Neither team wanted to think of Wednesday’s game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets as a rematch Game 82 last season, and rightfully so. The rosters are different, and the stakes are significantly lower.
But Minnesota’s 103-101 loss to Denver on a night when Paul Millsap got hurt and Nikola Jokic was held to seven points on 3-of-13 shooting is a reminder that although this team looks relieved after the Jimmy Butler drama, it still is digging out of the 4-9 hole it sunk itself into to start the season.
“Across the board, both offensively and defensively they’re much improved, in all areas,” said Denver head coach Mike Malone before the game. “But to me it just speaks to, um,” he paused to consider his words, “there is probably just a lot more joy in that locker room.”
Thibodeau will point to the tough schedule the team faced to start the season as the reason that they fell behind. And it can’t go overlooked that the Wolves are 8-3 at home and 0-8 on the road. Plus the West has yet to shake out, so it’s hard to say for certain that the Memphis Grizzlies loss was bad, for example, or a loss to the Nuggets — who started 9-1 but were 1-6 going into the game — was particularly good or bad.
But it all boils down to this: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are playing better since Butler was traded to Philadelphia, and ex-Sixers Robert Covington and Dario Saric are fits on this current roster who have allowed the Wolves to transition to modern, spread-the-floor basketball.
“You’ve gotten over a huge distraction for that whole franchise, and they welcomed Saric and Covington, and those guys are good players and part of a winning team last year,” said Malone. “And for me, I just see them playing really hard and playing for each other.”
“Just having the new guys in,” said Taj Gibson at a recent practice when asked why the team had improved defensively. “Dario and Robert just having to fill in and understanding how easy going they are, and how [they] follow instructions and being there on defense.
“It kinda shows KAT that he kinda has to do a little bit more, and he’s been doing it. And he’s going to have a lot of fun. His mentality, as far as being a leader, has grown day by day, and Wigs has been really responsible.”
Despite their slow start, the Wolves aren’t that far out of the mix in the West. Following the loss to Denver, the Wolves were 7-11 — the No. 14 seed. Denver was 11-7, the No. 6 seed. The Houston Rockets, 9-7, have had their struggles. The Sacramento Kings — the Sacramento Kings! — were 9-8. The standings change by the day, but Minnesota had beaten the Portland Trail Blazers, the No. 1 seed, and lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, the No. 2 seed, entering the game.
The Golden State Warriors, No. 3 on Wednesday night, could separate themselves from the pack — assuming they can put their Draymond Green-Kevin Durant spat behind them. And the Phoenix Suns, 3-14, are likely out of it. But otherwise the West is made up of a lot of .500 teams.
Hindsight is 20-20 on all this stuff, but obviously in a perfect world the Butler trade would have happened before it became an ESPN special. On the other hand, maybe Thibodeau would not have gotten as good of a return for him in the summer. Either way, it hasn’t taken this team completely out of the race. We’re not even 20 games into the season yet.
Even a casual observer of this team sees what the Wolves are capable of. Minnesota is starting to play modern basketball on the fly, and could get even better if Saric hits more open threes, Derrick Rose continues to show flashes of his younger self and Towns and Wiggins commit to defense.
And yet, the Wolves are still taking inefficient twos, missing shots around the net and failing to move the ball and stay focused during stretches of games. Furthermore, if Saric plays to his capabilities, he could start and move Gibson to the second unit. Thibodeau could add more three-point shooting by replacing Gorgui Dieng with Anthony Tolliver in the rotation and using Josh Okogie in spurts to inject his infectious energy onto the court.
They also need to develop better habits that would help maximize their offensive potential. Thibodeau was distraught with the team’s reaction to Denver double-teaming Towns. In his eyes, a double-team creates instant offense.
“When the second defender comes, part of the responsibility of being a primary scorer is get rid of the ball quick, hit the first open man. And when we do that, the offense is easy,” said Thibodeau on a night when the Wolves were 9-32 (28 percent) from 3. “That’s how you get open looks. Usually when you analyze how you’re getting your threes, it’s transition, it’s off a double-team and the swinging of the ball or the offensive rebound and the kick-out.
“And so you’d like to have two on the ball, and you’d like to take advantage of that. Some we shot well and we missed. Some were probably we could have made another pass or another play. But for the most part, I thought they were pretty good.”
If the Wolves are going to have success this year, this will become second nature. There will be more open threes and less contested twos. Easy shots around the basket will go in. The ball will weave back and forth across the court, seeking the open man.
Unlike Game 82 last year, the loss to Denver on Wednesday will be long forgotten as time goes along. For right now, however, it’s a reminder that the Wolves are not too far away from climbing the ladder in the West, but also that they started the year in a 4-9 hole and will get left behind if they do not adapt to their new roster and maximize their potential as soon as possible.