The Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Dallas Mavericks 111-87 Friday night to improve their record to 10-5 – the first time they’ve been five games over .500 since 2005 and a 55 win pace(!) – and it was a perfect encapsulation of their 2017-18 season to date.
The Wolves struggled out of the gate to match the Mavs’ intensity on both sides of the ball. Driven by scrappy defense, the sheer desire to not allow the Wolves to get a clean defensive rebound, and pressuring the Wolves defense to properly execute, Dallas built as much as a 14-point lead before the end of the first half. The Wolves were often able to get good, albeit not the most open, looks, but struggled to connect, especially in the second quarter, in which they hung only 19 points on the board behind 5/23 shooting.
However, around the six-minute mark or so of the second quarter, it felt as though something had shifted. The Wolves were not only getting, but forcing defensive stops and their shot selection was improving which ultimately led to cleaner looks (they still weren’t making them though).
The Wolves exploded in the third quarter behind a flurry of threes (they finished 13/30 on the night) and a stalwart defense. They outscored the Mavs 31-17, took a 74-72 lead heading into the fourth, and never looked back; the 14-point comeback was their largest comeback victory of the season thus far.
The “too long, didn’t read” version: the Wolves played an incomplete game, in which both the offense and defense simultaneously lived up to the hype and completely disappointed, the bench played a few minutes, and no one really stood out, but yet they won; 2017-18 in a nutshell.
The 15 game mark more or less means that 20% of the season is in the books and yet the main question surrounding the team from before the season even started remains mostly unanswered: Just how good are the Minnesota Timberwolves?
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the Wolves haven’t exactly played their best basketball. Jimmy “Buckets” Butler has failed to live up to his nickname, while excelling everywhere else on the court, and has functioned, more or less, as the team’s third offensive option. Jeff Teague has been hit or miss, but, regardless, the transition from Ricky Rubio to him has had a steep learning curve, both for the Wolves and their faithful. The defense, particularly Karl-Anthony Towns, has shown positive signs as of late, but still ranks 22nd in defensive rating, according to NBA.com/stats. (Aside: The Wolves’ overall defensive rating is 106.8; however, the defensive rating of the starting lineup is 103.4 in 327 minutes, which would rank 13th.)
Oftentimes the offense – despite ranking 5th in offensive rating, according to NBA.com/stats, at 107.7 – looks disjointed as the ball goes from point A, stops at point B, stays at point B, then moves to point C. Many times the defense looks disoriented, lacking energy and/or focus and not totally knowing where or when to rotate or help. But when things are clicking, as they were in the second half against the Mavericks, they look pretty unstoppable.
Andrew Wiggins, with a few exceptions, has played very well in his reduced role, although his raw stats understate just how much better he’s looked. Tyus Jones, despite underwhelming stats, has reliably led the Wolves’ bench, knowing how to run the offense as well as when to defer to Jamal Crawford. Nemanja Bjelica has been an absolute godsend, on both sides of the ball(!), and deserves to be playing much more than the 15 minutes per game he is currently. Taj Gibson has been an absolute monster on the offensive glass and has been the Wolves’ most underappreciated (nationally anyway) roster move from last offseason.
Through 15 games, the only real conclusion that can be made is that, if they remain healthy (knocks on all of the wood), the Wolves are absolutely a playoff team. They may not win the 55 games they’re on pace for, but winning 50 is becoming a real possibility (only caveat: the Wolves’ schedule to this point has, by and large, been pretty easy and it will only get tougher from here).
The Wolves’ ceiling, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, is dependent on two things: 1. Their ability to completely buy into Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system and, in particular, Towns’ continued growth on that end of the floor and 2. Jimmy Butler’s play on offense. If they can congeal on defense and Jimmy can begin living up to his “Buckets” monicker while maintaining his facilitatory excellence, the Wolves will contend for home-court advantage in the first round. If they can’t and knocks on all the wood stay healthy, they’ll wind up as, what, the 7th or 8th seed?
The roster is still imperfect and requires tweaks here and there (they could use another reliable bench wing defender, maybe Phoenix Sun Jared Dudley?) and Thibs could do a much better job at managing the bench minutes to prevent fatigue from the starters. But, all things considered, I’m not sure anyone could’ve asked for a better first 15 games from the Wolves. They’ve been up and down, still have a ways to go until they’re playing optimally, and haven’t totally answered many of the questions surrounding them in September, but for now, we may as well enjoy, arguably, the second or third best team in franchise history.
The Wolves are next in action on Sunday evening at the Target Center against the upstart Detroit Pistons. Tip is set for 6 pm.