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,Â 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:
â A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) November 23, 2017
And this Andrew Wiggins transition block/transition putback and-1 sequence was also rather nice:
Wolves coaching staff will likely play this on a loop for Andrew Wiggins for weeks pic.twitter.com/OglzueRck5
â jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) November 23, 2017
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?