2017-18 Season

Sixers 118, Wolves 112: Tired Lungs and Tight Rims

Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

The story of this one is made obvious by the headline. The Minnesota Timberwolves fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in a slog of a game Tuesday night, 118-112. The Wolves now find themselves at 16-12 overall and in fourth place in the Western Conference.

At first, it appeared as if it might be the Wolves’ night. They jumped out to an early 10-4 lead and stifled the Sixers throughout the first quarter with active hands and suffocating defense(!). Minnesota accumulated four blocks and three steals in the opening frame en route to posting an 81.4 defensive rating (which is defined at points per 100 possessions). However, as the minutes passed and time of play began to rise, so too did the team’s defensive rating, reaching 97.7 by halftime and, ultimately, 106.7 by the end of the game.

The minutes played by the Wolves’ starters will yet again be the predominant talking point after this one and it’s really too bad; it was, by and large, a fun and enjoyable game between two up-and-coming teams featuring once-in-a-generation talents. Joel Embiid was fantastic, putting up 28 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists and Eurostepping his way all across the corn and/or bean fields of Minnesota.

Dario Saric and Richaun Holmes had good games, combing for 29 points, 19 rebounds, and five assists. Saric hit a couple of clutch threes towards the end of the game and Holmes put down a few nice lob dunks. Ben Simmons was relatively quiet tonight – he was being hounded by Jimmy Butler all game – but finished with seven points, eight assists, and provided pretty tight defense for the majority of the night.

Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 19 points (on 6/16 from the field and 7/10 from the line), 16 rebounds, four steals, and three blocks. Although his overall defensive impact continued to wax and wane throughout the night, Towns did have some fantastic one-on-one possessions against Embiid which were worthy of praise. For as much as it’s become popular to rip incessantly on Towns’ defensive short-comings (most of it is warranted!), it’s only right to give credit when credit is due.

Andrew Wiggins remained cold for the vast majority of the game finishing with 20 points (on 24 field goals and five free throws), seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block. Wiggins has struggled to find his shot over the last five games – he’s shooting 33.3% from the field and 10% on threes – but it’s not for a lack of good looks or an overtly noticeable hitch in his form. Ultimately, he’ll be fine, his shot will return, but right now it feels as though he’s in a rut and every time he sees his shot clank off the side of the rim, the rut only digs itself deeper and deeper.

But those minutes! The amount of minutes that Tom Thibodeau has been playing the Wolves’ starters has become a point of fixation for many both inside and outside of Wolves’ fandom and it’s not entirely unjustified. It’s become well-known (and backed by a non-insignificant amount of research) that fatigue plays a major role in decreasing athletic performance while also increasing a player’s risk for injury and there’s no way a player can average between 35-40 mpg and not experience fatigue. That can’t really be disputed. But the situation the Wolves are currently faced with runs much deeper than simply demanding that Thibodeau play his bench more minutes.

The bench hasn’t been good and lacks wing/point guard depth. Nemanja Bjelica remains injured with a left midfoot sprain (he’s now missed 10 games in a row). Shabazz Muhammad hasn’t been nearly as impactful as Thibodeau hoped. To put it bluntly: the Wolves’ starters are playing too many minutes, but I’m not sure coach Thibodeau has much of a choice right now. And that’s, largely, a self-inflicted wound. I’ve written before that GM (or President of Basketball Operations if you want to be technical) needs to step up and make roster moves to provide bench depth and he will eventually make some moves (last summer’s free agents can begin being traded on December 15th). But until that happens, expect the starters to continue to log 35-40 minutes a night. There’s been a lot of angst thrust Thibodeau’s direction by those on social media as of late, but it might be appropriate to hold off until the trade deadline. If Thibodeau and company don’t make any roster adjustments by then, then all of the criticisms will be justified.

The Wolves are next in action on Thursday as they face off against the 9-18 Sacramento Kings.

Notes:

  • It would be a crime to go this entire recap without mentioning how absurd Jimmy Butler was again. He carried the team, both offensively and defensively, for the entire game, putting up a line of 38 points, six rebounds, and three assists and holding Ben Simmons (future rookie of the year and possible [likely?] Eastern Conference All-Star) to the numbers stated above. Butler has been remarkable over the last five games, averaging 28.4/6.4/5.0 in…41.7 minutes per game. *sigh*
  • The Wolves finished the night 44/108 (40.7%) from the field, 5/29 from 3, and 19/27 from the line. Had a couple of unlucky bounces gone they’re way, they would’ve won in regulation. But alas….
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10 thoughts on “Sixers 118, Wolves 112: Tired Lungs and Tight Rims

  1. I felt two different ways about this game:

    First off, I have been harping on this team about being dull to watch. But dang, they were a blast to watch in this game. Even at their frustrating moments they were notably more fun to watch than what I’ve become used to. Butler was a blast to watch and made a huge impact. Towns had his moments during a tough assignment. Teague shot the ball well. But it was more than individual performances (which were uneven) or even the team cohesion. This was an intense game throughout, extremely competitive, and had the intensity, nearly, of a playoff game. And it had overtime to boot. This was a fun change of pace for this fan, and I hope we come out looking like this more often.

    Now the bad: Forget the fade during the close ending in overtime. There are many reasons we should have won this game handily before overtime. Philly had 24 TO’s to our 10, but time after time we could not capitalize. That’s just weird. It might be a one game quirk, but I can’t help but think there are signs of major flaws under a stat like that. We’re not going to be Houston or GS from the 3 point line, but it is no wonder why we lost given our 5-29 (17%!) shooting from three, which looked bad compared to 11-26 for 42% by the 76ers. One good thing is that we took more 3’s, but in the ballpark of what Philly took. Still, it is clear we need to take better shots from there. It is also of note that despite looking active on D, they ended up giving up a FG %of 50 to our 40. That’s too wide a chasm. During the game, the 76er’s simply had better action most of the time (which mitigated their youthful mistakes) which resulted in dunks off of cuts, often with Embiid as QB Center. They also used action to generate open looks from three. In that regard, despite getting resoundingly beat from the 3 point line, we actually dodged quite a few bullets–Philly missed quite a few wide open looks. Philly plays with superior pace. Maybe the stat of the game is that they had 32 assists to our 19. At some point, that becomes an indictment of the offense we are running.

    I’ve been kinda looking forward to playing Philly. I think they are an interesting team and a good test for us. Ben Simmons… I was really impressed. His box score was not flashy, but the guy has a crazy feel for the game for a rookie. He’s just a really odd player. Unlike when Giannis was messing around with it, Simmons seems to be close to a pure PG at 6-9 or 6-10. Which is crazy. Obviously, at that size one isn’t going to be a super traditional PG, and this is particularly true of him due to his poor long range shooting. But if this is what a bad game looks like, I’m impressed. He was very timely in the good things he did. He’s like a panther pacing around out there. Embiid… I vastly underestimated him as a prospect. Sadly, in many ways he’s like KAT mixed with Shaq—he can basically do all the 3 point shooting, driving to the rim like a big guard stuff that Towns does, but he has more muscle down low and looks to be about 7-1 or 7-2. He is kind of ridiculous and immature, and yet his talent takes over. KAT is smaller and weaker and not that much more crafty in the post. And the rest of his game lacks enough to make up for these weaknesses in a head to head comparison to Embiid. Towns has some work to do. Embiid needs to stay healthy.

    In the game, our announcers were billing it as two young, up and coming teams. This isn’t totally true. We start 3 vets now. This isn’t last year. Philly went with the young draft model almost entirely. We abandoned it. I like that we tried something else. Thibs really wasn’t improving the young guys enough. I miss Lavine and wonder if we should have kept him and traded Wiggins (and perhaps kept the pick then, too, although our pick looked good in extremely limited G league action). But I sort of get it. Still, it takes the satisfaction out of the process a bit. What is worse, given that we sold our soul to the vet devil, so to speak, I was hoping we would be better… just as a product. The 76er’s made silly mistakes, turned the ball over like it was going out of style, and looked like they might bend in crunch time. In many ways they looked like recent young Wolves teams minus the steadying presence of Rubio. And yet they won. They didn’t do the famous Wolves fade in crunch time. They already look better than young Wolves teams of the recent past, and I have to admire how they are doing it.

    1. Despite the effusive reporting, Butler had a bad game. It took him 33 shots to make those 38 points. Embiid got his 28 points in less than half that amount of shots: 16. And in the process Embiid struck a blow against KAT’s standing as the young bull every executive wants to start a team with, because in his 16 shots KAT only managed 19 points. And Wiggins had one of the most ineffective games of his career. Yes, Thibs should be roasted for his tunnelvision management, and the players are exhausted not just with the rigors of play but with the rigid leadership, but we aren’t seeing the progression in our young guys that we’ve watched for the past three years. The team gets better in its record, but its stars regress: the notion that Wiggins should have left and Lavine remain is absurd, but was Thibs the right choice to nurture smart young players? He did it with Butler, but is Butler a desperate outlier who would do anything to succeed? I doubt KAT and Wiggins will ever have Butler’s thirst to thrive, but they were definitely improving. Where is the slasher that Wiggins was two years ago? KAT is behind other centers in the league’s pecking order, especially as Embiid grows more dominant and does with a young team what KAT should be doing with his: how can the Wolves lose this game and derail their center’s reputation in the process to a team like the 76ers? The Clippers, the Mavericks and now Philadelphia: the Wolves are rudderless and shipping water, and will sink against better teams if the way they are managed continues.

      1. Why is the idea of keeping Lavine and shipping Wiggins absurd? Wiggins’ and Butler’s skill sets and styles are quite redundant. This is one of the reasons slasher Wiggins is endangered this season. Butler mostly takes that role, with a lot more standing out at the three point line for Wiggins. This makes sense on some level given the redundancy. On the other hand, Lavine was someone who could push pace, had freakish athleticism (more obvious and often than Wiggins) but most importantly would provide good three point shooting for a team that clearly lacks it. Lavine’s D has thus far been awful, but it is notable that Wiggins is no amazing defender himself and Wiggins is playing laughably below Max standards. At this point I’d be interested in rolling the dice on a Lavine/Butler combo as opposed to a Wiggins/Butler combo. But even if you don’t agree with that view, the concept is not ‘absurd.’ It will be interesting to follow Lavine once he comes back.

  2. I didn’t start watching until about 8 minutes left in the 4th.

    We can’t blow an 8 point lead with 3 minutes left. Inexcusable. We had some horrible defensive lapses in clutch time. We don’t get back on D.

    You’re not going to win many games shooting 17% from 3.

    The ball movement sucked the last few minutes.

    Why didn’t Thibs call a timeout and draw up a play for the final shot? I know Jimmy had the hot hand but that was a terrible sequence. Everyone just stood around.

    Jimmy and KAT played 48 minutes tonight and we didn’t win. Absurd and ridiculous.

    Wiggins is probably the worst player in the NBA with a max contract. Minimal improvement over 3 years. His free throws have gotten worse and he still takes way to many long 2s. Can’t make a 3 either.

    There is so much bad switching and help defense. We double team so poorly and sometimes provide help defense when it’s not needed. That happened a lot down the stretch and led to those open dunks and 3s.

    I can hear Thibs screaming out the offense through the tv. That dude needs to shut up and let his players play.

    I think Thibs is a terrible coach who needs to be fired. This is a game that we should’ve won. We have way more talent than the 76ers. Their ball movement late was the key to them coming back. We are a middling team that should be .500 but have gotten a few lucky bounces to go our way. We will finish this season around .500. We’re having the same issues all year and not a single thing has improved. We may have played well at the beginning or for 45 minutes of basketball, but when it counted most, we faltered. We are wasting the talent we have.

  3. Um, maybe Wiggins and Towns need to be in better shape?

    The NBA tracks miles run per game and average speed per game, both of which are much better indicators of fatigue than minutes. There’s a huge difference between playing high-speed basketball all night and playing at a speed that’s one level above “open gym;” this is especially pertinent for the Wolves, who have been horrific at getting back in transition and seem to prefer “hero ball” over side-to-side movement, both of which probably played a role in that game not ending in regulation with a win.

    When it comes to miles run per game, guess who runs more at similar minutes than anyone on the Wolves: Ben Simmons! Did anyone criticize their coach for playing him too much and leading to a lackluster performance? Are there any concerns that they’re jeopardizing his long-term health, considering he’s missed more games this season than Towns and Wiggins have in 5+ combined seasons?

    The Wolves have one guy in the top 10 in miles run per game (Butler), one guy in the top 25 (Wiggins), one guy in the top 40 (Towns), and one guy in the top 50 (Taj). McCollum and Lillard run a similar amount of miles per game as Butler at similar minutes and are running around picks all game; does Terry Stotts get any calls for his job? The Lakers have 3 guys in the top 13 and another in the top 35; is Luke Walton considered Thibs 2.0?

    It looks worse when considering average speed per game. Redick is #1 on that measure and runs more miles per game than any Wolf besides Butler; did he look tired when every play late in that game required him to run at top speed off of picks? Butler is 30th in average speed, Gibson is in the top 50, Towns is in the top 60, and Wiggins isn’t even in the top 70.

    In a game where they played an opponent with guys who have as many reasons as they do to be fatigued late, they looked more fatigued. The reason why is probably more complex than “Durrrr blame da coach durrr….”

    1. -Thib’s heavy starter minutes are a major outlier in the NBA. And yes, any type of minutes wear on players.

      -We have a problem fading in the 4th quarter.

      -Not playing enough bench players enough minutes is a self fulfilling prophecy that keeps us from having a functioning bench.

      -There is no evidence that our players don’t have the conditioning of your average NBA player. It is quite unlikely that we have two starters who are skinny and play 35+ minutes a game who both have conditioning issues.

      -Lets put it this way. I’m just making these numbers up. Lets say that Simmons runs 5 miles in a game, but only plays 28 minutes. Lets say Butler only runs 4 miles but plays 38 minutes. The player who has proper rest is going to be able to do more even with more net miles. He has proper recoup time and the other player doesn’t. So the reason, in part, Simmons can run that much while on the court is because he gets enough in game rest time where he’s doing nothing but sipping Gatorade. Measuring player fatigue only by miles ran and not factoring proper rest when they are doing nothing fails to take in the entire picture. It’s why every team doesn’t play their best players at the minutes level that we play our starters–because they actually get more out of them with less minutes.

      -You might note that in my original comments on this game I didn’t mention the minutes issue. Why? Because I suddenly decided it wasn’t a factor? Nope. Because it is so obvious. It kinda speaks for itself (or so I thought) at this point. On top of that, yes, we have a ton of other issues contributing to our struggles.

      -All that said, I’ve thought KAT in particular has looked gassed a lot this season. Wiggins just is NOT an effort guy, so he never pushes his conditioning level that much. He’s just not a guy who brings sustained effort. It is unlikely, but possible we have a conditioning issue with some players on this team. I don’t think that’s the most logical conclusion to jump to, however.

      1. Simmons plays 36 minutes per game. They get literally the same in-game rest time. I’d be willing to accept that shorter, more stints might help, since Simmons and Embiid each got at least 2 rest periods each half. But 4 3-minute stints of rest don’t add up to more rest time than 2 6-minute stints. It’s not like they make the guys in the game run sprints during timeouts.

        Being near the leaderboard in minutes per game is a bit arbitrary. How much of a difference does 30 seconds make? That’s literally the difference between how much Anthony Davis plays and how much Towns plays. The Pelicans have 3 guys in the top 20. Several teams have at least 2 guys playing at least 34 mpg: Bucks, Blazers, Thunder, Mavs, Rockets, and Lakers. The difference between the Wolves and those other teams is they have 3 young or in-their-prime players that are clearly better than their teammates. Is anybody criticizing Terry Stotts for making Lillard and McCollum sprint around all game? The most energy-sapping parts of basketball are playing fast in the halfcourt and moving quickly side-to-side. It’s why guys can play open gym for 2-3 hours if they’re not running much besides going from offense to defense.

        Also, the other guys on the minutes leaderboard aren’t showing these same signs of fatigue. LeBron, Giannis, George, Middleton, and Lillard all play roughly the same amount as Wiggins and Butler. Do any of them have reputations of wearing down near the end of a game? Cousins and Gasol play as much as Towns does; how about them? I get why playing Taj a lot more than from the past probably affects his play, but the rest of these guys have played starters’ minutes their whole careers. It seems pretty safe to assume that if Wiggins and Towns are more fatigued, that’s on them, considering that other players have figured out how to do it effectively.

        As for the bench, they should have more minutes for Dieng and/or healthy Bjelly at the expense of Gibson and more for Jones at the expense of Teague. Teague could be closer to 30-32 and Gibson could be closer to 26-28. They could also give the players multiple rests per half if that’s proven to help. With that said, the mentality of a bench player has to be, “I’m not going to get much time, so I have to come with focus, energy, and decisiveness if I want more time.” The reason the Spurs and Warriors have deeper benches is because their guys play decisively and with energy when they get the chance. Bazz isn’t doing that. Dieng plays so casually and slowly sometimes that it makes me wonder if I’m watching the game in slow motion.

  4. I tend to agree with GJK on this one. You can’t be a poor outside shooting team and a team that doesn’t hustle. The Sixers wanted to give us this game with all their turnovers. These were mostly turnovers due to sloppiness rather than great defensive play and we should have been much farther ahead of the them going into halftime, but we couldn’t shoot, didn’t set up passing sets that force the Sixers to work on Defense and expose their inexperience or get them in foul trouble.

    Once again, we let a team that shouldn’t be as good as us yet, hang around and hit more three pointers in crunch time than should have been allowed. Countless times last night we came off of a three point shooter to help KAT and Taj down low, only to be out of position to defend the three. Why? KAT and Taj weren’t in any real foul trouble and we had a nine point lead! So what if they score a contested two, Butler and the rest of the starters could still make a two on the other end to maintain the lead or possibly go after Embiid who had five fouls for more than three minutes in regulation and OT. The Sixers would not have tied the game, if we held them to shooting twos. Teague’s foul of JJ was just stupid and the last play of the fourth was as predictable and poorly executed as one could get. Jimmy was the right guy for the job, but once again, we stand around and hope that Butler can bail us out going one-on-one.

    I agree that Thibs bench hasn’t really been helpful to the starters, but who’s fault is that? Our coach doesn’t play BAZ anymore (why keep him around if you aren’t going to play him?) Anthony Brown and Marcus Hunt are only spectators, so you have three wings that don’t play, so you can’t say we are short wing players. The Spurs have two of their wings on IR and they still find ways to win playing Bertans and Brandon Paul with success. Why waste Glen’s money on players that you don’t want to play? While we are clearing the bench of players that don’t contribute, I would definitely find a way to trade Belly. He has been day to day for about 9 games now. He would be a big factor in winning these games and yet he walks around and sits and watches his teammates struggle from three. Playing hurt in this league is part of what separates the good from the great. If we were on a six game winning steak (or any winning streak for that matter) I could see Belly making sure he is completely healthy, but for a guy that is one of our few reliable three point shooters and can create space, he needs to suck it up and play.

    1. The idea that Bjelly is just a wuss and should suck it up and play is… baseless. Bjelly has been a great bench player for us, on a team with bench issues that needs to play more bench minutes. He provides added 3 point shooting and threat we need. And he’s actually one of my favorite players on the team to watch. If we were to trade him, he’s the type of player we wouldn’t get value for. It would be more or less a dump.

      As for why the Bjelly is not playing, I believe it is issues with the same foot that took him out last season. Big men and foot issues are something to be cautious about. And I think that’s what our staff is doing. Personally, I’d rather be cautious about it and have the guy in the 2nd half of the season at 100%. But I don’t think there is a factual basis in assuming Bjelly just isn’t tough and needs to suck it up.

  5. If Belly reinjured himself to the point of not playing, then I question the coach and medical team. When he went down, Thibs said it was day to day. Just like the Patton injury (he was only supposed to miss the preseason, two months later, he is just starting to play again.) The last few games, Belly was a game time decision. So either Thibs and the medical staff are expecting Nemanje to play and he won’t OR he is pushing to play and he should be working to get better instead.

    I fully realize what Belly contributes to this team. I had him starting at PF to help better space the floor for the other guys, but if he is injury prone then getting anything is better than having him become a FA and have another Pek on our hands. He can be a big part of our success, but the clock is ticking and I don’t think Belly is going to play unless he is good and ready, which seems not to be soon.

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