2017-18 Season

Wolves 111, Mavericks 87: Just How Good Are the Wolves?

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Wolves 111, Mavericks 87: Just How Good Are the Wolves?

  1. One question that i make myself every night the wolves struggle on the offensive side which is something that has happened in a lot lapses this year, is why in the world Karl Towns is not a focus on offense so many times i have seen the team unable to get a bucket for 5 6 or 7 possessions and Towns ain’t even touching the basket like what is he on the floor for? Be a Joakim Noah on the defensive end and Ryan Anderson on offense??? Thibs isnt using his talent the right ways, u got a generational talent on that offensive side and u want him to be Ryan Anderson?? last 5 mins of every game he goes to a corner to function as a stretch big like hell is not a pick a roll with andrew o butler suppose to be deadly???… last night team was struggling in the first half to get anything to go in and KAT was like 4-7 rest of the team around 28%… in my world there’s no way Towns is taking a total of 10 shots with no post touches so instead i get to see teague, andrew, butler or jamal in some cases get to go ISO and get me a 35% FG shot… But as long as they are winning i guess no one will complain butler or andrew taking 19 shots to get to 21 points while Towns is just running around like he is not their best offensive player

    1. I agree that KAT can be a sure-fire cure for what ails the Wolves offense, but I do think dumping the ball off to him & letting him (or Wiggins)”go to work” is a dangerous thing to rely on. I often think that those games in which either KAT or Wiggins is balling out of their minds are ones in which there’s a lot of standing around & watching by other players.

      A real encouraging trend I’ve seen in recent games is more pick n roll between Teague (wasn’t it the Spurs game where they ran that same play multiple times in short succession?). I’d love to see more instances where the Wolves break out of an offensive slump by getting Wiggins & KAT moving with some energy away from the ball and receiving it within the flow of the offense, rather than getting it and and creating an ISO situation that might play out over the course of eight or so seconds.

  2. Last night I was frustrated that this was going to be another lackluster loss from our Wolves. Then as you mentioned in the article things changed and it made me wonder “Is this just what good teams do?” when playing inferior talent. They don’t worry about the start of the game and once they see the other teams offense, they stop it and start making the shots, they missed early in the game. How many times have our young timberpups, started a game against a playoff team like San Antonio, or the Cavaliers and at half time we think we may be watching a big upset, only to see the better team roll past us in the third and win without much of a sweat? It makes me think what do San Antonio fans think of when they get behind a team by 20 and have the relaxed understanding that the game is far from over and they will make a big comeback? Those fans have years of positive trust in their team that they will come back and we have been burnt so many times, we just naturally think they aren’t better than the past 13 years of sucking.

    We Timberwolves fans are so used to seeing our team play down to the competition and blow opportunities, that we just assume nights like last night will be the same. Maybe after giving the Phoenix game away, these guys are finally learning something and getting better. Of course, beating Dallas is not a big deal and they should have blown them out right from the start, but we have seen many good teams play our ragtag bunch of pups and spank them hard in the second half. Now when they do what Boston did to Golden State and shut down a great team and come back from double digits, then we will know we have truly arrived. Or go beyond a three to five game winning streak and have an eight to ten game run with a loss due to tired legs and then go back on another winning streak.

  3. Don’t have a whole lot to say about this game because I fell asleep during it. I guess that says something…

    Looking at the box it is clear that Jimmy finally played a game as billed. Good to see.

    Good Teague or bad Teague? Good Teague in this one. And it seems to be getting a little more common to have the good version. Progress.

    Still playing the starters too many minutes and Bjelly not enough (12).

    I like ‘cog in the machine Wiggins’ but damn, we $paying$ for that kind of role! Oof duh.

    I really enjoyed Lucas’ write-up and the headline for it has been rattling around in my head. It’s a really tough question to answer: How good are we? I think it’s clear we are a lot better than we are used to being (low bar) and that we have a larger margin of error for winning games (we don’t have to turn in a great performance to get a win). But beyond that, it’s a hard green to read. Complicating things is how weird the NBA is. OKC looks like a bad way to spend money after being predicted as a scary team (I’m only partially surprised). The Celtics will not lose even without Hayward. I know they can’t be this good, but with Milwaukee not kicking it into gear, Toronto always feeling like a pretender even when they have a decent record and Cleveland looking ‘problematic,’ the East is pretty open. In the West, it seems like the log jam of good teams isn’t quite as large as expected and there are more bad teams than most thought. Like most expected the Clippers and the Jazz to be tough borderline playoff type teams even if they didn’t make the cut in the end… Both look pretty bad so far. Meanwhile, Phoenix is sort of OK, and Denver is nipping at our heels. As if to highlight the topsy turvy funhouse nature of this season so far, to cap it off you have Rubio frequently turning in efforts with less than 5 assists. That’s so off key I don’t even know what to make of it (normally I’d complain about misuse and coaching, but Snyder is usually decent and this is soooo off of normal or even accidental numbers that I’m more in a confused state of shock than any critical mode yet). It’s weird out there and I think the sand will settle. Where will we fit in when it does? What quality of team are we, really? Another difficulty in putting this team in its proper place is schedule. I just don’t feel like we have had a very tough schedule. On paper, perhaps it’s medium. But, for instance, we’ve played and beaten OKC twice (they are much worse than predicted so far), split two with the Spurs (without their best player), beaten the Jazz twice (not a solid middling team as expected, but a tailspin team so far). On paper, before the season that would have looked amazing, but now, looking back it isn’t such a big test. We’ve also beaten teams that at the time looked like ‘better than excepted tough teams!’ such as the Hornets and Pelicans, who are falling back to earth a bit already. What’s our marquee win? The best team we’ve beaten is the Spurs, but we’ve only split with them and both times they lacked their best player. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see how good we are, but it’s worth getting a little hope cooking on the back burner…

  4. Its all about playing like a veteran team that determines if you are real or a pretender. Philly is supposed to be the real deal and in a few years, they just may be. However, they blew a 22 point halftime lead to the Warriors at home, not because Steph was amazing (which he was), but look at Philly in the third quarter. They got only 15 points after scoring over forty in the second. If they just score a normal 22 points that quarter, they survive with a major win even with KD and Curry going HOF on the Sixers.

    Jimmy Butler has been a veteran leader that has done all the little things that get you wins in this league. When Teague plays like it’s his team, this team is very tough to beat. Ricky has many faults, but he is a leader and when he has an offense that let’s him direct play, they usually score pretty easily. Sadly, the last time I saw the Jazz, Ricky was giving the ball off to Engles and Hood and standing in the corner, which isn’t his game at all. Snyder’s pace of play hasn’t changed with Ricky and that isn’t how he can help you. The backup, Nieto, has been more impactful, because he can play Snyder’s brand of basketball.

    The league seems, very early on, to be more balanced than we expected and some teams, like tonight’s Pistons, have been better than most people expected. However, a couple weeks ago, the Clippers, Jazz and Magic were touted as major surprises and Denver was struggling. Now not so much. Hopefully, in January we are still in the hunt and teams like Golden State and Houston struggle a bit.

    1. Speaking of Philly, remember pretty recently when everyone was laughing at them for being a mismanaged franchise? I was guilty of it, too. But they’ve basically done what we were trying to do with our young core, but legit. We bailed out, sold off some of our young guys to get win now vets. They didn’t and are looking already like a good team. And they will only get better so long as they are healthy. It is possible that Embiid and Simmons could be a much better combo than Towns and Wiggins in the near future (if not now). I need to look more into on Simmons, see him play, but they are playing this 6’10” double double machine as a PG with success. People complain about his shooting, but let someone else make threes–he’s getting a good deal of efficient points and doing pretty much everything else. Very interesting player. If Embiid stays healthy he could be the most dominant center in quite a while. That’s a big if, though. Point taken on Philly needing to cure and mature some, but it is worth noting that the team they gave up a big lead and lost to is one that kicked our butts.

      Good point about the Jazz–pace and the way the offense is run isn’t great for Ricky. But it still doesn’t fully explain the numbers for me. It’s pretty strange and extreme. Also of note is that whatever is going on there is getting to a lot of players. While it’s obviously not a super gifted O with a go to, create his own shot scorer, Rubio is not the only player who is struggling and highly inconsistent on that team. It’s kind of a mess. Rubio’s struggles are probably the weirdest, though. I hope Utah gets it together more soon. They’ve become a drag and they don’t need to be.

      It will be interesting to see how we play against Detroit. It’s a test of sorts, but I still have this feeling they are pretenders. Would be nice to get some revenge.

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