Wolves 109, Jazz 98: Utahlk About a Bounce Back

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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.

Notes:

  • 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.
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5 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    Yuck.

    Boy, Utah is in a tailspin and it is sad to watch. For our part, we didn’t really improve the quality of the game enough to make it a more cheery affair. Sometimes blow outs can be fun, if a little casual, when a team is really rolling, clicking, and hot. But it isn’t so much that the Wolves are that hot as that the Jazz are in that much of a tailspin. And to put the icing on the lame cake, the Wolves played poorly enough to let a competent team back in the game, even from a deep deficit. As bad as the Jazz were, they almost made a game of it at the end, which is scary.

    How the Jazz have fallen since they almost beat us the 2nd game of the season. I like to think that Quinn is figuring things out, trying things and that’s why this team looks so weird. But it’s harder to believe that. For instance, with Rubio, why is he shooting so much, why does he not get any assists? This team has no offense and literally needs Rubio to be a major weapon. They are so lacking options on offense (and those that exist seem to have no chemistry built) that Rubio literally has no situations to pass to in which to get assists. Early in the season he was taking to the idea of a bit more scoring burden and seemed to enjoy taking shots. But in this one the constant need for him to take shots seemed to wear on him. As we know from his days here, a lot of his shooting is mental. His innate ability and technique keep him from being a good or even average shooter, but what really lets him wash down the drain with his shot is his mental hiccup with it. You could see this little hesitation before he took (mostly open) shots as though his brain was saying, ‘Oh, no, I have to take this, crap.’ When he doesn’t really want to take the shot, and has a little hesitation, that’s when his shot goes into the crapper and this was all game tonight. I only pick on Rubio because I’ve come to expect so much better from him and he had a extra no good rotten game. But this team is just struggling. In speaking about the loss of Gobert for a month, Jim Pete failed to bluntly hit a truth (even when bringing up his bad +/- numbers) which is that he’s not been playing well this season. He’s off and has not developed chemistry with his teammates. Rubio the feeder seems like a particularly easy connection to make, but it has not happened. Ingles also hasn’t really gotten it together this season, and was fighting Rubio for most terrible player in this game. He missed every shot he took, and I know him as a decent shooter. I kind of like his game and it’s been a bummer to see him struggle this much. The only Jazz silver linings are these—Mitchell is rapidly working on being the go to scorer they need, and their bench played well. But there is a question of why so many players on this squad are struggling, below expectations, and lacking all chemistry with teammates. The system they are running looks pretty bad, but they actually have personnel that have a good feel for ball movement. But the general way they play seems to quell this, and they really come down to the offensive end with no real ideas on how they should score. In some ways it resembles the way the Wolves look at times, minus the great iso level talent on the offensive end.

    From a scoring aspect Teague really bounced back in this one, but he did nothing else. More on this in the previous article but he’s very inconsistent. I expect him to go 2-12 or something next game… It’s getting into my head. Butler played better, but still messy and in a manner that would not get a win against a team on the rails. Towns got his numbers, but… Wiggins took a strangely small amount of shots, but did do a few non scoring things as opposed to the usual none. Kind of a meh game from everyone… not really the great bounce back the blowout nature of most of the game would imply.

    Just like Lucas, I was drawn to the bizarre amount of starter minutes in a game we had well in hand the whole way. It’s just beyond any logic or justification I can think of. Does Thibs trust his bench? NEVER! But that’s like a unit. Like, I get it, one of the many flaws of Thibs is that he feels very nervous when a full back up unit is in playing. Will they do what he wants? Will they keep up the good work the starters presumably initiated? This game was actually a good lesson for Thibs. Utah finished with a very bench heavy unit because they were the only ones who could find a groove. In other words, there are those games when your bench SAVES you. Good to keep in mind. But to go further, it’s not like it’s the whole bench or nothing. There is an argument that Bjelly could start at PF, but he’s certainly deserving more minutes. He doesn’t have to play with any bench guys. He could come in for Gibson early etc. I could use a bit more Tyus, too. Crawford needs to be limited and Shabazz needs to earn more minutes by not playing like a 19 year old. But staggering should be done and should cut down on Thibs’ horrible bench anxiety. Obviously not at this point…

  2. Tom says:

    That was the worst Jazz team I have seen in decades. Getting nearly a thirty point lead, when your starters are playing heavy minutes is what a great team should do. Great teams even take the foot off the gas and let inferior teams get back to twenty or even sixteen down, but this game nearly got to an eight point difference with a couple minutes to play and that is not typical or acceptable for a great team.
    I think Thibs is playing his starters heavy minutes to gain fluidity and defining roles with their play. With G hurt, he only has three bench players he can trust to play smart ball (Baz is more offensive than ever. He is going to play his way to China if he doesn’t do something besides shoot), so I think keeping his bench at the current minute level gives them consistency to provide a reliable effort each night.

    I’m trying to figure out if Jimmy and Wiggins can have dominating performances in the same game? Certainly KAT can with one of them, and good games from Teague and Taj seem to be the recipe for our best games so far, but we really haven’t seen all-star games from both our wings in the same night. It’s like Jimmy or Andrew can play the lead, but the other has to do other things and can’t be a go to scorer too. It would be great to see all three of our stars mesh and play like all stars on the same night. The OKC games were the closest with Jimmy getting his in clutch moments

  3. Travis says:

    My assumption is Thibs is either too set in his rotational ways or he is trying to speed up the process of chemistry in the first unit.

  4. pyrrol says:

    One thing I’ll add in the Jazz’s defense—they are currently playing worse than the sum of their flaws. They are a flawed team and need some more talent. But they aren’t this bad. They have not figured out how to play together yet, Snyder hasn’t settled on or found a decent strategy yet, their confidence is hurting and they have injury problems. This is all making the talent they do have look much worse than it actually is. I can’t believe they will continue to look like this all season. They may look quite different by next spring.

    As to Tom’s comment about huge starter minutes, I think his theory is quite courteous to Thibs. His track record is overplaying starters. It’s one of the most fundamental stylistic hallmarks of his head coaching career. One can hope he sees the talent level on this team and watches minutes more, but I’m not holding my breath. It will likely cause injury problems.

  5. Tom says:

    Pyrrol is probably right about Thibs not being able to change his coaching style, regarding starter minutes. He says he looks at all the greats and sees how many minutes they play and pushes his starters to be like them. I also think that given that G is out and Baz is a liability, he has an old Man in Crawford, Belly and Tyus for a bench, it may be better for them to stay at the minutes that they constantly produce with, and give the starters more minutes to jell. Now if he realized that Marcus Hunt or Aaron Brooks could provide some help in correcting Baz, by playing them instead of the shoot only and always Muhammad, he may find that his bench could be more helpful than it is.

    The thing I love most about Pop in San Antonio is that he finds players from the G league for the end of the bench. More importantly, he plays his end of the bench in some key moments with starters and then has options in the playoffs. Currently, Thibs has a rookie with a bad foot, which may be his only draft pick for this year and next. Unless OKC rights their ship, they keep the pick sent to Utah and to us and we lose ours to Atlanta. Thibs is going to have to add players from G league and other places that can help his team and that is something he hasn’t shown much ability or interest to do. It makes me more mad when he spent so much money on Teague and Taj and had nothing left when a dozen really helpful players were stuck taking minimum contracts. A free agency class of Collison at PG $10 million, Patterson at PF $5mill, Tony Allen SF$1.5mill, Aron Baynes C $4.3mill and Derrick Rose PG $2.4 million would be an excellent alternative to Teague, BAZ and Taj. He could have paid each of them a million more than they got for the money he spent. Of course, Thibs would have to play them and as Pyrrol says it isn’t in our coach’s DNA.

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