The Minnesota Timberwolves bounced back from their ugly loss Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns by defeating the Utah Jazz 109-98 Monday night, putting a halt to their season-high two-game losing streak.
The Wolves came out of the gaits swinging on both ends against the Rudy Gobert-less Utah squad, causing difficult shots and disrupting passing lanes; Gobert is expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks after suffering a bone bruise in his right knee during their last game against the Miami Heat. The Wolves held Utah to 17/45 shooting, including 5/19 from three, behind active hands and good rotations in the first half.
The second half, particularly, the four quarter was a bit of a different story.
The Jazz connected on 20 of their 39 shot attempts in the second half, in part because of the strong play of Utah’s bench (who combined to score 49, exactly half, of their points) as well as rookie Donovan Mitchell heating up, but also because the Wolves(‘ starters) took their foot off the gas peddle as they are wont to do. The defense became a little less focused, the offense became a little more sloppy, and before you knew it, the Wolves 21-point lead was down to 11 with nearly three minutes left to go.
Luckily, the Jazz weren’t able to capitalize completely and the Wolves held on to win.
Mitchell led the Jazz with 24 points and added four rebounds, four assists, four steals, and a block. Rodney Hood was next with 16 points (3/6 from 3) off the bench. Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles struggled mightily, combining to shoot 1/13 from the field (0/10 from three), gather one rebound, and dish out seven dimes.
Karl-Anthony Towns lead the offensive onslaught in the opening half, accumulating 12 points and seven rebounds to go along with pretty solid rim protection; he finished the night with a team-high 24 points, 13 rebounds, and one assist, block, and steal. In all, three Wolves tallied double-doubles tonight: Taj Gibson finished with 15 points and 10 boards, Jimmy Butler with 21 points, 10 assists, and four rebounds, and, as previously mentioned, Towns. Jeff Teague chipped in 22 points, three rebounds, and three assists. Andrew Wiggins’ night was unique in that he did nearly everything, but score. He finished with 11 points (on 4/10 shooting, of which at least half were contested mid-range jumpers), four rebounds, four assists, two blocks, two steals, solid defense, and a team-high +/- of +25.
However, the story of tonight’s game, at least to me, was Tom Thibodeau’s continued heavy reliance on the starters playing an egregious amount of minutes. Teague played the fewest minutes among the starters Monday night with 38. Butler, Wiggins, and Gibson played 39. Towns played 41.
Thibs has never been one to rely on his bench much during his tenure as a head coach and I’ve even supported the starters playing a ton of minutes last year (and with Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell the years prior) because it was the best way to get the young Wolves experience. The best way to learn how to play the game at an NBA level is to actually play in the games. However, this isn’t the same young Wolves team and with the bench, particularly Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones, providing quality minutes when they’re on the court, it would only make sense for the starters to see less time.
It would be foolish to assume that Thibs will someday soon embrace the modern coaching style of giving players the night off to “rest” (I prefer “recover”) or giving the bench extended minutes consistently, but pushing the starters to play near 40 minutes a night in November is a bit much. And not necessarily even for health reasons. Bjelica and Jones have earned the right to increased playing time until their inevitable cooldowns. Bjelica played 13 minutes Monday night and Jones a measly 10.
The questions that immediately come to mind when considering why the bench doesn’t play more are: Does Thibs simply not trust the bench? If so, why?
The answer to the first question would appear to be yes, because why else would Nemanja Bjelica only see 15 minutes a night despite playing the best he’s ever played in the NBA? However, the answer as to why is a little more nebulous.
So far this season, only Bjelica (+3.1 net rating, +14) and Jones (-1.2 net rating,-10) have provided consistently solid minutes off the bench. Gorgui Dieng and Jamal Crawford have been hit-or-miss with more misses than hits. And Shabazz Muhammad has been…not great, Bob.
Thibs lack of trust could simply just be because, despite being clearly upgraded from previous seasons, the bench just isn’t that good. Bjelica, Jones, and arguably Dieng are/have been good role players, but what happens when they fall back to Earth?
All three of the Wolves “good” bench players have obvious and well-known flaws that are more likely to be exposed once the playoffs begin and it’s likely that Thibs knows that. That’s not an excuse for not giving them more run now and, really, the fact that the Wolves are in the position to have their bench be exposed in the playoffs is a good thing, but it’s the only explanation that I can think of as to why Thibs is playing the starters such exorbitant minutes early in the season. If the starters are going to be playing 40 minutes a night in the playoffs and they give the team the best chance to win, may as well play them 40 minutes a night now?
The Wolves next play Wednesday at home against the 8-5 San Antonio Spurs. Tip is set for 7 pm.
- There were quite a bit of milestones reached tonight including: KAT’s 2,000th career rebound, KAT’s season-high for three-pointers in a game with 4, Butler’s 600th career steal, the Wolves reaching 100 points for a franchise record 12th consecutive game, and Lucas’s 100th Tylenolⓡ Severe Cold pill taken. Truly an unforgettable night.