Through two playoff games, the Minnesota Timberwolves have failed to look like the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Is it nerves for a pair of prominent young players that have never played in a playoff game?
Is it that Jimmy Butler isn’t fully healthy yet?
Or is it because the Rockets are just that good?
Likely, it’s a variety of those things. The Wolves defense was surprisingly energetic through two games in Houston — they gave up just 206 points in two games against one of, if not the NBA’s most dynamic offense. Some of that has to be because of plain old missed shots, but as Dane Moore laid out, the Timberwolves players do deserve some credit for this.
But offensively, the team has struggled, and it’s peculiar as offensive production has never been an issue for this team. Even when Jimmy Butler was out with injury, the Wolves remained in the top 11 in offensive rating.
But with Butler, they were a top-four team in the league in offensive rating. Overall, their season rating was 110.8 — good enough for fourth in the league.
Through two games, their rating is a 95.5 — worst in the playoffs thus far, and worse than the worst regular season defensive rating by over five points per 100 possessions.
When Tom Thibodeau was asked about this at Thursday’s practice back in Minneapolis, he kept it simple. He said the team wasn’t letting the flow of the offense bring them easy shots.
“We’ve got to trust the pass,” he said. “That’s the big thing, and that’s the playoffs.”
Two games is never a fair sample size for any situation, but in the playoffs, there really isn’t time for waiting. So why is the offense struggling in Minnesota?
The Struggles of Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns
Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns made the All-Star team, and deserved to be there. But through Games 1 and 2, they have failed to live up to the hype they (deservedly) built for themselves in the regular season.
The pair of them aren’t scoring, and even more concerning: neither is averaging more than nine shots per game. The eye test says something is off, and the statistics back it up.
The idea that Butler is still hurt, therefore not as effective is an easy conclusion to come to. He hasn’t looked like himself. On plays like this, where he’d normally finish the alley-oop attempt, he’s instead coming down with the ball.[videopress uBuZcr2l]
Or even on a post pass from Towns. How often would Butler have tried to draw the foul during the regular season? The play features three defenders on Butler, so technically, a pass is a good move — but this feels like a play where Butler would draw easy contact and get to the line.
“I’m okay,” he said after Game 2. “Maybe I do gotta be more aggressive, assertive. I just always try to take what the game gives me.”
When asked at Saturday’s shootaround, he admitted there might be some truth to it, but refused to use it as an excuse.
“I was telling guys out there today, it doesn’t matter if you’re knicked up,” he said. “If you put on that jersey and you go out there and play, you’ve got to produce. You got to do what they got you here to do.”
If Butler isn’t himself, but perhaps we’ll see an uptick in offensive productivity now that the Timberwolves are back in Minnesota. Maybe the days off that the playoffs bring will give him the added rest he needs.
Meanwhile, Towns is healthy and still struggling.
Part of it is because of how well the Rockets are playing him and how well they’re switching bigs back onto him at a quick pace.
Once the big is on him, the Rockets bring the double. To this point, the Wolves haven’t capitalized on these doubles. This even came in Game 2, when they tried to get him going early.
“We wanted to let him see the ball go in the basket,” Butler said. “We wanted him to gain confidence.”
But to this point, Towns agrees with Thibodeau. He thinks the team has to trust the pass, and that following the flow of the offense will eventually get him the shots he needs.
“Whether the game plan is to shoot 30 shots or five shots, I’m going to stick to it as much as possible,” Towns said.
Both Towns and Butler have mentioned their disinterest in shot totals during this postseason, and the point is fair. If the shot isn’t a good one, they shouldn’t take it. If they’re double-teamed, they should pass it.
But no other player on this team has proven they can efficiently, and consistently, score the way they can.
Wednesday’s Game 2 marked the first time this season where both Towns and Butler played but neither attempted more than 10 shots. They’ve had an unspoken understanding that if one isn’t shooting in high volume, the other is. On most nights where one would shoot under 10 shots, the other would shoot close to, or above, 20 shots.
So where are the shots going right now?
Usage of the Rest of the Team
Even if Butler isn’t fully healthy and Towns is being taken out of the game, and even if Thibodeau believes “trusting the pass” will find the right shot, the usage numbers remain a bit peculiar.
As of right now, Butler and Towns sit seventh and eighth respectively out of the 10 players in usage percentage. The stat represents an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. It calculates everything from minutes, to field goals made and attempted to turnovers.
Through two games, Butler and Towns are near the bottom.
At the top? Derrick Rose.
Rose was one of the key reasons why the Timberwolves stayed in Game 1 through the middle quarters. He played well and brought energy when the rest of the team needed it.
But if the Timberwolves are going to beat a team as good as the Houston Rockets, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Rose is the most heavily-used player on the team offensively. More importantly, it’s even hard to envision a scenario where the Wolves are successful when Butler and Towns are in the bottom-four in usage in their rotation.
During the regular season, Butler was first and Towns was fourth — or fifth, if you count Rose’s 112 minutes of action.
Houston’s defense gets a lot of credit for this, especially pertaining to Towns. Their double teams have stopped him from getting any moments to think with the ball. He’s essentially been forced to shoot or pass immediately. It’s worked wonders for stopping the Wolves — especially with a group of unwilling outside shooters sitting above the break.
For Butler, it’s a little more peculiar. In the regular season, he averaged 4.24 seconds per time he touched the basketball. In the playoffs, he’s averaging 4.47 seconds per touch.
By that metric, it suggests Butler has the ball about the same amount as he always has. But the eye test suggests he’s moving the ball much more quickly — at the very least, he’s looking for his shot less.
Sometimes, the passing has helped, especially early. He made a nice dish to Jamal Crawford in the corner and another to a cutting Rose.
His willingness to pass has been great this season.[videopress gukj1XQK]
When asked about the state of the offense, Jeff Teague — who sits in second in usage in the postseason — was blunt about the team’s need to change things up.
“What we’ve been playing like hasn’t worked,” Teague said. “We lost both games, and we played a slow pace. I think we played right into their hands.”
The Rockets are too good of a team to play a new brand of basketball against. If Butler and Towns aren’t able to find the former versions of themselves in this postseason, there aren’t many scenarios where the Timberwolves can steal a game or two — certainly not the series as a whole.
If the Wolves “trust the pass”, as Thibodeau has repeated throughout the last few days, perhaps the good shots will come. Good passing generally turns into better shots.
But if the shots aren’t coming in that way, Butler and Towns need to step up. It might be their only hope.
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