Tired and Outmuscled: Hornets 118, Wolves 102

If Sunday night’s late-game meltdown and disappointing loss to the Pistons needed any salt in it, it was knowing that the Wolves had to immediately fly across the country and be ready to play again in Charlotte, in less than 24 hours. Thibs went Full Thibs with his rotations, burning 41 minutes of Wiggins and Butler, 39 for Teague, and 38 for Towns.

After all of that energy expended and so little time to rest, it seemed unlikely that the Wolves would play their best basketball against the Hornets.

They did not play their best basketball against the Hornets.

In the first half, everybody not named Jamal Crawford was cold shooting. The team was 1 for 14 from downtown at the break. Amazingly, they trailed by just 3 points (55-52) despite the ice cold chucking from deep. Jeff Teague had some success scoring around the paint. Crawford had a dozen points off the bench.

In the second half, the combination of Dwight Howard (25 points and 20 rebounds) and Frank Kaminsky (24 points off the bench) was too much for the Wolves; Howard against Towns and the starters, Kaminsky against Bjelica, Dieng, and the bench. The starters were able to tread water despite D12’s interior advantage — shots started to drop — and actually held a 6-point lead in the early 3rd Quarter. But when the subs came in, Kaminsky went off. That 6-point advantage was a 4-point deficit by quarter’s end. With 7:51 to go in the final quarter, Kaminsky cut in front of Dieng, caught a slip pass and slammed it home. Thibs called a timeout with his team down 10, and had to put his tired starters back in the game.

It was something of a wasted opportunity, given how hot Crawford was for much of the game. Had the bench been able to play any defense whatsoever, Thibs could’ve allowed them a bit more floor time, and maybe the tired starters would’ve performed better with fewer minutes.

Alas, that didn’t happen — the defense on Kaminsky was really bad in the 2nd Half — miscommunication or simply lack of execution, hard to say — and the Wolves were outgunned in this one.

It’s reductive to chalk this entirely up to the tail end of the back-to-back. On the one hand, recaps are all about reduction, but on the other, here are a few other jottings about this game and the recent play of the Wolves:

  • Many a Wolves Twitter accounts were clamoring for more KAT shots in the first three quarters of this game. I would agree, if not for Howard overwhelming him physically (it’s hard to imagine KAT succeeding in the post with Dwight on him, if you watched every other physical matchup of theirs) and if offense was the problem. On this night, the bench defense and starters’ rebounding was the issue; not who was shooting.
  • Taj Gibson — one of the team MVPs through 17 games — didn’t give them anything offensively in this game. He missed all 4 field goal attempts and scored a single point.
  • Wiggins wasn’t very effective, ending the game with 11 points on 14 shots.
  • Jeff Teague’s final shooting line (18 points on 7-18 shooting) belies the way that he kept them in the game for 3 quarters. He helped more than he hurt, in this one.
  • Nemenja Bjelica scored 7 points in 16 minutes and played okay. Fans want his minutes to increase.

A last thing about KAT. Before the season he was projected by experts to be a Top 10 to 15 player in the league. As I and many other Wolves bloggers have cited ad nauseam, he was voted by GM’s as the player they’d choose first to build a team around. His hype was outpacing his actual ability, as a 21-year old who was still learning how to play the NBA game.

The backlash is now starting to form. Most notably, Bill Simmons just recorded a podcast that ran through the Top 20 players in the league, and he practically went out of his way to rip on Towns while not even considering him among a Top 20 that included other youngsters like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Wolves fans then get mad at Simmons and defensive of their favorite star player.

The cycle makes sense in some ways — almost no career ascent is linear or always upward. Bumps in the road, and all that.

But there is a pretty legitimate basis to question why some have rated Towns quite so high, despite his defensive shortcomings. It is not a rare occurrence to see the Wolves physically disadvantaged at the center position. Consider how expert color analyst Jim Petersen described the Towns-D12 matchup after Monday’s game:

“Of the 20 [Dwight Howard rebounds], 6 of them were offensive. It seemed like he put every one of those back, too. It was one of those deals where Karl was just a little bit overmatched. Karl is still a young player. Dwight Howard is a grown man. Karl hasn’t got that grown-man strength yet. We’ve seen this a couple times now. In New Orleans when it was two of them — it was Anthony Davis AND DeMarcus Cousins — they really beat up on Karl in the paint.”

That seems like a perfectly reasonable take, doesn’t it?

Essentially, we excuse some of Towns’s shortcomings because he’s barely 22 years old. He is going to get stronger and he is going to get better. The GM’s who voted a couple months ago would probably still start their franchise with KAT first (or at least second or third).

But you can’t make the excuses at the same time that you rank him as a Top 15 player in the NBA. That’s having it both ways. If Dwight Howard or Andre Drummond or Marc Gasol or DeMarcus Cousins present a clear-cut matchup problem for the Wolves, then we need to adjust our expectations and positions on these things, accordingly.

The next game is at home on Wednesday when the Orlando Magic come to town.

Until then.

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8 thoughts on “Tired and Outmuscled: Hornets 118, Wolves 102

  1. Really guys? Reeeallllyy?

    I get that Howard is a man and KAT is still working on it. But have you seen the pipes on Howard? He’s almost like a 6’11 bodybuilder. Towns isn’t. Scratch that, Towns isn’t ever going to be. He’s going to have to learn to play against guys like Howard better, because he’s not going to get that much stronger as he fills out. He’s not going to be a Cousins, Howard or Embiid. It’s just not going to happen. Gotta play smart and tough, not look like a big meanie kicked you off the swing set at the playground whenever you play a strong center.

    That’s interesting that there is some national Towns backlash. I am feeling my own local, personal Towns backlash. And I don’t think it’s unfair. The optimism was based on logic and great things Towns was doing at a young age. He’s still very young, so I’m still very hopeful, but I’m getting aggravated by a plateau in his D, overall effort, maturity, feel for the game, etc. I don’t think Thibs uses him all that well at times, and that plays into his softness, his tendency to get frustrated and he lets it harm the quality of his play. The start to all this soul searching, though, is the lack of improvement on the D end. That in the context of these great young players he has to keep pace with; Giannis, Davis, Simmons, Embiid, and maybe some of the guys from this last class potentially lower the opinion of Towns, too.

    Andy makes a great point, one emphasized by whoever did last nights game–we are overplaying our starters. I was disappointed by the way we played this game (fell asleep again in the 4th!). I do blame the guys somewhat. But their ‘system’ isn’t too helpful and neither is getting worked to death on the front end of a back to back, and for good measure also getting worked pretty hard tonight (out of desperation?). It’s just so stupid. And it’s abnormal. You can easily check the box scores of games and see how rare it is for other coaches to play their starters the minutes we do night in and night out. For a quick instance, last night our starters totaled 190 minutes to Detroit’s 171, and tonight our starters had 160 compared to the Hornets’ 148. (Random game tonight not involving us: Phoenix 126 starter minutes, Chicago 155 starter minutes. I guess Dunn is back and played off the bench for 17 6 & 6 huh…)

    I think saying that fans want more minutes for Bjelly is true, but it can sound condescending. Like, ‘those dumb fans who don’t really know anything about running a team randomly want one dude to get more minutes.’ But I’m pretty sure a lot of basketball experts, more than mere fans, would like to go beyond the customary 15 minutes for Bjelly. Particularly on a team that pretty much nightly overplays their starters…

    Teague watch: His offense was better in this one and helped keep us afloat. But his running of the offense left a lot to be desired.

    Jim Pete had a good game. Sometimes he hits the nail on the head so hard. He made a point Andy liked, but for me what got my attention was when he started talking about how many late shot clock situations we are getting into. I think this has to do with lack of purpose on offense, with lots of passing without purpose and dribbling without purpose, lack of go to action, and not the best communication. But Jim pointed out the obvious that I have overlooked–their lack of urgency of pace contributes to them starting everything with a short clock. This is like an instant handicap every possession. This is perhaps the biggest single reason to watch our pace more, but there are a ton of other strategic reasons to push and control pace. I don’t think we are doing that enough. But that’s just a basic, in front of your face reason we seem to run out of shot clock on so many possessions. I also learned that JPete likes some of the more ugly muscle cars Detroit had to offer.

    These were two highly winnable Eastern conference games we’ve dropped, and still not getting into the real wild west tests.

    1. I didn’t mean for the “fans” remark to sound condescending. Belly’s lack of playing time is an ongoing source of discussion and internet commentary, and I didn’t feel it necessary to write more than one sentence on the subject in this recap. Also, fans can be just as right or wrong as any “analyst.” When the masses that follow the team are feeling a certain way, it’s worth pointing that out. (My best measure of what the masses are saying is reading Twitter replies. It’s imperfect, I’m sure, but definitely provides a sense of what people outside of my closer bubble are thinking about the team.)

      1. I’m sorry Andy! I didn’t mean that you specifically were being condescending in any way. What I was trying to say (poorly) was that people in general when they hear ‘fans want this’ or ‘fans want that’ often go to a condescending place. People can have a low opinion of fan views in general, and it is often earned in some ways. At the same time, some fans have a lot of passion and interesting views. There is quite a spectrum. Anyhow, I love what you do on here and please accept my apology.

        1. No need to apologize – I understood your point and wanted to make clear I wasn’t trying to put myself above the ordinary “fan.” We’re all watching and giving our takes. FWIW, I’d probably use “casual fan” to describe someone who has less foundation for what they want to say.

  2. KAT is a unique talent and could be special, but as many have said, he isn’t there now. He is more like Tim Duncan or Pau Gasol than the big centers that have dominated the league over the years. If he is like them, then we need to get more guys that can be the strong man to his finesse game. David Robinson or a Charles Oakley type of player. Memphis traded Pau to LA because he was viewed as soft and got upset with his lack of quality teammates. Hopefully, KAT will get the supporting cast that helps him out, so he doesn’t have to change himself too much. The point that guys like Jokic, Embiid, and even Porzingas are higher up the pecking ladder than KAT, does not make him a bust or an average player. It just means that the league has some really tremendous new big men and KAT is in that group. Actually, anything Bill Simmons says, I usually take the opposite. He is an East Coast snob, that hated KG until he went to Boston and then anointed him as a Celtic god.

    Jeff Teague didn’t play up to his normal output against Kemba Walker last night. He gets in this funk of indecisiveness during games that drives me nuts. Either be the scorer tonight and not worry about it or get players in positions to score early and get out of the way. It is part of the whole team moving farther away from the basket to dribble their way into trouble or shoot a three. In four consecutive times down the floor, every starter but Taj, quickly shot up a three and missed. No passing, no cutting or setting up a play. I’m not against the team working the clock, but do it like San Antonio does with passing and movement, not dribbling and standing around. Petey was right, that they move up the court so slowly that they don’t leave themselves the two to four seconds that the other team gets. Combine that with the standing around and dribbling that they all seem to do and it doesn’t give you a lot of time to find a wide open shot.

    I’m not going to give this team a pass for a back-to-back. They haven’t played a lot of teams that will be challenging for high playoff seeds, and last I looked, the Celtics have a sixteen game winning streak, that includes back to backs. They are missing one of their stars and had another one out for a few games during the streak and they are still able to find the energy to beat teams like Golden State and the two teams we just played. So, if you want to give twenty somethings a pass for being tired, because they screwed up the night before and didn’t get the rest they could have. Probably played cards on the private jet until late, instead of getting some rest, and then had to be ready to play by 6:30 pm the next day, I’m sorry but they aren’t the team I want to root for. Losing two in a row isn’t the end of the world, but playing like you deserve a night off, when you don’t, is. They better get on a winning streak soon.

    1. Tom, it’s sure hard to place KAT in good comparisons. Earlier, I was leaning (wishing?) toward a Duncan comparison. But he doesn’t have the sense or defense and maturity that Tim seemed to have when he came in, nor the husk. Position is an interesting thing to ponder. KAT is a big weapon in the post, but he and Thibs seem to be increasingly allowing him to drift to the perimeter. On offense, he plays more and more like a stretch PF. I don’t mind stretch centers, and KAT is probably on of the most skilled stretch centers in the league on O. But being a stretch center is really hard to do correctly–knowing when to go to the perimeter, when to rebound, when to work the post and in what proportions. It feels like in the name of too much focus on spacing we’ve let KAT become a less intimidating threat. Physically, KAT is the size of either a PF or a C, much like Duncan. He’s fast for a C, and maybe slightly above average in speed and mobility for a PF. But he’s pretty light, and not particularly tough against beefy true centers. In fact it’s becoming a huge issue. We talk about him missing help assignments etc, but a major issue is his defense on center beef of the league. He allows those types to score more than their average most of the time and rebound like crazy against him. Might KAT be a better 4 at some point? Hard to know. At 22 he has a gumby-like aspect that is giving him trouble in some matchups against centers. I have to believe this wouldn’t be so bad against most PF’s. Anyhow, Pau Gasol is an interesting comp. Gasol is kind of a freak. He has the skill set and weight of a PF but the height of a center. What makes him a freak is his length. His standing reach must be pretty crazy. I’m not sure how alike he and KAT are, but it seems like they have similar issues with weight and high center of gravity (and leg strength) at the C position. Either way, KAT needs to take some sort of forward step soon to keep me as optimistic as I was initially about him.

      Haha, Bill Simons? Who listens to that guy?

      I get the hazy impression that other folks out there agree with me to some degree that we could be a more fun team to watch. A big contributing factor to this is Teague. He’s so inconsistent, which can be tough. His style of play while at times very effective (and not so much at other times) isn’t very exciting. That steal and dunk he had was cool and he actually showed excitement! Gasp!

      I’m not giving this team the ole ‘schedule loss’ excuse either. My pointing out the much discussed and obvious issues with Thibs’ starter minutes in no way excuses them losing to beatable teams twice in a row. Still, Thibs’ minutes tendency is going to continue to be a big factor (perhaps bigger as the season goes on) if he doesn’t change his ways.

  3. My reference to Duncan is that, when he came in the league, he wasn’t a great defender and needed the Admiral to take KG, or Webber or Mourning. He later became a better defender, but could never guard Shaq or Yao, He just had to create a net positive by scoring and forcing them to guard him. With Pau, I see a very good shooting, slightly built big man, who could pull defenders away from the lane and had some foot speed like KAT. No two players are ever alike, but those are two great performers that KAT should emulate and not Shaq, or D12.

    As for the Thibs starter minutes. I’m kind of worried that our starters play like they know they are in for a long night. Slow into the offense, not a lot of running off screens or moving quickly without the ball. I don’t mind players playing heavy minutes if they are active and playing fast. Why Thibs plays them, when they are cutting corners and standing around or when KAT starts floating to the outside and not workng hard to get low block position is beyond me. Playing longer should be a reward for playing correctly and fast, not getting a rest. We have plenty of guys in the second unit that play faster, pass crisper and actually shoot better than our starters and would offer some new looks to the opposing defense and they get 12 minutes a night. I think that until the starters play correctly, they should get their minutes reduced. They are too talented to have guys like Frank the Tank beat them to the ball.

    Outside of Butler and Taj, most nights you could set a good example and have them paired with Belly or Gorghi, Crawford and Tyus and probably get more production and spacing. Once guys like KAT, Wiggins and Teague are fighting to be in there for twenty five minutes a night, you will see a change in attitude and speed of play. Thibs should be looking at this season like a marathon and not 82 sprints. Building great energy by playoff time in his starters and his bench should be his goal. He’s like the Jockey that starts using the whip right out of the gate and burns out his ride before the home stretch or the baseball manager having his starting pitching throwing 125 pitches in May and then having no arm strength in July. Of course you also have managers that only give starters five innings and then go to the pen every night and blow them out, so finding that balance is a coaches main goal.

  4. I guess I’m just for our starters playing less minutes. As Tom noted, this could put a spring back in the starters’ step. But it’s as much about avoiding injury and leaving gas in the tank for a push to make the playoffs and then do well in them than to liven up a slightly flat looking team. I think Thibs just likes slightly flat basketball, to oversimplify. I’m for us playing normal amounts of minutes and giving more time when bench guys’ play earns it (Bjelly). This isn’t a radical idea. In fact, it’s weird it is even an available point of discussion. To a large degree, no other team’s fans in the NBA would have a reason to bring the issue up.

    I don’t really want to start a huge thread about this, but (I was very young) I recall Tim Duncan being a decent defender right away. Maybe some other people can recall better than I? Of course the context is different, as Duncan came into a pretty favorable position on a decent team with a vet center next to him (the Admiral) and played PF. The basic stats really don’t keep track of defense well, but a quick glance at his stats reveal 2.5 bpg and 11.9 rpg his first year and 2.5 and 11.4 his second (2.2 and 12.4 his 3rd season for good measure), to KAT’s 1.7 & 10.5, 1.3 & 12.3 and to be continued. If KAT plays defense with the effectiveness and consistency of a young Duncan, I think I’d be pretty happy, actually. It’s kind of what I’ve been looking for and not finding.

    But totally agree–KAT is a skill center not a beef center. He needs to get stronger but his game will never be the power game. That’s OK. That’s out of fashion right now anyhow, and there are a lot of different types of bigs. I do find myself wondering what he’d be like when paired with a dirty work C instead of a dirty work PF and switched to PF matchups and duties. It’s not something I’ve really thought a ton about for a while, but it’s creeping into my head more.

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