It seems that everyone and their brother — and Charles Barkley — has an opinion on what Karl-Anthony Towns has to do and how he has to do it differently in Game 2, if the Wolves are to avoid falling into a two-game hole. Because Towns had multiple stints in Game 1 where he went more than 12 minutes without a field goal attempt, it has become the public consensus that something has to change.
For Tom Thibodeau, this sentiment was not echoed. At the Timberwolves Tuesday afternoon practice, Thibodeau alluded to the contrary and relented a bit on his postgame comments that directly mentioned Towns and his need “to be more active.”
“After watching the film, I thought he made a lot of good plays,” Thibodeau recounted to a slew of reporters who attended the end of the Wolves’ practice at Rice University’s facilities. “Offensively, I thought he made a lot of good plays. I think he understands what he has to do. He’ll be fine.”
Thibodeau is used to his center, at times, taking a limited role and perhaps because of this was less alarmed that Towns ended Game 1 with nine total field goal attempts. Eleven times during the regular season, Towns took nine or fewer field goal attempts and in five of those games the Wolves won, per basketball-reference.com.
So, in ways, Thibodeau’s belief in his team being fine with Towns in a limited role is true. It also does not matter that Thibs has a differing opinion than the public. It is his prerogative and his job to put together a gameplan that finds effectiveness.
If that is Towns in a low usage role, then fine. The issue is the fact that Thibodeau’s starting point guard, Jeff Teague, disagrees. On Tuesday, he echoed Barkley and the public’s remarks that it is silly to ignore KAT.
“We gotta figure out a way to get KAT the ball against those smaller guys,” said Teague. “I think we gave them a steady diet of the same thing. Next game we’ve gotta give them some different looks with KAT actually posting up a couple times… We’ve definitely got to get him a couple more touches.”
When Thibodeau was asked if his team needs to try and exploit the switch of a big guy onto Teague and a little guy onto Towns, his response was “we did.”
“You gotta try and attack and take advantage. I thought the way Jeff attacked the switches was great,” said Thibodeau. “They’re making decisions on what they think they have to do and then, now, you have the speed advantage. A guy like Teague is very good at attacking bigs off the dribble.”
Again, Teague disagreed. When he was asked if having Clint Capela switch onto him is “kind of the dream situation” Teague’s response was a definitive no.
“No. I think that is playing into their hands of trying to eliminate KAT. When it happens, [he has to] make quick decisions and bury the guy in the post — P.J. Tucker most likely will switch onto him and he just gotta do what he can do.”
Early on in the game, Taj Gibson did exactly what Teague is calling for; recognizing a mismatch, putting the smaller defender on his back and quickly finishing.
Gibson is a bit of the crux of the issue here given Thibodeau’s philosophy. Amongst the Wolves starting power forward’s many skillsets, shooting — particularly from the corner — is not one of them. Gibson only attempted 28 corner 3-point shots this season — an element of his game that he has all but removed since the All-Star break, only attempting four from the corner in the final 21 games of the season.
That role of flaring into the corner has become exclusively Towns’s, where he shot a scalding 55.3 percent in the regular season, per NBA.com/stats. Unfortunately, by utilizing Towns in this role, his post touches drop because he is effectively lining up outside of post-up position.
When Thibodeau was asked about Towns spacing to the corners, he eluded to the concession.
“Well, we want space,” said Thibodeau. “So, how we space the floor — and it’s similar to what they do for Harden — you know, you gotta leave some slots open. So, we usually put one big down at the baseline, in the dunker’s spot, then you space the floor and you make plays from there.”
This need for space was, again, the problem in Teague’s eyes.
“When they switch, we spread the floor and he was going to the corner,” said Teague when asked why Towns wasn’t getting touches. “I don’t think they’re really worried about his 3s, I think they’re more worried about his post-up ability.”
It should be pointed out that Teague did not hear Thibodeau’s message to the media — he was still on the floor shooting while Thibodeau spoke — but there is clearly a disconnect in their on-record opinions.
This can mean a few different things. Thibodeau may be attempting to control the narrative and shape the story that surrounds Towns. His message was harsh and clear to Towns after the first loss: Do more. Perhaps, this is a way of putting faith into his young big man and his message to his team (and Teague) was different when the cameras and recorders were off.
Or, Teague may just disagree. The opinions in the quotes are clearly polarizing, but the articulation could have just come off argumentative — Teague is a to-the-point guy. Another possibility is that the coach and point guard may just have differing thresholds of admitting fault.
Regardless, it is clear that the Wolves need more out of their offense. Only scoring 101 points on 43.8 percent shooting isn’t going to cut it against a Houston team that will almost certainly not miss 27 shots from deep again.
Thibodeau’s squad found effectiveness in the regular season through a barrage of looks that were finished in the paint. Of playoff teams, only the New Orleans Pelicans — who had two elite post-up presences for much of the season — gathered a higher percentage of their points in the paint than the Wolves did during the regular season, per Second Spectrum. Minnesota has one of those elite-style bigs and in Game 2, his effectiveness there (assuming he gets it) could swing the balance.
The Post Touch Is Only Step One
Another reason Towns was not more active — particularly in the post — had little to do with Thibodeau or Teague. The Rockets did an excellent job of throwing a multitude of different defensive schemes and players at him.
Teague mentioned P.J. Tucker defending Towns who has to be a bit bizarre for KAT. Tucker is 6’5″ and may as well be a semi truck without wheels. He’s a load and an immovable object. This strength forces Towns — who is typically unafraid to bang in the post — to adapt his interior game and play with more finesse. Against Tucker, Towns needs to operate in a more upright position that seemed a bit awkward in Game 1.
Another variable for Towns to be cognizant of is how quickly and seamlessly the Rockets switch the switcher. This was an apt point from Thibodeau at practice.
“The thing is, you guys gotta recognize too, there’s more than one switch. So, they’re switching and they’re switching a big too.”
What Thibs means here is that the on-ball defender will often switch onto Towns when he sets a screen and then by the time the Wolves find him, another bigger player has switched with that little guy. Here, Eric Gordon and Joe Johnson implemented the switch the switcher technique.
The Wolves did a good job of taking advantage of this at times — with both Towns and Gibson — when Tucker was off the floor. Johnson is approximately 1/1000th the defender of Tucker and Ryan Anderson (who is questionable for Wednesday’s matchup) is similarly sieve-ish in the post.
What they struggled with was when Towns would find himself in these semi-mismatches but the Rockets would also bring a double-team from the weakside baseline.
“When they switch the smaller guy onto him, they come and double,” said Teague. “That’s their gameplan.”
And it is a strategy both James Harden and Chris Paul are excellent at. Particularly Paul seems to know the exact moment it is safe to depart from his man and missile towards the post. When Paul or Harden were defending Derrick Rose — a non-shooting threat — on the weak side they could essentially play free safety.
A key to countering this defensive attack could simply be knocking down a few 3s early on. While Rose played well in the opener, it is highly unlikely that he is able to be this threat. They need someone who can at least put up the facade of dangerous from deep. Teague’s presence as an off-ball shooter or Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones finding a way to be anything would force Harden, Paul, and the other weak side defenders of Houston to stay home.
Which is all to say, Thibodeau is kind of correct in his notion that this isn’t all on Towns. Yes, he would do well to present himself as more of a threat inside but the way his four teammates surround him is a key factor in effective utilization of the big man.
It’s hard to just decide to score as a center. Towns can’t just run above the break and demand the ball for an isolation the way Jimmy Butler can; his success is reliant on someone delivering him the ball. The gameplan and team-wide assertiveness will determine if Towns evades another single-digit performance, but if the players are not an extension of their coach — and there are multiple agendas taking place — the Wolves are sunk against the Rockets machine.
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