The Timberwolves’ return to the Target Center after a ten day All-Star break proved to be one of the most encouraging efforts of the year as Thibs’ squad gears up for the stretch run and an uphill battle for the eighth and final playoff spot. Despite a first half that reinforced the fact that neither team had played in ten days, the Wolves were able to open up an early lead thanks in large part to Wiggins’ 16 first quarter points. Karl-Anthony Towns struggled through the first half en route to 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 rather ugly turnovers, even though he was guarded by the much smaller Harrison Barnes for much of the half. Still, the Wolves had one of their best collective halves of the year on defense, holding the Mavs to 40 points on 39% shooting as they built up a 49-40 lead at the break.
The third quarter was a back and forth between Ricky Rubio’s passing ability and Seth Curry’s shooting touch. Rubio had two alley-oop passes and two outlet passes that led to easy transition layups in the quarter, and Seth Curry caught fire en route to scoring the bulk of his career-high 30 points on the night. As Curry and Barnes heated up in the third and into the fourth quarter, the Mavs closed a double-digit lead and eventually tied the game. However, the Wolves were able to steadily build the lead back up in closing minutes as Rubio drove to and finished at the rim two times, Wiggins buried a clutch three, and Towns scored 12 of his 26 points in the last 6 minutes of the game. Wiggins also continued to score throughout, tallying 27 points as well as 7 rebounds and 3 assists on the night. It was his 16th game in a row with twenty of more points. The Mavs are certainly not a great team, especially without recently bought out Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams as well as new addition Nerlens Noel, but it was an encouraging sign to see the inconsistent Wolves weather a run by an opponent in the third and early fourth quarter before hitting the gas pedal again on their way to a comfortable victory. The solid performance brought Wolves to within 3 games of Denver for the Western Conference’s right to lose to the Warriors in the first round.
The Wolves were out-schemed by the Mavs guards and Dirk/Barnes throughout the first half in the pick-and-roll and the pick-and-pop sets. The Mavs continually sought to either free up primary ball handlers by screening and isolating them on Towns and, more so, isolate their forwards on Minnesota’s smaller guards following Minnesota switches. This was especially common when Tyus was in the game, as Kris Dunn was more than able to stay step-for-step with guards or forwards. The Wolves lost guards off the pick-and-roll sets for much of the first half, allowing easy layups and open shots. The Wolves were fortunate that the Mavs, especially Wes Matthews, were cold throughout the first half, because they could have been looking at a nine point deficit rather than a nine point lead at halftime.
To the team’s credit, the Wolves greatly improved their screening defense in the second half. After halftime, the guards, especially Rubio and Dunn, charged over screens aggressively, and the primary big man defender made the guard pause just long enough for the guard to get back in position without giving up a wide open three (or long two, in the case of Harrison Barnes). When they did have to switch, Dunn proved to be more than capable to guard Barnes or Nowitzski at the top of the key, and Tyus was crafty enough to stay in front of the forwards long enough to allow himself to switch back to his original guard. Credit Thibs and the team for identifying these sets and making necessary changes within the game, something we haven’t seen much of this year. The ability to guard this pick-and-roll action will be essential for the Wolves to be able to stay with and beat better teams that use this action often, which is basically every team except Golden State and Houston.
From 10,000 feet, a late February game between two teams on the outside of the Western Conference playoff race wouldn’t seem to carry much gravity on its face. However, the Mark Cuban’s Mavericks provide an interesting comparison case for a Timberwolves team that is riding out the remainder of Dirk Nowitski’s career as opposed to riding the upswing of the promise of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The two teams may be within a game of each other in the conference standings, but the route to the similar records have taken significantly different twist and turns.
Throughout the 2016/17 season, one of the most consistent aspects of the Wolves has been their inconsistency. Quarter-to-quarter and game-to-game, Thibs’ team tends to follow up their best stretches of play with subpar stretches, whether that is within a single game or over the stretch of a road trip. The Mavs, on the other hand, were the worst team in the NBA when the calendar turned to 2017 and a few weeks after, but Carlisle and his team have been objectively good since, including winning 16 of their last 25 games. Harrison Barnes has started to settle into this role as a primary scorer. He has pushed his scoring to over twenty points per game (20.1) on very 47.4/33.5/84.1% shooting numbers. Wesley Matthews continues improve as he gets further away from his Achilles tendon rupture almost two years ago (it generally takes 18-24 months to regain form after such an injury—best of luck to Rudy Gay). Dirk will continue to hit that fall-away jumper off of one leg until the day he retires, and he will dominate pickup games with the move after that. The remainder of the team, though, is currently undergoing a facelift. Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams** have been bought out, and both are likely on their way to Cleveland (though there are still some talks that Golden State is trying to lure Bogut back to Oakland). Nerlens Noel, who was acquire yesterday from the 76ers in exchange for Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a top-18 protected first round pick, will fill some of Bogut’s minutes, even if they don’t play the same position. Noel is a freakishly athletic power forward who’s best known for blocking shots, grabbing steals, and finishing in transition when he isn’t sidelines with an injury—a skill set that would have played well in the Wolves frontcourt next to Towns, I might add. Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell split time at the point guard position with Devin Harris and JJ Barea, illustrating a willingness by Carlisle to give young guys with upside minutes off the bench that is rarely seen by Thibs. Ferrell is an especially instructive case for Wolves fans considering that he is an undrafted and undersized four-year college player out of Indiana who has thrived in the role that JJ Barea has recently played for the Mavs. In ten games and seven starts with the Mavs after being released by the Nets, Ferrell has averaged 14.2 PPG on 45.0/45.8/95.7% shooting, 4.6 assists per game, and over a steal per game in only about 30 minutes on average. Furthermore, his inclusion took the minutes burden off of Deron Williams, allowing his efficiency and raw numbers to take off since the beginning of the New Year. At the shooting guard spot, Curry has been able to be an effective scoring threat and a surprisingly competent defender. The emergence of these two as well as the improved play of Barnes and Matthews has been major factors in the Mavs’ return to relevance.
This of course begs the question of what would happen if, say, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones got some minutes to try and produce similar results for the Wolves. To get the caveats out of the way, the Wolves have been hovering between three and six games out of a playoff spot for most of the season, so it would have likely been more difficult for Thibs to try out minutes for players without fear of consequence like Carlisle was able to. At the same time, Thibs has exhibited much of his characteristic tendency to play his starters and small bench rotation a lion share of available minutes, so that caveat might be redundant anyway. At least it was until tonight. Each of the three point guards had very good games in his own right. Rubio’s passing ability was on full display, he hit a couple of pull-up jump shots, and he confidently finished three times at the rim on his way to a 13 point, 5 rebound, and 13 assist performance. Kris Dunn displayed his usually excellent defense in addition to hitting multiple midrange shots, grabbing rebounds, and generally initiating the offense with poise. Tyus was also outstanding, especially from distance, as he made all three of his shots from downtown as well as playing savvy defense on Dallas’ smaller guards, including Yogi Ferrell. Dunn and Jones finished with a combined 15 points on 67% shooting, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists. There is a case to be made that part of the Wolves’ struggles with giving up extended runs to opponents, especially those in the late 3rd and early 4th quarter, may be partially due to the relative fatigue accumulated by the starting rotation that is squarely within the top three to five players in minutes played at their respective positions. Giving more minutes to Dunn, Jones, and Aldrich may be a logical way to mitigate some of these tendencies, especially since the team’s defensive metrics stay fairly consistent with Dunn in the game, and Jones has been mostly effective in captaining the offense during his limited minutes. Furthermore, with LaVine done for the rest of this year, there is a vacancy for Dunn to pick up minutes at the shooting guard spot where he is more than capable of guarding opposing big guards and is more able to slash to the basket in order to establish some confidence on the offensive end. Thibs finally started to implement some rotations that included a combination of two of the point guards tonight, and, lo and behold, it seemed to work (even if Dallas is a low bar to clear). One can only hope that these rotations will continue to be commonplace and that the three point guards will continue to play as well as they did tonight.
The Timberwolves franchise is building around the expected and predicted development of its up-and-coming players in their early twenties. The Mavericks are looking to reload during the final years of the greatest player in the franchise’s history. Yet, though there are countless cosmetic differences between the two teams ranging from offensive and defensive schemes to organizational structure, the two teams find themselves in approximately the same place in the standings. Wiggins is poised to be a tangibly better version of Barnes. Towns has a unique skill set that reflects Dirk’s ability to revolutionize the skilled big-man during his prime years. Even with Rubio staying in Minnesota for at least another five months, both teams have point guard positions that are in flux. Finally, Wes Matthews is further along in the injury-recovery process that Zach LaVine is currently just beginning. Thibs and the young Wolves’ roster would be well-served to learn lessons from the Mavs organization at every level as they look to transition from a franchise sustained on promise and potential to a playoff contending organization.
**Personal note—go back and watch Williams lead the comeback against Channing Frye’s Arizona en route to a Championship Game loss in 2005. Worth the three minutes. Also, before his 5-7 ankle surgeries, Williams was a better point guard than Chris Paul. Need proof? Look at his head-to-head dominance from 2006-2010.