Wolves 124, Magic 118: Split Indifference

We are 18 games into the 2017-18 season; early-season quirks have now developed into full-blown habits. No matter what noble declarations of intent were made in the offseason or preseason pertaining to managing the minutes load of his starters, the grind is on, and Tom Thibodeau is doing whatever he thinks he must. The mighty struggle to defend is no longer a curiosity, but rather a certainty. Offensive foibles – the lack of three point attempts, reliance on free throws, dribbling out of open perimeter looks into guarded long twos – begin to play on a loop. Fourth quarter collapses are not an exception, but rather an expectation, even when Minnesota is up as much as 26 and cruising (as they were tonight). Missed clutch time free throws throw the door back open when it should have been long bolted shut.

Game after game, things look more or less the same. Here is the team, this is how they play, and it’s beginning to feel a bit foolish to expect anything else. The pile of evidence showing the Timberwolves to be a talented team that plays well below its ceiling grows larger and larger with each passing contest.

Of course, Minnesota won tonight, so perhaps all this grousing is a bit unfair. But look:

  • Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson played 40 minutes apiece, Jeff Teague went 37, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler each logged 36.
  • The starters combined to shoot 37-for-67 from the floor, 55.2%. The bench combined to shoot 3-for-20 from the floor, 15%.
  • The Wolves allowed the Magic to shoot 29-of-42 in the paint, 69.0%, were out-shot from beyond the arc 37 to 23, and took 20 midrange shots to Orlando’s 12.
  • Minnesota’s 23 three-point attempts matches their season average, which is the second-lowest total in the league
  • Again, they needed to rely on free throws to compensate, finishing the game with 45 attempts to the visitors’ 22.
  • Minnesota missed their first 14 fourth quarter shots, finally breaking the seal at the 5:05 mark of the game.
  • Overall, they finished 4-of-23 from the field in the final frame, and were outrebounded 16 to 9.The Timberwolves’ fourth quarter Net Rating is down to -15.4 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark in the NBA by a full 6 points.
  • Jeff Teague split a pair of clutch free throws; Jimmy Butler bricked both of his.

Thankfully, 26 points is a hell of a deep hole to try to dig out from, no matter how poorly the team ahead tries to wet the bed. Thankfully, Evan Fournier traveled with 11.6 seconds to go instead of (potentially) hitting a three, which could have made it a two point game. And thankfully, Fournier inexplicably went for two a few seconds of gametime later, essentially putting the final nail in his team’s own coffin.

To their minor credit, a few things went unquestionably well. The third quarter, which the Wolves won 41-18, was a lot of fun. Minnesota played absolutely sublime basketball, with the ball pinging around the perimeter in both half-court sets and in transition, hunting for optimal looks. The Magic asked Taj Gibson to beat them; he obliged, scoring 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting and pulling down 9 rebounds overall. It was a balanced attack for the home team, as all five starters recorded at least 18 points. They recorded 46-35-80 shooting splits, and took excellent care of the basketball (committing just 7 turnovers).

Jimmy Butler has also become rather adept at lurking in the backcourt, pouncing on a lazy pass, and getting the Wolves an easy bucket. He did it again tonight:

And this Andrew Wiggins transition block/transition putback and-1 sequence was also rather nice:

But it’s hard to offer an account of the game that isn’t tinged with an eyeroll, sigh, and twinge of disappointment. But all’s well that ends well. 11-7, the next three games are all winnable ones at home, and 10 of the team’s next 14 overall will be played at Target Center. This could be the stretch of the season where they find themselves, and corrections are made. Or we could look back on this, after game 57 or 64 or 75, and say “we knew what they were all along.” This, to me, is an underrated reason to keep watching. The Wolves are good; can they figure it out, and be even better than good?

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  1. I know what you mean! To be frank, I don’t envy you guys having to pay attention to some of these games enough to write real recaps. It’s tough. This one had a long, protracted ending that I instantly forgot. And again, we were oddly a drag to watch.

    That said, this game was bizarre. During the 3rd, we were not only highly effective, not only was everything going right, not only did the basket look like a hoola hoop, but we had a freewheeling style. It was fun to watch and effective at burying an opponent. Unfortunately, I feel like is was sort of an anomaly, a sugar high from everything going our way and all our shots going in rather than a Thibs sanctioned way of running the offense.

    Either way, the sugar high wore off. It’s no wonder. Shots can’t continue to fall with that ease forever. But more importantly (and this fits with a trend of us playing poorly in the 4th, letting teams back in and not finishing games well) by that time our starters are tired. They play too many minutes per game religiously, and in this one alone tallied, 40, 40, 36, 36, 37, or a staggering 189 to Orlando’s 170. I mean, the dudes are just gassed. It’s not rocket science. This outrageous need to overplay the starters is having game to game consequences now, in early season. How about later? How about when we are trying to jockey for seeding? In the playoffs? If you want to make the argument that our bench was so bad we couldn’t play them, I’d counter with a) you’re gonna have to find a way to play them, and b) what do you expect when you don’t give them enough minutes to get going? They played 11, 11, 7, 7, 10, with their best 2-way (Bjelly) notching 7. Is this on purpose, or sort of in the heat of the game and Thibs doesn’t bother to actually look at the numbers after to realize just how off the norm he is? I’m curious. Even if my feathers weren’t ruffled about it and I didn’t disagree with it as a strategy, it is undeniably a bizarre outlier that piques curiosity.

    Why does that Disney ad look GOOD on those unis!?

    I like KAT’s shoes. Our uni’s need more color. They are like black-blue and white all the time. Zzzzz. KAT’s gunboats be all electrified lime.

    Don’t look now, but Kris Dunn is now the starting PG at Chicago and LaVine is cleared for contact. (I mean it, don’t look. They lost 80 to 110 to the Utah “1 assist Rubio” Jazz.)

    Good Teague!

    Gibson knows how to take what the D gives him. I hope our young guys are watching.

    Do sh*t Wiggins!

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, DAMN our schedule is easy right now. We don’t play upper tier teams much so far. Lots of East. I don’t mean to hate on teams like Orlando, who put up good fight, but they are middling at best. In Orlando’s case, they are currently in a tailspin, so our timing is good, too. Next up Miami, Phoenix, Washington, New Orleans, OKC, Clippers, Memphis, Clippers, Dallas, 76ers, Sacramento, Phoenix, Portland, and finally, a bit of a division test against Denver… on Dec 20! Part of this is that we are better this year so fewer teams look like a top challenge, but I think this is a pretty favorable schedule, and we best run it up because it will get more difficult (it HAS to, right?).

  2. I don’t really get the chance to watch too many games, so maybe this isn’t as valid, but I thought the defense has made some major strides since earlier in the season. KAT and Wiggins both seemed much more engaged and active, and while their timing wasn’t always perfect, it looked like they were a) trying(!) and b) getting into the rhythm of Thib’s rotations. In the past, it seemed those two in particular, as well as Bjelicia, would start their secondary rotation and then realize they were behind the play and going to the wrong player, adjust, and then the D was fully collapsed. There seems to be much less of that to my eye.

    Also, Gibson and Butler are really good. I didn’t like their game much before they came here, but I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy it.

  3. Sadly, I did watch this game, but I was also checking on the OKC-GState match up and watch out folks, the Thunder are getting their act together.

    The Third Quarter was a thing of beauty. Good passing, transitional offense, it was what you want the whole game to be played like. They took away everything good the Magic can do, (and did in the fourth quarter) driving to the basket, hitting open threes, etc. They moved the ball, didn’t take a lot of contested, forced shots and every starter contributed.

    Then came the fourth quarter. Now I’m not saying Thibs was wrong to do a wholesale change to the second unit, but they really hadn’t been very effective, accept for Crawford in the second and third quarters, so I’m thinking that he should have transitioned to that unit and the starters wouldn’t have had to come back cold and hold onto the mess that had been made. They would have gotten to empty the bench, as Orlando would have thrown in the towel. They also stopped moving the ball and started their old habits of shooting contested shots, not working on defense and basically playing like Timberwolves teams of the last thirteen years.

    Thibs is going to have to pick games like this to give his second team time to play. He is also going to have to watch his barking at players, because it seemed like he hit a nerve with a few of them and for the first time I saw some barking back at him. He risks getting shut out by his players, which would be the death knell to this team.

    Otherwise, the only thing that is more upsetting then the play of our team, is the never ending negativity of Dave Benz play by play. Orlando was up by five in the first quarter and he goes ” This is their largest lead of the night”. Five point leads in the first quarter are not worth mentioning like twenty six point leads or losing twenty six point leads, but his constant accounting on how many unanswered points the opponent has scored, isn’t good play by play.

  4. WB was that an intentional Piers Anthony reference on the title?

    I don’t want to speak of the game because we won and it was ugly. E.Payton annoys me profoundly. Have we ever set a backside screen, or do we only screen the ballhandler? It just seems like we just stand around and wait too often on the weakside. Also, since Teague has not thrown a single long pass on a fast break all season, we have lost all sense of urgency on defensive rebounds. It is like we have given up on fast breaks.