I think one of the reasons we’ve played as well as we have on the road is because most of the time we go on the road it’s loud, the crowd is into it, and you feed off of that.
— Sam Mitchell after a win versus Sacramento, following a near win over Golden State (3/23/16)
Asked if his players play better in front of a large crowd before the Minnesota Timberwolves’ sold out game against the Golden State Warriors, interim head coach Sam Mitchell dismissed the notion. “Guys, I don’t think about it,” he told the media at practice the day before the game. “I don’t ever think about whether the crowd has anything to do with the way we play. I mean, I don’t know. You guys have time to think about all that stuff. We, as coaches, we don’t have time to think about stuff like that.”
The Timberwolves hung with Golden State, which owns the best record in the NBA, throughout Monday’s contest, a 109-104 loss. The team’s young core was at its best. Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 25 points. Karl-Anthony Towns registered his 41st double-double of the season with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Ricky Rubio also had a double-double (20 points, 11 assists) and Zach LaVine finished with 19 points.
Two nights later they beat the Sacramento Kings, a far more inferior team, by a score of 113-104. They appeared be to sleepwalking through the first half, playing down to Sacramento’s level before running away with the game in the third quarter. LaVine scored all 23 of his points in the second half. Towns finished with 26 and 11, Wiggins had 23 points and Rubio 12 assists. But it felt like a letdown after the team played so well against Golden State.
“We talked about this game, and we knew it was gonna be a little bit of an emotional letdown after having a sellout crowd like we did against Golden State.”
Mitchell attributed it to the crowd, which was sparse against Sacramento on a Wednesday night after buzzing with energy against the Warriors. “We talked about this game, and we knew it was gonna be a little bit of an emotional letdown after having a sellout crowd like we did against Golden State,” he said. “Coming back into the building, the energy wasn’t the same.”
It also was a less high-stakes contest. Minnesota could have handed Golden State its first back-to-back loss of the year on Monday, with the Warriors coming off an emotional loss to the San Antonio Spurs. The Kings, on the other hand, are a dysfunctional mess and were playing without superstar DeMarcus Cousins.
“They have a better record than us, so that record says they have a better team than us,” Mitchell cautioned before the game when asked if he expected Minnesota to take advantage of the injured Kings. “If our guys are sitting there thinking we should win the game, then they have the wrong thought process.”
LaVine was honest when asked if the young Wolves play at a higher level against certain opponents. “It’s bad to say this because we need to be prepared for that way for every game, [and] come out with the same focus,” he said at practice before the Warriors game, “but it just seems like you’re up a little bit more, a little bit more on edge, because you don’t want to be embarrassed.
“Those type of teams and those type of players can, you know, embarrass you. They’re going at you and they’re trying to go [compete for] playoff spots and [the Warriors] are trying to make history.”
“People are going to come out for the Cleveland games, the Oklahoma City games, Golden State games. We’re just trying to bring people back.”
Wiggins admitted there was a stark contrast in atmosphere between the Warriors and Kings games, and that he wants to see people start to fill the building as the young core comes together. “It was a different vibe,” he said after the Sacramento game. “People are going to come out for the Cleveland games, the Oklahoma City games, Golden State games. We’re just trying to bring people back.”
The late Flip Saunders described Wiggins as a popcorn player, meaning that he played at his best in big-game situations. “The thing that has impressed me about Wig is that we’ve always seen glimpses of his freakish athletic ability or where he can take over games,” Saunders said of Wiggins, who had a reputation of playing on cruise control in college, after a 106-90 loss to the Cavaliers last year in which he scored 33 points.
“As he’s gotten into some of these bigger games, you can tell that he’s a popcorn player: When he smells the popcorn, the bigger the game, it’s almost the more energized and the more focused he becomes, and what happens is those lulls are becoming fewer and far between.”
It’s become evident that LaVine and Towns are much the same way. So is Rubio. “I am dying to win,” the 25-year-old point guard told MinnPost in a lengthy Q&A with Britt Robson in November. “When I go to bed and we’ve won that day, no matter what I did on the court, I am happy. And if we lost, no matter what I did, I am sad. That feeling comes from me, on the inside, and I think when I am out there playing I am sharing that with my teammates.”
This is a good sign. It’s a sign that this team needs exposure and is ready for the pressure that comes with it. The national media is already flooding Wolves practice and the locker room. The Target Center is undergoing a renovation soon. Towns looks like a once-in-a-generation player. Wiggins is a natural scorer with a killer instinct when the game is on the line. LaVine could make this a Big 3. Rubio is the veteran floor general that makes everyone better with his passing and has improved as a shooter. Gorgui Dieng is a glue guy. Shabazz Muhammad provides energy off the bench. Tyus Jones has improved a lot since the beginning of the year. All of these guys are in their early- to mid-20s.
The issue with increased visibility is that the team’s weaknesses will be revealed as well.
The issue with increased visibility is that the team’s weaknesses will be revealed as well. They need another backup point guard, an outside shooter capable of defending perimeter players and a playmaking forward who can hold his own at both ends of the floor. Nemanja Bjelica is the kind of player Minnesota needs on the bench — a shooter and ball-mover with size — but he needs to improve his shot selection and solidify his role in the offense. And either Nikola Pekovic needs to get healthy — and Arnie Kander, the team’s vice president of sports performance, believes he will — or they need a big, physical player down low to complement Dieng and Towns.
As for the current team, Rubio has stayed healthy all year and is shooting better — trends that must continue. Wiggins needs to rebound his position better, something that may come with age as he gets bigger. LaVine and Muhammad must improve defensively, and Towns cannot have a sophomore slump after a historic rookie season.
But all in all, this team is ready for big crowds and meaningful games. They will have to avoid the pitfalls of playing down to inferior competition, of course, but as the bench fills out and the young players develop, they should be able to railroad lesser opponents. They already play an exciting brand of basketball that involves monster slams, broken ankles and passing wizardry — but winning is the final and most important ingredient.
Asked what he learned about his team after nearly beating Golden State, LaVine replied. “Just confidence in your team, knowing that you can play with defending world champs, best team in the league,” he said. “I felt we had them in a really good situation for us to win, so it just shows that if we play the way we need to and we’re all clicking, we’re one of the better teams in the league.”
Photo credit: Minnesota Timberwolves