Game Analysis

Timberwolves 104, Thunder 88: Winning the Battle of the Big Threes

The Timberwolves won again on Wednesday night, defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-88 in a gritty performance at home following their signature blowout win over LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night.

The Wolves got off to a hot start in the first quarter. They broke out to a 12-2 lead early, mostly on the strength of Jimmy Butler, who set the tone in the 1st, putting up 4 points, grabbing 3 rebounds, handing off 2 assists, and thieving one steal. Meanwhile, Taj Gibson was 3-3 for 7 points in the quarter to go with 4 boards. Jeff Teague returned to the starting lineup after missing 7 games since injuring his knee on December 27. Coming out of the gates, Teague was rusty. He didn’t play well in the 1st and was replaced by Tyus Jones, who played well with the starting unit during Teague’s absence from the lineup.

Russell Westbrook hit the turbo button later in the 1st quarter. OKC stormed back to take the lead before Jamal Crawford’s buzzer-beater to tie the game at 23 going into the 2nd. (Eds. Note: Crawford’s buzzer-beaters are always fun, but this one was also an important momentum-dampener that seemed to slow the Thunder at the end of the quarter.)

In the 2nd, the Wolves played the Thunder to a draw, with each team putting up 24 points apiece for a 47–47 tie going into the half. By the end of the half, it was evident that pace-and-space offense wouldn’t rule the day: The Wolves only shot 2-13 (15.4%) on three-pointers in the first half; the Thunder made 3-10.

The Wolves pulled away after halftime, outscoring the Thunder 57-41 in the final two periods. Butler had 10/4/3 in the 3rd quarter and another 10 points and 2 steals in the 4th. Jimmy finished with 26 points, 7 rebounds, 8 dimes, 4 steals, and 2 blocked shots. He also got to the foul line and converted at a high rate, going 11-12 from the stripe.

As the impressive distribution of Butler’s statistics across non-scoring statistical categories suggests, this was a team win over a struggling but daunting OKC team that has a Big Three of their own. But tonight was Russ Westbrook’s night primarily. Russ put up a heroic line in the loss—38 pts, 10 rebounds, 5 assists—but the Thunder’s other stars faded into the background at times while Restbrook did his thing: Paul George had 13 points on 14 shots. Carmelo Anthony had 15 on 19 shots. Unlike previous meetings, on Wednesday Steven Adams (8 pts, 8 rebounds) didn’t desecrate the Wolves on the boards and around the cup.

Jon Krawczynski put it well:

Butler, Towns, and Wiggins: finally starting to gel?

Wedesnday’s win wasn’t only nice because it was against OKC. It was also satisfying because the Wolves so-called “Big Three”–Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins—all played well.

Jimmy was Jimmy. He did a little of everything. His “do-shit” statistic, developed by the fine folks over at Canis Hoopus over the years, was certainly high.

But we’ve come to expect Jimmy to carry the team every night. The same hasn’t been true of KAT or Wiggins, especially during the latter’s recent struggles.

Both Towns and Wiggins played well alongside Butler in Wednesday’s victory. Towns had 18 and 12, as well as three assists and two three-pointers. Wig led the team with 42 minutes, scored 19 points, and outplayed Paul George, the veteran star to whom he has often been compared.

All of the winning made KAT happy.

After the game, KAT discussed the team’s affinity for Wiggins, suggesting the players trust him to help win games more than the scribes and analytics folks do.

In a nutshell, tonight’s game was another illustration of the chemistry this team has finally developed. The Wolves have fiber.

Muscle off the bench helps

Neither Gorgui Dieng nor Marcus Georges-Hunt has gotten much ink this season. Dieng, a veteran who re-signed with the team as a free agent after last season moved to the bench to make way for free agent acquisition Taj Gibson.

Young Gorgui, ready for a Minnesota winter

Georges-Hunt wasn’t a lock to make the team, but has established himself as a tough, reliable defender who can play a small role effectively as an excellent situational defender who can keep opposing teams’ big scorers honest in big moments. Needless to say, this should be useful given the Wolves proclivity to let opponents back into games in the second half after establishing a lead in the first two quarters.

(Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Despite the utility that both Gorgui and Georges-Hunt have to offer, they’ve remained relatively obscure this season—even among bench players. When people talk about the Wolves bench, Jamal Crawford and Tyus Jones are often the first names that come to mind.

Both Dieng and Georges-Hunt were instrumental in Wednesday’s win over OKC. The Thunder, with Steven “Always Be Beasting” Adams in the middle and the ever-physical Russell Westbrook in the backcourt, are more likely than not to leave bruises on their opponents on any given night.

But tonight, for once, the Wolves—whose reputation for being soft continues to precede them despite Jimmy Butler’s emergence as both an extremely tough player and leader—matched a tough opponent’s physicality blow-for-blow and walked away the clear winner. Dieng and Georges-Hunt, fighting fire with fire, played an important part in it.


A few final thoughts:

  • While Andrew Wiggins offense continues to improve after a semi-prolonged slump, KAT’s defense continues to improve. After a terrible start to the season, KAT made a big leap defensively in December and shows no indication of regression so far in 2018. Nothing dramatic has changed with KAT physically. The benefits he and the team are reaping have stemmed from his mental acuity, particularly the attention and effort he is putting into Thibs’ defensive schemes.

  • KAT looked forlorn at times during his rough patch early in the season. His body language suggested frustration, at least some of which was with Thibs. He has looked like a different, happier, person for the past month.

  • Jeff Teague scored 8 points and had 3 assists in 25 minutes. He will continue to shake the rust off. But can Thibs NOT play Ty Jones more minutes? No? Yes!?! Maybe?

  • The Wolves are back up to a 51-win pace. Should they continue, might Thibs take home the Coach of the Year trophy?

  • “If you build it, they will come.” Perhaps the ultimate sports cliché, that. Even when applied to winning teams instead of bitchin’ ballparks in Iowa. But Wednesday’s game was the fifth consecutive sellout crowd at Target Center. The last time the Timberwolves sold out five straight games was during the 2003-04 season. The Wolves seem to be breaking a lot of ground this season that has been unbroken since ‘03–04. #winning

Up next

The Wolves are back in action at home against the New York Knicks on Friday @ 7 . For those of you watching on League Pass, you’ll have to make the tough call between Jim Pete and Dave Benz on the Home broadcast and Walt “Clyde” Frazier on the Away broadcast. You literally can’t make a bad decision.

Until then, here’s some vintage Clyde Frazier footage to pregame to.

Icymi, here’s Clyde shopping for hats in Paris. This was his Super Bowl.

And, in case we could ever forget, here’s Peak Clyde back in the day.

Clyde Frazier can have it all

Till next time.

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9 thoughts on “Timberwolves 104, Thunder 88: Winning the Battle of the Big Threes

  1. Fun Game – Good to have Teague back – Good to have Thibs playing deep into the roster – like everyone! Stay healthy and focused and this team is very good.

  2. A great game even though the beginning was a little sloppy for both teams. I was questioning Thibs for starting Teague, who was rusty and out of rhythm with the other starters, especially when Tyus came in with the starters and the ball moved more and the leads were increased. However, Teague got his legs underneath him as the game went on and played a nice part in the win with a blow by and a three.

    Thibs made me happy when he called a TO with 3:04 left in the game, gave his starters a breather with TO he was going to lose anyway and set up a nice play that basically iced the win. A minute later, OKC gave up and the bench came in allowing Cole , Brooks and Baz to get mop up duty. A solid in game decision, that could be used the rest of the year in tough games coming up.

    When young Andrew is on, this team seems to be elite. Hopefully he will play like this the rest of the year, and we get a chance to be a possible third seed. It would mean we still probably get OKC or Portland in playoffs, but it would mean we play Houston instead of GState in round two. Yes, I said it. I’m looking at round two match ups for the playoffs. Go wolves!

    1. There was a period early last season when the Wolves seemed to rise and fall with Wiggins’ performance level too. I think we’ll see more of this as the rest of the team becomes more consistent. Wig’s only major comparative advantage is as a scorer, so even though many are uncomfortable with the idea of Wiggins being featured more in the offense, getting him more and better shots could lead to significant increasing returns.

  3. Wolves are starting to hit a groove and play together well. I’d still like to see Tyus play more minutes with the starters and more minutes in general but glad we have Teague back.

    I’m glad we won in the fashion we did. OKC was on the 2nd night of a back to back and were missing Roberson. We took advantage offensively and our defense played great. Only 88 points allowed to OKC. Their Big 3 is capable of putting up 80 in a night. We shut down the George and Melo and that might be a recipe for beating OKC for other teams.

    Great to see Towns dominate Stevens. He absolutely killed us the first 3 games with offensive boards and tough D. Glad to see the script flipped.

    I like Tom’s enthusiasm about already planning to be in the 2nd round, but I wouldn’t assume getting out of the first round yet haha. There’s a lot of season left. I hope we continue to play this well and the our defense improves and get better every game. If that happens, who knows where this Wolves team can go.

    It’s also good to see more balanced minutes for our starters and bench. 3 starters were 30 or below. I think that’s necessary to keep guys fresh throughout the season. Also liked seeing Thibs go deep into his bench as well.

    Jimmy for MVP!

    1. It’ll be interesting to see where Jimmy ends up in the MVP voting. We’re unlikely to win enough for him to be a serious contender, but the fact that he’s poised to be in the conversation is probably more than any of us expected heading into the season.

  4. Great writeup. One quibble: Dieng signed a contract extension at the start of last season, he didn’t re-sign after the season.

  5. Wow, another good game! We are playing so well overall, but I think the key has been our D. Our offense is also looking better, with the action and ball movement more active. Part of it is the D, the stops and turnovers we get help liven up our offense. But I’m not sure why our O suddenly looks so much better. All I know is I like it.

    Teague is so weird. I didn’t feel like added that much and it felt like he split time with Tyus. In reality he played 25 for 8-4 & 3 to Tyus’ 18 3-1 & 1. Classic Teague! I’m going to cheer so hard the day Tyus gets better numbers than him for a game because in many ways he’s a better player for this team yet he never accidentally gets a fluke game where his #’s are better than Teagues’. It’s strange. It has me more annoyed that is reasonable, I know. For what it’s worth, having the depth Teague provides is nice, but I’m not happy to have him starting. I didn’t miss him at all. And that’s not based on homerism or nothing–I like how we play with Tyus better even if he scores less. I hope Thibs will keep Tyus’ minutes up and will consider starting him if we hit a skid.

    As Dodge points out, we went pretty deep in this one and it wasn’t a blow out. This is a significant and welcome Thibs development.

    I have been a major critic of Wiggins for a long time. But the last 2 games he’s been great. If you look at the box in this one it looks like a slightly better than an average ‘Wigginsy’ game. But the stat line doesn’t tell the whole story. We was very active on D all night. This was very helpful to the team D effort. On offense he was efficient, cutting up the D as flaws came to him, rather than impatiently taking long 2’s or driving bad seams. If Wiggins can keep this up he won’t be my favorite player but I’ll stop ragging on him because he’ll be doing his part. Go Wig!

    I think Jim Pete said something like, ‘Paul George is a power forward’ during the game. No, both he and Carmelo are SF’s. But this is positionless basketball now, so why does it matter? Well, matchups. A problem with this team for most of the 1st half has been not exploiting matchups and other advantages specific to certain games. In this one, Taj took advantage of being guarded by one of two SF’s going 4-5. He also made Lebron realize maybe he can’t play every position on the floor or maybe even one up from his actual position. Taj isn’t demanding, but he’s there to exploit both lack of attention to him due to our scorers or matchup advantages. Nice to see. I think we are going to keep growing in that aspect. It seems like Towns and maybe even Wiggins are wising up to these principals.

    Jim Pete redeemed himself by pointing out that OKC has chemistry issues. I would also add redundancy and perhaps the fact that they don’t have enough power and effort out or their big 3. Anthony looks kinda spent. George wasn’t fresh as a daisy in this one… I think their chemistry is better than when we faced them earlier, but still a weakness. Russ kinda just took everything on and I can’t blame him. His assist #’s were too low, but that was an indication of how bad his team was playing as much as his ballhoggery.

    Wiggins doesn’t need more looks he needs to make good choices with this many (or even a few less) looks. If anyone could use more it is KAT. I mean Andrew had a team high 15 looks, and often leads the team in attempts. That said, it’s not a huge issue. But we are going to need the ability to feed KAT to be developed come playoff time if we expect it to go well. We can get away with being pretty flippant about who takes what shots right now, esp with the D we are playing. All that said, the generally even distribution of starter scoring and attempts is fantastic and dangerous for others to face!

    We also took enough good threes again in this one, strategically. This is a good development.

    Jimmy is a strange player. He’s so good as far as feel for the game but there is something crude about his style. It’s fun sometimes a little dull at other times. But his intelligence out there mixed with his physicality and talent is a huge weapon. He can help his team in so many ways. He’s kind of a mini Lebron or Westbrook in the way he can fill a stat sheet. He doesn’t fill is quite as well as them and he’s not the pure scorer those guys are, but he’s a version of that. He seems to be a better overall defender when he’s at his best than both those guys, though. Lebron seems to have lost some on D, though he has stunning moments on that side of the ball. I am getting sick of the MVP chants. It feels a little juvenile to me. But Jimmy is hitting a high gear and it is a lot of fun to see.

    Thibs… things are coming together for him. But as I asked after the Cleveland game, why didn’t we look like this for half a season? Why is it just a now thing? Is his trajectory THAT far off? He was very lucky to have soft HALF a season on the schedule. If we really are going to look like the guys finally get his D system and like he has taken on a whole new system on O, that’s great news. (The indications the last 2 games are great–better minutes, enough threes, better pace, etc etc.) I’m not sure you can seriously consider giving the guy awards for taking half a season to get a highly talented squad really going. But if we’re are going to look like this from now on (no idea if we will) I won’t have to worry about our coach, which will be a huge relief.

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