The third quarter was a problem. A big problem.
— Tom Thibodeau after a 106-103 loss to the Kings in their second game of the year
It’s early in the season, but to anyone who is paying attention to the 3-6 Minnesota Timberwolves, this much is clear: Tom Thibodeau says it as it is. When his team struggles in the third quarter, he says as much. When it isn’t playing defense, they’ll hear it. So while their record is disappointing, especially given how many pundits locally and nationally had them breaking the .500 mark after a 29-win season last year, there are signs that some of these early losses are simply an aberration.
The Wolves led the Sacramento Kings 65-54 at halftime, and had led by as many as 18 points in the first half, only to be outscored 31-12 in the third quarter and lose the game. This came after a season-opening game in which they led the Grizzlies 59-50 at half, and outscored Memphis 16-1 to start the game, but were outscored 26-16 in the third quarter and lost 102-98. Thibodeau called the third quarter of the Sacramento game an “abomination” and added that “we got to look at the film to see what the issues were. We’ve got to be tougher.”
After beating a shorthanded Memphis team at home for the first win of the season, the third quarter issue resurfaced in a loss to the Nuggets — Minnesota led Denver 61-55 at half and was outscored 33-14 in the third — but has not plagued the team since. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, who beat the Wolves soundly, are simply better teams than Minnesota.
But the Wolves beat the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers convincingly, and their only other loss, to the Brooklyn Nets, was more a result of poor defense than a sluggish third quarter. “Unless we correct the defensive end, it’s going to be a struggle,” Thibodeau said postgame, adding that 110 points is more than enough to win. “That has to become a priority by everyone, otherwise nothing positive is going to happen.”
The postgame question that prompted that answer was specifically about missed shots late in the game, but he took it a different direction. He could have easily blamed his best players that missed shots in key moments but instead focused on the team’s defensive effort that night — after all, a Brooklyn team that featured former Wolves depth players Justin Hamilton and Sean Kilpatrick hung 119 points on them. Instead of placing the loss at the feet of his best young players — guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, who are expected to carry Minnesota offensively — he focused more on the team as a whole. It wasn’t just deferring blame; it was addressing the issue.
It’s not that Thibodeau is always negative, he’s also willing to praise his team if they perform well. For example, after beating the Lakers, a young, up-and-coming team like the Wolves, he said: “I thought a lot of guys stepped up. The obvious is what Andrew did to score the way he did and make plays and put pressure on the defense. It was a great performance. But I thought Bjelly stepping in and playing the small forward position, being ready to play, I thought he played a terrific game also.
“Ricky [Rubio] got us going, strong first quarter, set the tone for the team. And I thought AP [Adreian Payne] gave us really good minutes, and that was a big plus. We needed everyone. Karl was excellent, Gorgui [Dieng] had some tough matchups with small guys — I thought he was solid.”
In this situation, he was asked about Wiggins specifically, and rightfully so — Wiggins scored 47 points on a night when LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Brandon Rush were injured. But Bjelica had a career-high 24 points in his first career start. Payne had 10 points off the bench. Rubio displayed his passing wizardry. And Towns was not as his best, but still recorded a double-double.
Thibodeau’s honesty works both ways. He’s not trying to inflate the egos of his young players by heaping them with public praise, but he’s not always downplaying their contributions either. He’s more inclined to talk about the team rather than the individual, something that differentiates him from many of his successors. Flip Saunders was particularly tough on Wiggins his rookie year, and didn’t want his young players to be overhyped. Sam Mitchell tended to shift the blame from himself to the team after losses.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Thibodeau tells his players, but he never seems to change when the cameras are off and recorders put away. He has addressed the media off the record on occasion, including on draft night, and his demeanor never changed. Saunders was by most accounts the same no matter what the circumstance was, although he was a bit more casual and chummy once he was off the record. With Mitchell it was night and day: He dreaded media appearances, but could hold a friendly, informative conversation if nobody was recording it.
So for fans of the team looking for hope after a bit of a false start, it’s that Thibodeau is not letting his team off the hook for its shortcomings. He is going to say it as it is, and if these third quarter woes end with the Denver game, nobody will remember them at the end of the year anyways. Well, everyone except for Thibodeau that is.