In 1975, Glen Taylor bought a wedding service business for $2 million that transitioned into a company called Taylor Corporation.
This little company that could has grown into a conglomerate that owns many different entities including the state of Minnesota’s most successful newspaper (the Minneapolis Star Tribune). In addition to the Star Trib, Taylor Corp. has made a sequence of other acquisitions over the course of its 43 years of existence.
Its most prominent purchase: the Minnesota Timberwolves.
For that franchise, and thus Taylor, Saturday night earmarked the end of over 5,000 days of futility when the Wolves defeated the Houston Rockets at Target Center 121-105, tallying their first playoff win since 2004. After the game, a smiling Taylor meandered into the media room looking for a glass of water when a reporter came up to him and said, “I may need to call you tomorrow after how this one went.”
Taylor’s response: “Call me at home, I’ll be in the garden.”
This tranquility was intriguing for a few reasons. Obviously, shedding a 14-year streak of playoff-less basketball would cause many who own a franchise to want a stiffer drink than fountain H20. But perhaps more notable is the juxtaposition of Taylor’s chill vibe given the public comments he had earlier in the week that firmly placed Tom Thibodeau on the hot seat prior to Game 3.
“We should probably wait until the playoffs are done (to evaluate Thibodeau’s performance),” Taylor said in an interview with The Mankato Free Press following Game 2 of the Wolves-Rockets series. “Bringing him in was for the playoffs. You get a seasoned coach to get into the playoffs. That’s when you have to show that your coaching abilities are near the top. We’ll wait and see.”
‘Wait and see’ are words that cut deep.
Tom Thibodeau signed a five-year, $40 million contract not only to be one of the league’s highest-paid coaches in the summer of 2016, but also to have job security given the deal’s duration. Whenever these playoffs end, Thibodeau will still have three years and (an estimated) $24 million left on his deal. To fire Thibs would be a major indictment this early in his tenure. Prior to these comments, the assumption was: given the contract, Thibodeau’s job was safe. A loss in Game 3 to follow those comments would have all but eliminated that safety.
That loss didn’t come and moreover, in the win, Thibodeau out-coached reigning Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni. The Wolves were prepared and appropriately adjusted to handle not only the potent offensive attack of the Rockets but also their defense that had stifled the Wolves to 95.5 points per 100 possessions in the first two games of the series.
“Anytime you lose, it’s the way you approach the loss,” were Thibodeau’s words to reporters in Houston following Game 2. “We have to learn from it. Learn and move forward.”
For those familiar with Thibodeau’s mincing of words after losses, those platitudes came off — yet again — as platonic ideals, not truth. On Saturday night, they proved true. Thibodeau led the Wolves to a victory and in the process, cooled off his seat.
Here are three adjustments Thibodeau made from Game 2 to Game 3.
“Trust The Pass”
Amidst rampaging cries from the media and fanbase alike to better utilize his center, Thibodeau’s mantra in the days up to Game 3 remained consistent.
“We’ve got to trust the pass.”
What Thibodeau meant by this was that — contrary to popular demand — his team could not simply “force-feed” Karl-Anthony Towns post touches for shots.
“You have to be able to move past that and you gotta help your team any way possible. And anytime they’re putting two on the ball you gotta trust the pass, hit the open man. We can’t force-feed things.”
Towns had been hounded by double-teams in the first two games of the series and Thibodeau persistent belief was that through taking advantage of the double-team that his team could find easy buckets.
“If you watch what they’re doing — and if you watch the film — they’re switching, they’re bringing someone from the backside, they’re bringing a big from the backside,” Thibodeau said Friday afternoon. “We have to do to take advantage of that. So anytime there is a second or third defender coming, hit the open man and keep moving.”
The Wolves did this brilliantly. They peppered Towns in the post and he found kick outs for easy assists. The Wolves shot a scalding 15-of-27 from 3 in the game and in large part, the looks they got were wide open. Chris Paul described the defense on the 3s as “butt-naked.”
“Just Be Patient”
By signing Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson and pulling off a trade for Jimmy Butler this offseason, Thibodeau — the team’s chief decision-maker when it comes to personnel — punted many of his resources to supplement the starting lineup with a formidable bench. The trio of Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica, and Tyus Jones were all that was left. Jamal Crawford was the only key offseason acquisition and he was signed for pennies.
Yet throughout the season, Thibodeau remained patient with his bench. He made no trades and went through the entirety of the season with a vacant bench spot — even after signing Derrick Rose. “We have more than enough to win,” was consistently Thibodeau’s message when asked about addressing his roster in any manner during the season.
In many ways, this patience hurt the Wolves. Minnesota’s bench had an aggregated net-rating of minus-3.4 during the regular season — 15th amongst the 16 playoff teams, per NBA.com/stats.
Converse to the narrative, Saturday night that bench came through and was more than enough to win with. Rose had his second potent scoring night of the series and along with Gorgui Dieng the Wolves benched help fuel a crucial late-game run.
With just over a minute left in the third quarter, Andrew Wiggins stepped to the free throw line with the Wolves up by seven points and he clanked two free throws. It felt like a slippage that could instigate one of Houston’s haymakers. The opposite happened.
On the following possession, Taj Gibson found himself in the post with the ball-in-hand as the double-team came from the baseline — much like it did against Towns. An extra crab dribble sucked in the second defender just enough for a kick out to a wide-open Dieng. The Wolves backup center wound up his slow release and beat the Rockets to the trigger for the punch.
The next Rocket possession was a massive Andrew Wiggins block on Eric Gordon, that led to a run-out and eventual Jeff Teague lay-up on the other end. Harden tried to respond with a step back 3, but that also came up blank. The Wolves continued to roll all the way up to the climax of what became (and finished) a 14-to-2 run. On the play, Dieng picked off a pass and converted a Euro Step into a dunk.
That was the loudest moment of the game.
“I was just thinking that the weak side big on their team was coming to help because when we’ve been in the post they always come weakside,” Gibson said in the locker room postgame when asked about his pass that instigated the run. “Thibs (showed us) on the film ‘just be patient,’ just be lookin’ for guys to be wide open. And I always have faith in Gorgui.
“One thing about Thibs, when you go out there — maybe for one minute, maybe a couple seconds — if you go out there and do a good job, he’ll believe in you.”
Dieng played less than ten minutes in the game and the entirety of his scoring output is captured in the two above clips, but he did his job; a job Thibs believed in.
The role of Andrew Wiggins, finally, seems to be coming together. Often the fourth or fifth option during stretches of the season, the preseason’s presumed third-banana has put it together in this playoff series.
Wiggins has been the Wolves’ most consistent player through the three games of this series and thus, likely its best. It’s hard to give too much credit to Thibodeau here as Wiggins has been underwhelming for much of the season — and coaching is at least in part to blame — but some affirmation is warranted for a level of patience with Wiggins that Thibodeau does not implement with all of his players.
Many times during the season, it was almost surprising to see Thibodeau go off-brand by instilling faith in a player that pretty clearly was not giving Thibs-level effort. To the coaches credit, that faith has had at least some effect on Wiggins being the statistical leader of the team in the playoffs even if he is still the quiet — and sometimes lackadaisical — guy off the stat sheet.
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