Before Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid strut into Target Center Saturday evening, Karl-Anthony Towns and crew will, yet again, be reminded that they just can’t have nice things. Well, easy things, at least.
As if it weren’t enough for the two most nuclear pieces of KAT kryptonite (Butler and Embiid) to come to town to face a Wolves team decimated by injuries, the freakin’ Golden State Warriors will be holding down the visitor’s bench 24 hours prior to that tip-off with Philly. Meaning: If the Wolves miraculously defeat the Sixers that it will have been their first backend of a back-to-back victory this season that didn’t come over the Bulls, Knicks or Pelicans.
To make matters worse (or more comically ironic): If Taj Gibson, who has missed the team’s last three games with a calf strain, has to sit out Saturday and is joined on the bench by Luol Deng, who has missed the last 13 games with a sore Achilles, KAT will be left fending off Jimmy and JoJo without the following: his two smartest teammates (Gibson and Deng), best shooter (Robert Covington), best defender (also Covington), best scorer (Derrick Rose) and best point guard (Jeff Teague).
Is there anything more ’18-’19 Timberwolves than needing to face both conferences’ most talented team on back-to-back nights without, arguably, five of their six most-productive players?
Think about how unfair this matchup is:
- Point Guard: Tyus Jones vs. Ben Simmons
Simmons has 129 dunks this season while Jones has made 147 total shots.
- Shooting Guard: Josh Okogie vs. J.J. Redick
Redick is shooting better from 3-point land (39.0 percent) than Okogie is from the entire field (38.3 percent) — and nearly one-third of Okogie’s shots this season have come at the rim.
- Small Forward: Andrew Wiggins vs. Jimmy Butler
According to Basketball-reference.com’s “Win Shares” statistic, Butler has been credited with 1.4 of the Wolves 33 wins this season while Wiggins has been credited with 0.4. (Win Shares are a cumulative statistic that combines all of a player’s production over all of their minutes for the team into one win total estimate. Butler played 361 minutes for the Wolves this season, Wiggins has played 2,263.) Astounding.
- Power Forward: Dario Saric vs. Tobias Harris
There is not a single distance on the floor — 0-to-3 feet, 3-to-10 feet, 10-to-16 feet, 16 feet-to-3-point line, beyond 3-point line — where Saric is shooting the ball at a higher clip than Harris this season. (Saric is far and away the second-best shooter in the Wolves starting lineup.)
- Center: Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Joel Embiid
Both are phenomenal offensive players. However, on the defensive end, the Sixers are 4.5 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor while the Wolves are 1.9 points per 100 possessions worse with Towns on the floor.
Those pinning for NBA Lottery ping-pong balls are excited by the intersection of this weekend’s gauntlet with the Wolves lottery-bound brethren holding fairly cake-y weekend schedules. The Grizzlies play the Suns on Saturday while the Lakers play the Hornets (at home) Friday and then the Pelicans Sunday.
For those actually on the Timberwolves roster, however, there is a very different sentiment that surrounds the weekend’s double-dip. Something that approximates anxiety will be present. First, if it needs explaining, no one who will play a minute for the Wolves gives a shit about the ping-pong ball count; their focus is firmly on avoidance of duplicating the embarrassment that happened in Philadelphia in January.
“There was nothing normal about that game,” Teague said in the visitor’s locker room after the Wolves lost by 42 points in Philly. “That was a game we all had marked and they dogged us.”
Towns, who tallied post-Butler trade lows of 13 points and three rebounds that evening, described the loss as a tutorial in “how you get your ass kicked in the NBA.”
Teague continued to say, “hell no” when he rhetorically asked himself if the Sixers were 40 points better than the Wolves. “We just gotta be a rugged team, we can’t be a pretty team. Right now, we a pretty team, and pretty gets you beat by 40.”
Though Teague won’t play, those filling in his shoes should share a similar “hell no” mentality. After all, each of those starters listed above is a potential long-term puzzle piece that, theoretically, has their eyes on someday being able to play the Sixers, or even the Warriors, without calling it a measuring stick game.
Someday, a weekend like this one shouldn’t be two rounds of David versus Goliath. Someday, playing the best team in your conference at the end of the season should be an opportunity to jockey for seeding. And someday, if somebody punks you, the punk-er having to come into your house should come with a fear of the notion that they’re about to get punched back.
But as it stands today, the Warriors have three players who are better than the Wolves best player and the Sixers are better at every position in the starting lineup. And they both know it. Teams don’t fear Towns and the Wolves; any anxiety in the matchup exists beneath the purple W-O-L-V-E-S lettering on the jersey of the team who is clearly still searching for an identity.
The 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves have been a bad team. And because of that, the karmic powers that be have dealt a deservingly brutal hand this weekend. Getting cracked by the Warriors — who are battling for the top seed in the West — on Saturday makes sense. And Jimmy Butler pulling out the knife he inserted into the Wolves back in September and then twisted in January is a fitting way to bleed out the end of this season.
Of course, there is another option. The Wolves have been at home, sleeping in their own bed all week. They had Wednesday afternoon off to rest and Thursday morning they will practice before the weekend’s set. The other option is to use that time; to lock in and show the hell up this weekend.
Defeating the defending champs and Jimmy on consecutive nights, I’m sorry, but given the apathy that is emanating from this franchise right now, that’s more valuable than a couple more ping-pong balls. If Jones, Okogie, Wiggins and Saric are supposed to be key rotation cogs of the future — even if not starters — then they should be formidable enough to, together, create a spark that lasts more than two possessions before allowing a wide-open 3 or an uncontested dunk.
If you want to convince the fanbase that this group — that has almost no financial path to drastically shake up the roster before next season — can be something more in the future, then now is a good time to show up. If the message you’re still peddling is that you “want to compete each game,” then, well, now would be a good time to start doing that.
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