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:
Might’ve lost anyway (were down 2) but the total step count is high, and that late stumble before the whistle is a travel. Oh well. pic.twitter.com/rdaxTZcmGW
— Punch-Drunk Wolves (@PDWolves) December 2, 2017
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.
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.