James Harden scored 56 points and had 13 assists against the Jazz on Sunday. Kristaps Porzingis had 40 points and 6 blocks against the Pacers. Around the league on any given night these days, certain players are going off for stat lines not seen in decades, since the high-paced days of the 1960s when things like Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game (and 50-points-per-game season average) and Oscar Robertson’s season-long triple double were possible. Last year, Russell Westbrook matched The Big O with his own triple-double average, including over 30 points per game.
For a lot of the game’s best players, the stats have gone wild.
The Timberwolves are going to have to be satisfied with merely winning a lot of games, because their approach is far too egalitarian for anyone to match what the Hardens and Westbrooks of the league are doing.
On Sunday night, on the tail end of a home back-to-back, the Wolves continued their winning ways, beating the Charlotte Hornets easily. The finally score was 112-94. They also continued what figures to be a season-long theme of sharing the basketball and looking to exploit favorable matchups while putting the team goal of winning ahead of any individual’s stats. Against the Hornets, the Wolves were led in scoring by Andrew Wiggins, who had 20. Wiggins got hot in the third quarter. After him was Jeff Teague, who completely dominated the second. He finished with 18 points and 12 assists. After Teague was KAT, with 16 points. Towns took a bit of a backseat, intelligently and unselfishly allowing his teammates to handle the scoring load while he was occupied with “trying to rebound over Dwight Howard” duty. After Towns was Gorgui Dieng, who scored 15 off the bench.
And after Dieng was Jimmy Butler, the most unselfish player in the NBA right now, who chipped in 13 points on just 6 field goal attempts. [Correction/Revision: Off the bench, Jamal Crawford also had 15 points.] Butler was asked about the team’s equal-opportunity approach after the game:
We just wanna win. However that happens — if somebody scores 30, great. If they score 50, even better. If you can score more than Kobe’s 81, do that too. We just wanna win at all costs.
I’ve already written a post about Butler’s unselfishness so I don’t need to belabor this point, but the fact that he is so willing to let other players shoot, coming off of an All-NBA season in which he averaged over 23 points per game, is an incredible luxury for this Wolves team. It builds chemistry and leads by example. If the best player on the team is willing to put winning above all else, everybody else should follow suit. Lately, that has been happening.
The Wolves have won 5 straight games, and 7 straight when Butler has been in the lineup.
This Hornets game began with Charlotte bombing from deep and building a small lead in the first quarter. When the bench came in, Jamal Crawford got hot and helped turn the game around. The Wolves tied it up by the end of the quarter and never really looked back. They started to close out harder on shooters like Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lamb. By allowing fewer half-contested threes and inviting Charlotte’s players to drive and make plays off the dribble, they got them out of their comfort zone and never really looked back.
Teague hit a couple pull-up threes in the second quarter that got the crowd buzzing when he next touched the ball and started probing the defense. The moment was a fun one for Teague, who has yet to fully figure out his role on this team and has the added pressure of trying to please fans who are nowhere near ready to move on from Ricky Rubio. After threatening to shoot another three, he kicked it out to Butler, who buried another trey. The crowd went wild. At this point, the Wolves led 54-43 with 3:42 to go in the half. The Wolves had established a double-digit lead and momentum, and they never really looked back from there.
Two things about this team are very different from Wolves teams of the past decade.
First, of course, is the winning. The Wolves are now 7-3. They haven’t been 7-3 in quite a while:
If Wolves win tonight, they'll be 7-3. Would be their best 10-game start to a season since 2001-02 when they were 9-1.
— Kyle Ratke (@Kyle_Ratke) November 5, 2017
If they continue this pace for the whole season, they’ll win 57 games. They have hit that mark just once in their entire existence (2004). Also, and in case you missed it, the Wolves haven’t even won half of their games since the 2004-05 season.
So, yeah. The winning is new.
The second thing that’s new here is the team basketball.
The entire franchise history is a story of singular players trying to carry teams on their back. Kevin Garnett, the best of them by a lot, was the only one who was able to do it in a winning context. After KG, there was Big Al Jefferson. Then there was Kevin Love. After Love, was a year of Rookie Wiggins, and then there was KAT. All of those players — especially Love and Towns — produced huge individual stats, but never for a winning team.
While fans adjust to winning this year they’ll also have to adjust to paying more attention to the score of the game and less to the box score. Barring any serious injuries, there will be a lot of balance between Teague, Wiggins, Butler, and Towns. Right now, KAT leads them with 21.8 points per game, and Teague is 4th, with 13.4. It wouldn’t be shocking — and might even be ideal — if nobody on the team averages over 20 points per game this season. They’ve done a really nice job in the past few games of identifying which opposing defender is weakest, and figuring out ways to attack that player near the hoop. In many instances, it’s gotten the Wolves into the bonus earlier than usual because overmatched defenders tend to foul.
All in all, the Wolves are playing like a team and it’s leading to great results.