Thunder 111, Wolves 107: Early Punch, Slow Comeback, A Loss is a Loss

photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Here are some factors that make winning difficult:

1) Playing on the road against a good team.

2) Falling behind by 21 points.

Okay, that’s pretty much the list, for tonight’s purposes.

Against the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Friday night, the Timberwolves allowed 42 first-quarter points and fell behind by as many as 21 in the second quarter. On a night when Steven Adams is making every shot (no, literally ever shot — he was 11-11 from the field and 5-5 from the foul line for 27 points) and Paul George is playing like PAUL GEORGE (36 points, 9 assists, 3 blocks) it isn’t wise to come out of the gates flat, and surrender such a huge lead to the home team.

The Wolves started clawing back into this one in the middle of the second quarter, and slowly but surely continued until the end. As the Thunder’s offensive attack gravitated away from Paul George made shots and toward missed Russ Westbrook ones, the Wolves defense started to look a lot better. (Russ shot 6-21 from the field and 0-8 from three.)

That 21-point deficit was cut to 10 at the half, 6 after the third quarter ended, and was down to 2 with under a minute to play. On the last relevant possessions of the game, the referees gave the Thunder a final nudge that sealed the game’s outcome; a touch foul on a Westbrook drive with a minute to go, extending a 3-point Thunder lead to 5, and a neglected traveling violation on Paul George that would’ve given the Wolves the ball back with a chance to tie or win with 5 seconds left:

But make no mistake, the refs didn’t cost the Wolves this game. Their performance in the first 1.5 quarters did.

The Wolves rotations — normally as consistent as any in the league — were scrambled up tonight by an early injury to Towns that sent him to the locker room for stitches.  The KAT-less stretch in the first quarter went really poorly for the Wolves. Towns ended the game with 23 points and 9 rebounds, and was (+5) for the game. Aside from failing to keep Adams off the offensive glass on some key plays, he played a really nice game. Wiggins scored 23 efficient points (8-14 shooting) and made 4 threes. Butler competed hard for the whole game, and ended with a nice stat line of 22 points on 16 shots, 7 assists, and 3 steals. He holds the ball outcourt too long, but nobody can fault his consistent effort and intensity. He’s a big reason why games that begin like this one did can still end up close at the end. Jeff Teague returned to the lineup and played about to his normal level — some frustrating turnovers and too much dribbling, but a lot of contributions (11 points on 5 shots, 10 assists).

A random observation: the refs called a ton of moving screen fouls throughout the whole game.

Overall, the basic story of this game was that the Thunder pounced on the Wolves in the early going, amassed a huge lead, and did enough stuff to stave off the comeback and win.

Bigger picture, Wolves-Thunder-Western Conference:

The West is changing.

Heading into Friday night’s slate of games, all of the Thunder, Clippers, and Grizzlies were outside of the top eight in the standings, on pace to miss the playoffs. For the Clips, it would be the first time since 2011, before they added CP3. For the Grizz, it would be the first time missing the playoffs since 2010. And for OKC, it would be their first losing season since 2009, almost a full decade ago.

Memphis is dealing with a semi-serious Mike Conley injury, an aging core that probably cannot contend for a championship during the lifetime of the big salaries they have on the books, and they just fired their coach, despite his growing reputation as one of the game’s brilliant young sideline leaders.

The Clippers are likewise approaching a crossroads. Chris Paul left in the offseason and the good-faith effort at continued competitiveness has quickly gone awry. Newly acquired Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari are out with injuries, as is franchise cornerstone Blake Griffin, who could miss up to two months with a knee sprain. Earlier today, there were rumors floating around about DeAndre Jordan being discussed in trade talks. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Clippers have a lot of different players and/or a different coach in a few months.

In Oklahoma City, things aren’t quite as dire as Memphis and LA — not yet, anyway — but the early-season road has been rocky and there is not a lot of time for them to get things on track. They traded for Paul George in the offseason, knowing that he was on an expiring contract and heavily-rumored to have eyes set on the Lakers in his eventual free agency. The idea, I think, was that George would change his mind after winning a whole bunch with Russ Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, and he would re-sign with the Thunder next summer for a long-term deal.

The Thunder lost 12 of their first 20 games, heading into Friday night, and continuing at that pace (or anything close to it) would seem like a death sentence for the Paul George extension hopes. And if George bolts in free agency, they will then need to decide what to do with an aging core that has no chance of contending. In other words, they’ll find themselves in a situation very similar to this year’s Grizzlies and Clips.

This shake-up comes at a favorable time for the Timberwolves as they hope to re-enter the ranks of Western Conference Playoff teams for the first time in forever. If these post-season institutions continue to struggle, the Wolves will have the far-less-daunting task of beating out teams like the similarly young Nuggets or at-least-as-flawed Jazz for a decent playoff seed. While the Warriors and Rockets are loaded and in a class above the Wolves — almost no matter how the rest of the season unfolds — any season outcome that includes a playoff berth would be viewed as progress; movement in the right direction and cause for some celebration.

For a decent chunk of Friday’s game, the Thunder looked like they had everything figured out and were playing to their theoretical potential. If that continues and they win enough to satisfy George in his free agency, they’ll be the usual Western Conference Problem for any teams hoping to advance in the playoffs. But if they play more like they did in the second half, and like they did in the season’s first 20 games, they’ll likely be in store for a big shake-up.

As for the Wolves: they fall to 13-10 on the year, hovering around that mid-to-high-40s win pace that many expected when the season began. They’ll need to string together a winning streak to break out of it.

Next up?

The Clippers at Target Center on Tuesday, the Grizzlies in Memphis on Monday, and LAC one more time at Staples Center on Wednesday.

The Wolves get a chance to bite their teeth into these reeling Western rivals. We’ll see what happens next.

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6 thoughts on “Thunder 111, Wolves 107: Early Punch, Slow Comeback, A Loss is a Loss

  1. I was at the game tonight. 3rd row courtside. Refs had bad calls on both ends so it evened out. That first 1.5 quarters though was brutal. Not having towns hurt.

    Could someone please put a dadgum body on Steven Adams? When a shot goes up, someone just needs find Adams and box him out. Don’t even worry about the rebound, just make sure he can’t get it. Terrible. Also, Towns and Dieng got owned by him offensively. We just don’t have a tough guy in the post.

    Do we have a defense? It’s pathetic.

    We shot the 3 quite good tonight and wasted that shooting effort.

    Jimmy has no arc on his shot. It looks terrible.

    I liked the lineup of KAT, Gibson, Crawford, Butler, and Teague. The ball moved better and the floor was spaced really well with Crawford being a 3 point threat. Wiggins can be too much of a ball stopper at times.

    Wiggins continues his buzzer beating streak.

    We missed Belly out there. Needed another body out there to sub in.

    Teague needs to stop looking to score. Get the offense running and know you are the 4th option to score.

    Someone was yelling “Teague sucks! Rubio was better!” for a lot of the game.

    I was impressed the Wolves didn’t lay over when they were down 21. It was a slow burn comeback but we couldn’t capitalize. Had more than enough chances to take the lead. It was frustrating that we couldn’t stop them and really go on a true run and swing the momentum.

    Jimmy was tired out there. We have a quality bench Thibs. Help your players out. It’s a long season.

  2. Only able to hear the call, so really can’t say what happened, but having a chance to win the season series from OKC, would have been a big plus for the Wolves. It is the reason that losing to Phoenix, Miami or Charlotte was so bad for this team. You know that beating a Golden State, or Houston is never easy. The team shot the ball well, but it wasn’t enough when you are competing with players like George, Westbrook and Anthony. They will get to the FT line at the end of games, or make a play to offset your two on the other end. Unless, you can get a three point play (from the arc, or with an and one) trading baskets isn’t going to get you anywhere and even great defense isn’t enough.

    The stat line on Teague was solid, if not spectacular. It sounded like he stepped out of bounds, costing us a score and dribbled the clock down, leaving no real scoring opportunity, but he did have a nice amount of assists with KAT missing a good part of the start to this game, so I don’t want to put blame on him without seeing the game first. Once again, it comes down to a small and barely used bench. With Belly out, and Thibs not liking to play two point guards, leaving Tyus sitting for long stretches, Thibs just hasn’t gone deep with his bench or trusted them to play themselves into the game. A big Center to offer resistance to the Adams and other tough bigs in the league would have been great, but as I have said before, Thibs put all his eggs in the Teague/ Taj basket and didn’t budget for a deep team.

  3. I only got to see the 2nd half of this one. Kinda zzzzzzz again… There isn’t a whole lot to say here but a couple of things:

    One, not every team has a beefy center, and on some level in the ‘positionless NBA’ everyone keeps pushing maybe having a true center isn’t even that important. But we get killed by beef down low. Gibson is a good player, but he’s not a PF/C load. He’s 6’9″ soaking wet and not all that heavy. It falls on KAT to defend the biggest, strongest player, and he’s an absolute sieve at doing it. I get that KAT’s overall D abilities have not been good. I get that he’s not that strong (esp in the legs). But even considering that it’s crazy how housed he gets by guys like Adams. You can set your watch to it.

    Two, my eyes are becoming more open to Teague. He’s a stats guy. If Rubio got 10 assists he would be destroying the opposing D with passing angles. When Teague gets 10, it feels like 5 assists from a normal PG. In other words, when Tyus was starting he didn’t put up the assist numbers that Teague does (or any other than steals that match Teague) but he’s a better passer than Teague and runs the offense better. So much of Teague’s numbers are a mirage. Tyus puts up 5 assists and we look better than we do with an 10 assist game from Teague. And who cares about his scoring? He’s a mediocre scorer on a team with plenty of scoring options. Tyus makes thing happen with his smarts and effort on D. Teague basically waits for a mistake to be made right in front of him to pounce on. I’m fast becoming sick of the emptiness of Teague’s game. Tyus simply runs the offense better (and puts out more D effort). I’m already at the point where I’d love to see Tyus start for an extended period. But I know this is unlikely to happen for years. That said, giving Tyus only 11 minutes is just dumb. I don’t mean that as a careless slur. It’s an unintelligent decision. (Gorgui received a healthy 21 minutes and played mediocre, re: Rebounding). In general, the starter minutes and undeveloped bench thing continues without abandon (our bench was only 3 deep if you discount Shabazz’s 3 minutes).

  4. I also hope that serious consideration is given to moving KAT to PF. It might be a more natural position for him and Thibs ends up putting him on the perimeter so much that he seems like a PF or even a wing for stretches, anyhow. Some of KAT’s D/rebounding trouble could be because he’s asked to or allowed to be on the perimeter so much. It puts him out of position on D on occasion, but more importantly limits his offensive rebounds and put backs, as well as his ability to get momentum in the post were he can be a game changing force. KAT and Gorgui is not a good combo, but KAT at PF and a husky D minded center next to KAT in the future may be ideal. As of now we don’t have even a pine riding beefy center on the roster. We’ve got no one who can’t be pushed around. In the mean time, KAT will have a chance to get stronger and heavier. Not sure he’ll get that true center man body ever. But his skills and tendencies may be more PF anyhow.

    1. KAT is supposed to be a shot blocker type (and maybe is more of a PF)! No, I get what you are saying. If Patton is indeed a good shot blocker, his length and shot blocking would be helpful next to Towns. However, there is no evidence yet that Patton will turn out to be even an NBA rotation player. And our main need on the D side as far as bigs go is heft. Patton is quite light. If Patton turns out to be quite good and we replace Gibson with him (very theoretical) we would be losing out on a lot of D fundamentals beyond length and shot blocking that he provides, as well as his vet leadership. At this point having players that are simply consistently in position on D is extremely valuable for this team. None of this addresses our lack of heft. We are a bit overloaded with bigs, and a bit thin at wing (along with a very weak 3rd string PG) but none of those bigs is a traditional center who can push people around. I don’t like Gorgui as a PF next to Towns, but there is a reason that we tired that–he isn’t really a pure center and can sort of play a PF type role. As a center, his more true position, he is unable to bully bigs with his weight and strength… just like all of our bigs. Thibs put together a roster with lots of unevenness. A hidden one among all his trees is that we have no heft at C or PF even deep on the bench. So the Steven Adams’ of the world can have their way with us.

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