Despite Friday’s double-digit loss to the Miami Heat, losing three of their last four games and even their 118-110 loss to Sunday afternoon opponent Phoenix on Nov. 11, the Timberwolves have opted to move forward.
“It gets frustrating, but you’ve got to stay the course,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said at Saturday afternoon practice. “It’s still a group of guys that are still getting in it, bonding with veterans. You still have to stay patient, always have to stay positive.”
That’s probably tough for Gibson, a veteran in his ninth season in the NBA who has mostly experienced playoff berths and success since entering the NBA.
His longtime head coach Tom Thibodeau is the same way. During his stint in Chicago — with both Gibson and Jimmy Butler — he made the playoffs every year and got as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011.
To be clear, the Timberwolves are currently on that trajectory.
At 11-8, they’re slotted as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and are tied for the top slot in the Northwest Division. It’s a start this franchise hasn’t experienced since the prime years of Kevin Garnett, and it’s something fans might be liable to take for granted.
Still, after Friday’s 109-97 loss to the Miami Heat, a game where the Wolves allowed 19 3-pointers, it can be understood why frustration might be setting in. They’ve now lost three of their last four games and have given up 100-plus points in their last five.
Their most recent loss caused their star to unload some of that frustration. Butler, a player whose pride for defense can be visualized on the floor, has not always seen that from his teammates.
“I would think time and time after going through the film, you watching yourself constantly getting your (butt) beat on the defensive end, you’d get sick and tired of it,” he said after Friday’s loss. “I don’t think it registered in our heads like that.”
After being reunited in July, Butler and Thibodeau have quickly gotten back on the same page. Their quotes and responses have often mirrored the same sentiment, and their frustration seems to carry from one to the other.
So when Butler sounded off on Friday, Thibodeau matched it on Saturday.
“We have to do better, there’s no getting around that,” Thibodeau said. “It’s what we have to do if we want to win. We can’t keep talking about it, we have to do something about it.”
The improvements statistically have been small – smaller than what some were hoping for – but they are there.
Still, this past week has been a roadblock for them, and Friday’s game might have been the biggest hit yet. They moved from 23rd to 25th in defensive rating, a figure they had progressively been moving up in since the beginning of November. A season ago, they were 26th.
Meanwhile, they’re currently seventh in offensive rating.
Last year, they were 10th.
The improvements are a welcome change, and might simply be a reflection of the inclusion of guys like Butler and Gibson, whose mere presence is an upgrade over what they had a year ago. Even the obvious improvement to Nemanja Bjelica off the bench has been a boost for them.
But that’s where Butler’s quote comes back into play. Taking the inclusion Butler, Gibson, Bjelica, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford into account implies there are team-wide issues that haven’t been addressed. There are some issues that have carried over last year that might still be prevalent. Some of that can be attributed to youngsters like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, some could be attributed to how well the message is sinking in from the coaching staff to the players.
Still, the players themselves, especially the veterans, don’t have that same concern.
“It just takes time,” Crawford said Saturday. “Some teams get it quick, some teams don’t. We’ve shown it in stretches. I think that’s where the frustration comes in.”
On Sunday, the Timberwolves face off against the Suns, a team they fell to two weeks ago. The loss came at a time when the team was still in a place of high optimism, and most saw it as a gimme for Thibodeau’s team.
They ended up losing that game, and with it came the fact that the Timberwolves aren’t yet ready to call any game a gimme.
Part of that, as Butler said, is tactical. They haven’t always put forth the best effort, especially defensively. Part of that, as Crawford said, is the players continuing to figure each other out and develop chemistry. And part of that, as Gibson said, is staying the course, and remembering what got them out to a playoff push so early in the season.
This team isn’t a complete package yet, but it’s further along than their previous four games might indicate. It will take some time, and some of that time won’t be fun.
But as long as they stay the course, most of it will be.