If you don’t prepare and play like you’re playing for a championship, you’re never gonna play for one.
— Sam Mitchell at a Jan. 24 practice
In many ways it’s unusual that the Minnesota Timberwolves are playing some of their best basketball right now. At 8-8 the team and fans alike could fancy thoughts of playoff basketball, so it would make sense that they were motivated to win. But when the Wolves crushed the Phoenix Suns 117-87 a few weeks ago in their most dominant win of the season, they stood at 13-29 halfway through the season.
Minnesota hasn’t really won much since then. They blew an early lead in New Orleans two days later and lost in overtime to Dallas before picking up win No. 14 against Memphis. As of Tuesday, they are 14-35 and 14th in the Western Conference. Hope of nabbing that No. 8 seed is dwindling by the day.
And yet, the young Wolves hung with the Cavaliers in Cleveland, losing 114-107 not a month removed from a 125-99 shellacking in Minneapolis. There was noticeable improvement in the second game, and really, if the Wolves played every game like they did against LeBron James and the Cavs, they might still be in the hunt for the No. 8 seed.
Andrew Wiggins noticeably picks up his game every time he faces the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2014. “It’s just excitement, motivation and stuff like that,” Wiggins admitted in late January when asked why he plays better against the Cavaliers than other teams. “You’re facing LeBron and Kyrie [Irving].”
And yet, Wiggins only had 20 points in the second Cavs game, as opposed to 35 in the first. So what gives? Why is did the team play better when Wiggins wasn’t as good? “He gets the ball moving,” says Mitchell. “I tell Andrew all the time, ‘If you don’t prepare and play like you’re playing for a championship, you’re never gonna play for one.’”
Consider that the best teams in the league — the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Cavaliers — move the ball well and have multiple weapons that discombobulate defenses.
Let’s focus on the Cavs for a second. Mitchell prefers their style of play because he feels his team can disrupt system teams like San Antonio and the Atlanta Hawks, who the Wolves have beaten twice this year, but they don’t stand a chance against a team like Cleveland that plays with flow and basically improvises as the game goes on.
In the first meeting with Cleveland, J.R. Smith single-handedly bludgeoned the Wolves. With the team focused on the trio of James, Love and Irving, Smith was able to get in rhythm and went 10-of-12 from the field and 5-of-6 from three en route to a 27-point night. James nearly sleepwalked through a triple-double (13p-12r-8a), Love stealthily added 20 points of his own and Irving went 13-2-2.
In the second meeting, the Cavaliers Big Three fared a bit better — James led the way with 25 points and Irving had 17 — but Love was relatively silent with an 11-6-2 night. But it was Tristan Thompson’s 19 and 12 and Matthew Dellavedova’s 18 points off the bench that made the difference for Cleveland. J.R. Smith only had 11 points that night.
That’s what makes that team tough to contain: anyone can beat you in any given game. That’s what the Timberwolves are trying to recreate in Minnesota. They don’t have the Splash Bros. like Golden State, nor do they want to open themselves up to potential pitfalls of system basketball.
In order to do that, however, Minnesota’s best players have to make a habit of sharing the basketball. “We’re not a big-shooting team right now, so Andrew can say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna shoot every time that I come off a screen-and-roll,’” says Mitchell. “But guess what? When we become a better shooting team, how is he gonna know what passes to make? How’s he gonna go about timing and spacing, because he didn’t pass the ball?”
This should be music to Wolves fans’ ears. Currently, a common complaint about the team is that they are stuck in 1995. They are still shooting the Long 2. They have big men. They avoid three-pointers like the plague. Mitchell insists that he allowed his guys to shoot three-pointers when he coached the Toronto Raptors from 2004-08, which by and large he did, but he’s been hesitant to do it with this roster because most of the young players aren’t great shooters.
He does have a few players to work with, however. Shabazz Muhammad is shooting the corner three pretty well. Zach LaVine caught fire against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 27, going 14-of-17 from the field and 5-of-8 from three for a team-high 35 points. And, if anything, Nemanja Bjelica, a good ball-mover in his own right, needs to shoot more.
The fact of the matter is that Wiggins can activate his teammates by passing the ball instead of trying to pad his stats. Muhammad and LaVine need to be put in position to score, since both of them are score-first slashers that can knock down open perimeter shots if they have their feet set. Bjelica hits open shots with ease as well, but he is less likely to cut to the basket and is a pass-first player to a fault.
Wiggins has been a victim of Karl-Anthony Towns’ success in some ways. His younger teammate, also drafted No. 1 overall, is pretty much good for a double-double every night and is playing his best basketball right now — rookie wall be damned. He scored 27 points and had 17 rebounds in the overtime loss to Dallas. He was good for 26 and 11 in Cleveland. He had 32 and 12 against the Utah Jazz. “He works his butt off,” says Mitchell. “He’s loves playing basketball.”
But Wiggins needs to be evaluated by a different standard. Is he going to worry about his individual stats? Or is he going to be a player that elevates the play of everyone around him? Will he activate Muhammad and LaVine? Or will they have to scratch and claw to be involved?
It would be easy for Wiggins to just worry about himself. He knows that ultimately his value will be tied to them in some way. He also probably doesn’t want to be seen as Pippen to Towns’ Jordan. And hell, even Draymond Green admits he chases stats (against bad teams, at least).
But Green’s stat-chasing nearly cost his team a loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. Even the Thunder, who have two players that can single-handedly take over and haul their team to victory late in a close game as Kevin Durant did against Minnesota during LaVine’s 35-point outburst, have trouble matching up against the best teams in the league and are often seen as a second-tier squad when compared to the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers.
What this all comes down to is that the Wolves are better off when they pass the ball. Wiggins can relieve some of the burden on his shoulders by getting his teammates involved. Muhammad can turn a difficult situation into a scoring opportunity for someone else. And LaVine needs to learn to read the floor if Minnesota’s going to be using him at the point.
“The thing I’m trying to get our guys to understand, you have to prepare even though we’re not there yet, as if we are. You gotta have the same mentality, the same work ethic, the same camaraderie, the same willingness to play together on offense and defense. Nothing changes,” says Mitchell.
“Now if you do that, when your time comes, you’re gonna be ready. But if you think, ‘Well, I think now we’re talented enough; now, we’re gonna start trying to play the right way’ it’s never gonna work.”
Photo credit: Minnesota Timberwolves
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