We’re striving to be a 48-minute team and we’re not close to that, there’s a lot of work to be done.
— Tom Thibodeau at a Nov. 20 practice, six days before the start of the regular season
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a 36-minute team in a 48-minute league. If an NBA game were determined after one half of play, the Wolves would have started the season 3-0 and already have beaten the Boston Celtics. Skip the third quarter and they’d probably be just fine. Take snippets of their game — the high-flying dunks, their improved three-point shooting, occasional large leads — and there is potential that is clear to anyone who has seen them play.
The problem is that this team has not gone to the playoffs since Kevin Garnett left for Boston, and due to more than a decade’s worth of losing seasons, the Timberwolves have not built up equity with the wider fan base. They can no longer live on the hype of having three young players, an accomplished coach and a more filled out bench.
“And I get that and it’s painful because you see how good they can be,” ESPN analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy told the Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda in a recent interview. “But I love their team. Their young players — who everybody agrees are very talented — haven’t been able to translate their great talent into wins. But they’ve gotten up big against good teams, they can score and there has never been a young team that I know of that defends. That part takes time.”
The third quarter droughts have become old hat at this point, a narrative that has gotten old for the players, coaching staff, media and fans alike, and sadly they’ve pasted over strong performances by a team that has talent, a direction and excitement — three elements missing from many past Wolves teams.
It’s also likely part of the reason that Thibodeau isn’t celebrating Zach LaVine’s dunk over Alex Len in Phoenix or Andrew Wiggins’ posterizing of JaVale McGee in Oakland on Saturday night. “I don’t get excited about stuff like that,” Thibodeau said of LaVine’s dunk, following a 98-85 win over the Suns on Friday. “I get excited about stuff that wins, so I liked our defense. That’s the important thing. I hope we can get to the point where we’re talking about the things that go into winning and get away from the sideshows.”
And while it is actions like those that bring people out to games, winning is ultimately what fills the building night after night. There was some hope that things could turn around immediately this season — so much so that when Thibodeau was asked if the Wolves could make the playoffs this year at his introductory press conference, he quipped, “might as well get started.”
MinnPost writer Britt Robson, who has covered the Wolves since their inception, predicted 46 wins and the seventh seed this year. “Yes, of course there are questions,” he wrote in his preview. “The questions are legitimate, but I’ll take the bandwagon. Thibodeau lands like a boulder on the pond — the impact is immediate.” ESPN had them at 39 wins and 9th in the West. Sports Illustrated didn’t provide a win total, but concurred with the 9th place finish. As of Sunday, the Wolves are No. 13 in the West and on pace to lose more than the 53 games they lost last season.
Going back to the high-flying dunks and other athletic feats, this isn’t quite a “tree falls in the woods” scenario. These games are broadcast in nearly every bar locally, let alone on national channels like TNT and ESPN, plus there’s viral video — “It was everywhere; everybody was talking about it,” LaVine said of his dunk before Saturday’s game at Golden State — but Thibodeau is right, winning is all that matters. And in order to win, the team must play four full quarters of basketball. “We’re still striving to be a 48-minute team,” Thibodeau emphasized again in the beginning of November. “We’re not close to that yet, we know we have to work each day. There are no shortcuts for us. We have to try to build the right habits each and every day.”
Pretty soon he is going to sound like a broken record, if he doesn’t already. If there’s a reason to have faith that things will turn around, however, it’s that Thibodeau is a tough man to tune out. He has a loud, gravelly voice and expresses his displeasure using a fusillade of words that can’t be broadcast on FSN. His defense has been surprisingly porous, but may be suffering from the hero ball individualism which is often attributed to the team’s offensive struggles in the third quarter.
This team is also incomplete. If the Wolves could magically heal Nikola Pekovic, they would, because they need a player of his size against teams like the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies. They need Brandon Rush to knock down threes. They need Nemanja Bjelica to make the correct decisions as a ball-mover and perimeter shooter. They need a point guard that can shoot reliably from the field.
But more than anything, they need to play complete games.
The Timberwolves are by no means destined for greatness, to be clear. They just have the infrastructure in place to build a contender. They have high-upside players, but if being on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and meeting with former All-Stars in the offseason goes to Karl-Anthony Towns’ head, it could create a rift in the locker room. If Kris Dunn never develops a reliable shot, the team will be in the same predicament they are in with Ricky Rubio right now. And the lack of veteran presence may be partially responsible for this team’s unspooling in the second half of games.
All that said, there are signs of a breakthrough. Last Thursday the Wolves crushed the Philadelphia 76ers, another rebuilding team, on national TV. They played well in the third quarter in Boston only to have things come apart in the fourth on Monday. They trailed the Suns 75-67 after three on Friday, but outscored them 31-10 down the stretch to win the game 98-85.
In their latest contest, a 115-102 loss to Golden State, the Wolves had a 36-30 lead in the second quarter, but gave up the final seven points of the half in 69 seconds and trailed 56-48 at halftime. In a familiar narrative, a 34-25 third quarter sank them. “We didn’t end it the right way,” LaVine said after the game, “but we still played a really solid first half.”