Guys like Vin Scully, Curt Gowdy, Marv Albert were so relaxed with their calls. It truly is a dying art.

  5. Wolves coming together. Good to see the 2nd unit more productive. With the foul trouble and basically awful off night for KAT, there were minutes available for Dieng to do well. Belly is among the league leaders in scoring (points per 48) and the only sub wil limited minutes high on that list. Difficult to attempt to limit minutes for KAT/Wiggins/Butler/Teague – Gibson perhaps easier because depth at wing and backup play doesn’t result in big drop off in production. It needs to be done however – with starters playing 32-34 minutes – and 2nd line 14-16 minutes typically. Foul trouble/injury/overtime or close(blowout) games make coaching a dynamic nor robotic system – but there is a huge payoff for limiting the minutes of the starters. Bench play improves – it takes time to get into the flow – and by mid-season the starters will be stronger, and by playoffs in much better position to contend.

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