For the Minnesota Timberwolves and a handful of the other Western Conference playoff hopefuls, the harsh reality is that “success” could very well bring a spring date in The Bay with a team that is way better than you: The Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are the class of the West this regular season, and thus the expected opponent of whoever eventually clinches the conference’s eighth seed.
Even after a 116-108 defeat at the hands of Steph Curry and crew Monday night, the Wolves (13-14) odds of clinching a playoff berth feel like something close to a coin flip. This means the loss, their second at Oracle Arena this season, could have been a preview of Game 1 of the playoffs come April.
If that is the case, it’s important for the sake of growth that Tom Thibodeau can find a way to ensure that his team is not simply trending toward becoming a sacrificial lamb. Monday’s performance, that wasn’t as close as the eight-point spread suggests, did little to inspire a different suggestion.
Before litigating that game specifically, it’s probably worth pointing out what the value of another playoff appearance is — even if that is a road that leads to an “L” at the hands of the league’s most dominant team.
The Value Of Making The Playoffs
First, it’s worth noting that Thibodeau’s job is likely tied to the Wolves’ regular-season renders. It’s fair to assume that no playoffs means no more Thibs. And even if some — probably most — of the Wolves faithful are cheering for a coaching change, this is still noteworthy. Changing coaches, not to mention gutting a front office, is a tectonic shift for any franchise. And change is a delicate thing.
Additionally, playoff experience for young players matters.
(Quick aside: I was bullish on the Wolves not making the playoffs last season, but I’d like to walk that back. The thought process was derived from the notion that missing the playoffs meant an extra first-round pick in last summer’s draft — Minnesota would have had the 19th overall pick in addition to Josh Okogie had they missed the postseason. After having spent some time around the team and hearing the players describe what that five-game series against Houston meant, I no longer believe an extra first would have been more valuable.)
As playoff experience pertains to the roster, and Karl-Anthony Towns specifically, it’ is important to build an upward-sloping trajectory. Andrew Wiggins (23) and Dario Saric (24) are young and impressionable. Josh Okogie (20) belongs in that bin as well, even if out of the rotation. League executives have told me they view the growth that can come from a playoff experience as “equal to a whole regular season of games.” That sounds helpful.
There’s also the aesthetic value to free agents of “being a playoff team.” Minnesota faces an uphill financial battle, inspired by the hefty deals already on the books, that will limit their free-agent spendings to about $9 million — the midlevel exception — each offseason going forward. That aesthetic could be the difference between getting the free agent desired and settling for scrap-heap pieces.
Regardless of what someone thinks of Thibodeau, the best thing for the future of this franchise is to be a consistent playoff team. Play hopscotch in-and-out of the postseason and you become the New Orleans Pelicans. No one wants to be the Pelicans.
There is a difference between being the 2014-15 Pelicans (who folded in four games to the Warriors) or even the 2015-16 Pistons (that were steamrolled by the Cavs) and battling as the 2017-18 Bucks did last season (pushing the Celtics to seven games). The goal for the Wolves, even if they do draw the Warriors, should be something between what they did against Houston last year and that Milwaukee fate.
Is Competing Against The Playoff Warriors Possible?
It goes without saying that presenting any resistance to The Bay’s juggernaut in the playoffs is a tall task, particularly in the first round. Over the course of their mini-dynasty, the Warriors have been relentless in the playoffs, only losing two first-round playoff games in four seasons.
For the Wolves to present themselves as a worthier adversary than any of those four previous first-round peons, the post-Butler special sauce needs to sink in. Minnesota would need cement this new identity: disciplined top-to-bottom; defensively judicious; able to make like a couple 3s; KAT-centric.
Regress to their Butler-era ways and they have no shot. It would be bringing a spork to a bazooka fight if Andrew Wiggins/Derrick Rose isolations drive the offense and set a screen and have your way with us defines the defense. Draymond Green (by himself) is better at D than that. And, well, the math of Steph, Klay and KD would just break the offensive calculator.
Unfortunately, the Butler-led Wolves who lost to the Warriors 116-99 on November 2nd performed eerily similar to how the new-look group looked Monday. Both games took the same arc:
- Golden State landed an early haymaker then bounced around, toying with their opponent like a boxer who wants the fight to last. (The Warriors jumped out to a 12-0 lead Monday, and much like the first matchup the Wolves offense was fueled by Taj Gibson early-on. Yikes.)
- While the Warriors napped, Minnesota rallied back on the heels of extremely difficult shot-making by their shooting guard. (Jimmy Butler and Rose led the team in first-half shot attempts with 12 in both games.)
- Things get too-close-for-comfort, Warriors apply the defensive clamps, one of their superstars get hot and it’s game over. (The Warriors won the fourth quarter of the first matchup 33-12. On Monday, the Warriors hit eight 3s in a 15-minute run starting in the middle of the third quarter — the Wolves made seven 3s all game.)
The first seven Golden State 3s were a second haymaker; this Curry 3 — the eighth of the run — was an MMA fighter bashing in a felted opponent’s face with that weird elbow move. Game over.
It’s Still Early — 55 Games To Go
It should be noted that this Golden State squad, sans Durant, has been playing together for five years. This Wolves group hasn’t even strung five weeks together. There is plenty of time for Thibodeau to wring more out of the group.
The Warriors don’t come to Target Center for over three months, and the playoffs aren’t for four. Still, to consider presenting a threat of even winning one playoff game, much needs to change — perhaps to the roster, the rotation and the style.
My personal belief is that many of the cries for Josh Okogie’s permanent insertion into the rotation are misinformed. Entering Monday’s game, the Wolves’ best lineup has been the four bench pieces and Robert Covington.
Against the previous 13 teams the Wolves played since moving Butler, a rotation that brought Rose in early for Covington allowing the second-unit to stretch their legs for an extended run worked. None of those teams, however, were the Warriors.
Playing the 6’1″ Rose at shooting guard alongside Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague just doesn’t work against the gargantuan wings the Warriors have in Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant (plus Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala off the bench). Next time Thibodeau will have to fight with different weapons if a different result is desired. This is where Okogie comes in; he needs to play against this type of team. Okogie played two second-quarter minutes to bridge Teague’s foul trouble.
If Okogie isn’t the answer in Thibodeau’s eyes, another big wing (maybe one with shooting chops) needs to be acquired. (Perhaps an Anthony Tolliver trade?) If not, the Warriors will pick this matchup apart, particularly in a playoff series. Rose’s scoring wizardry is not the antidote. Accentuate his strengths and cover up his weaknesses — as a point guard.
There’s also a reason the Rockets “built a team to beat the Warriors,” and that it almost worked. Again, it’s the whole spork-versus-bazooka logic here. If the Wolves are going to match the Warriors offensive attack with their own scoring barrage, Towns and 3-point shooting need to be weaponized. Sure, try and get to the line with Rose and Andrew Wiggins some but you gotta feed KAT and supplement him with perimeter shooting.
Again, it’s still early. Golden State’s toying just shines a light on the notion that this Wolves team is good versus average teams but has a ways to go against the league’s real fighters.