You have to run through the finish line.
— Wolves president and coach Tom Thibodeau at Sunday’s practice
Saturday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings made it official: the Minnesota Timberwolves will not make the playoffs for the 13th straight season. Vegas had set the Wolves’ win total over-under at 41.5, and the team was in playoff contention until a five-game losing streak from March 15-25 essentially eliminated them from postseason play. In fact, no team has fallen farther behind Vegas’ projected number than Minnesota.
“You just deal with reality,” said Wolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. “There is always something you can work towards. There is always something you can learn. There is always something you can improve upon.”
Minnesota is 30-45 after losing to Sacramento, so while they have surpassed their win total from last season (29), but also have not had a winning season since 2004-05. Thibodeau is in Year 1 of a five-year, $40 million contract, meaning that while this is just the start of his process, there will be incredible pressure for the Wolves to not only have a winning record, but make the playoffs next season.
The Wolves seem to have enough talent to be playoff team
“They’ve had some injuries, and I think the future is very, very bright,” said Kings head coach Dave Joerger, a Staples, Minn. native, before Saturday’s contest. “This is a team that they will be in the playoffs. I don’t know how they can’t make the playoffs next year! They will be in, and they will be looking for this seed or that seed.
“I’m impressed with the way that they play, and it’s been fun to watch the process.”
Looking at a box score, the Wolves seem to have enough talent to be playoff team. But the team’s defensive deficiencies hold them back. There’s a temptation for young players like Karl-Anthony Towns, who has 56 double-doubles this season, and Andrew Wiggins, who has over 12 30-plus point efforts this year, to go basket for basket against other teams while failing to get stops at the other end of the court.
“Yeah, and we watched today, when it went south,” Thibodeau said, acknowledging that sometime his players try to outscore opponents, rather than lock down on defense, when they blow leads like they did against the Kings. “It’s 29-13 with two minutes to go in the first, [but] it doesn’t take much in today’s NBA. You let your guard down. You make a mistake in defensive transition, you turn the ball over, and all of a sudden they make three threes (to end the first and into the second). All of a sudden, that’s 10 points there, in a minute. A game can change quickly on you, and we started the second quarter, they went 21-11 in the first five minutes.”
He said when that happens, the team watches film the next day and analyzes what went wrong. During the game, Thibodeau will turn to one of his assistant coaches and tell them to make a note of something he sees in real time, then at practice the next day he will go over that play and try to impart a lesson about it to his young team.
“There’s a lot of times, and we do it all the time when we go through the game tape the next day, if we can defend something correctly, and they may make a tough challenge shot, I’ll pause it as the ball is being shot, and I’ll ask them, ‘Is this good defense?’” he said after Thursday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “And I want to see their response, if they understand that if we make them take those shots over the course of a game, the percentage will be low.”
“And then, conversely, sometimes a missed shot is not defended well. To understand, like, okay, he just missed an open shot. If we do that, we’ll get beat.”
There are times, like during a stretch of games between Feb. 12 and Mar. 13 when they held every opponent to under 100 points, when his instruction appears to be manifesting itself in the team’s gameplay. The only teams to score over 100 points on Minnesota during that month-long stretch? The Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Cleveland and Golden State were in the finals last year, and Houston is the No. 3 seed in the West entering this week. Minnesota beat Golden State and lost to Cleveland and Houston. The Wolves also beat the Washington Wizards, the No. 2 team in the East, before the season-high six-game losing streak.
Since the loss in Boston, where Nemanja Bjelica went down with a season-ending injury and the Celtics scored 117 points on Minnesota, the Wolves have not held an opponent to under 100 points. Bjelica was becoming an integral part of the team, but his injury isn’t the only reason this team started to freefall.
“Flip got the thing going in the right direction”
“There’s a lot of things that go into winning that don’t get measured,” said Thibodeau at Sunday’s practice. “We talked about that today: The commitment by a big guy to put pressure on the rim, to sustain spacing, to get down on the baseline, for a guard to relocate after he passes. To communicate a coverage on a pick-and-roll, there’s no statistic on the box score that says you how many times you communicated well on a pick-and-roll coverage. But the teams that win big, that percentage is very high, and that commitment is made on every play.”
He says the team’s communication is improving, and that his players are getting better at in-game decision-making because of all the close late-game situations where they’ve had to maintain a balance between being disciplined and making a play in crunch time. There’s positive signs, even if the end result is the same as its been over the last 13 years.
“Flip [Saunders] got the thing going in the right direction,” said Joerger, referencing the late head coach. “They didn’t miss on draft picks, they got the right picks, created the right culture. Tom’s playing a great style of defense and trust and building teamwork first and nothing but the best is in front of them.”
As for the last seven games this year, five of them are on national television and six of them come against potential playoff teams. The Wolves may be eliminated from the playoffs, but Thibodeau says that there still are short-term goals he wants to accomplish, beginning with seeing his players commit to defense on every play.
“You have to run through the finish line,” he said. “Every day we have to make corrections, we have to improve. We have to get better. Our best players have to lead, and everyone has a job to do.”