CHICAGO — It needed to happen. Prior to a 22-point second half on Wednesday night in Chicago, the type of production that drives winning had all but disappeared from Andrew Wiggins’ game in the month of January. The level he was playing at early in the season had become a distant reverie, and Old Wiggins was back. He was again floating around the perimeter, seemingly disengaged from the task at hand.
After not tallying a single rebound in the first half, missing his only two free throws and not scoring a bucket until there was one minute left in the second quarter, Wiggins needed a fire lit under his ass. Wiggins knew it and so did his coach, Ryan Saunders.
“I needed it. I needed it,” said Wiggins of the stern halftime talking-to he received from Saunders in front of the entire team. “The first half was a bad first half. I wasn’t aggressive.”
After arriving in Chicago on a six-game losing streak, it was an unacceptable level of play from Wiggins, and his coach called him out for it.
“Ryan got on Wiggs,” said Robert Covington, describing the halftime scene. “He challenged him about giving us a little bit more, and he responded. He responded very well.”
Wiggins did respond.
He followed up perhaps his worst half of the season with one of his best. While the Wolves ultimately fell to the Bulls 117-110, Wiggins scored 22 points in the second half on 9-of-15 shooting (3-of-6 from deep) while grabbing five boards and dishing out six assists. He got back to playing assertive basketball, forcing his will toward the rim. It was pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll between Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns that inspired a comeback.
In other words, the Wolves were playing exactly as they always hope to: through Towns and Wiggins.
“I liked the second half, hated the first half,” said Saunders bluntly in his postgame interview. “You’re not going to win games like that. We’re not a very good basketball team right now.”
It’s the inconsistency that is killing them, and it’s what is making Saunders’ blood boil. Clearly the way they want to play can work, they just haven’t been able to figure out how to do that for a full game recently. That inconsistency is most apparent in Wiggins’ game. Most frustrating seems to be the notion that it’s just a flip Wiggins needs to switch.
“I was happy with how he played in the second half,” said Saunders of Wiggins. “I expect that out of Andrew moving forward.”
Saunders seemed to recognize the weight of the moment Wednesday in Chicago. Not so much in the notion that the possibility of the playoffs seems to be slipping away. That was never the goal this season. The goal was to implement a style of play and to develop within the construct of that scheme. Not only Wiggins, but the teams as a whole had been wavering in both their quality of play and their ability to play within that scheme. Development had stalled. So Saunders laid into his team in a way his players hadn’t previously seen.
“That’s the first I’ve seen him act that way,” said Covington. “I’ve seen him in certain cases that he’d get emotional. But that was probably — no, that was the most upset that I’ve ever seen him.
“That second half, he sparked that second half pretty much because of how he came into the locker room during that halftime. He just put a fire under people’s ass.”
Every player who spoke to the media in the locker room after the game — not just Wiggins and Covington — agreed this wasn’t just some fake soap box Saunders was stepping on to act like a coach. No, they agreed this is what the team needed. They said that they are the type of group that can hear that type of criticism.
“I think we are receptive because we’re willing to take criticism,” said Towns, who scored 22 points in the first half and 18 points in the second, good for a season-high of 40 in just 31 minutes of play. “That’s a testament to these guys in the locker room, who are putting their pride and their ego to the side for the betterment of the team.”
While Towns certainly has his flaws, inconsistency isn’t one of them. When he’s been healthy this season, Towns has played at an All-Star level in nearly every game. For Towns, instead, the challenge is similar to the one facing Saunders: deciding how to lead this group. Being a true superstar is not just about being a consistent individual force; it’s about maximizing the level of play of the group.
Wednesday marked Towns’ fourth game back from his own absence. In losing all four of those games Towns has been back, the Wolves have now lost the last eleven games Towns has played in. If there is one stat that will hold Towns back from returning to Chicago in three weeks as an All-Star it is that: the losing. He knows that.
“For me, I’m not even worried about that, to tell you honestly,” Towns said when asked about the All-Star game. “I just worry about winning. That’s the only thing. I don’t wake up and say, ‘I need to get this amount of points and these rebounds and these statistics for an All-Star bid.’ The last thing I’m thinking about is the All-Star bid. I’m trying to figure out ways to get wins for my team, my organization, and to find better ways to lead.”
Unlike Saunders’ halftime tactic, Towns isn’t a ‘light a fire under your ass’ sort of leader. Thus far, it’s been his way to lead by example. That has been a winding road for him that he admits to being a learning process. At 24 years old, he’s learning that leading is hard when the quality of leadership is often measured by wins and losses.
“Fans think it’s so easy to win in the NBA,” Towns continued. “And it’s very difficult… This is the best of the best playing on one court at one time, trying to figure out how to beat each other in a game of basketball. The margin of error is very slim. One thing I always try to tell our guys is it’s cool to go out there and do 98 great things, and we come in here and we talk about all the 98 great things out of 100 we did, but those two bad things are going to be the reason we lose.”
On Wednesday, the two things they didn’t do present two very different issues. Playing hard for 48 minutes was one, and that is rectifiable with effort. The other, though, is more complicated. It’s maximizing the team’s production within those 48 minutes. It doesn’t take a basketball Ph.D to understand that the Wolves are going to frequently lose if they aren’t getting everything they can out of all three pieces of the tripod — Towns, Wiggins and the surrounding squad.
“This team is so used to KAT and Wigs doing all the work that when it doesn’t happen, we just stand around,” said a deflated Shabazz Napier postgame. “That’s how it is. It sucks to say that, but we just gotta find ways to help them guys out.”
Towns and Wiggins ultimately combined to score 65 of the Wolves’ 110 points on Wednesday. Napier added 16, and no other player hit double figures. The bench only amassed 17 total points and zero of the five backups had a positive point differential when they saw the floor.
“That’s where my mind is,” Towns continued. “My mind is about finding ways to win. Finding ways to take those two bad things out the equation and to have us play a complete game.”
The sense of urgency in the locker room to balance that equation is there. They know things need to continue to change otherwise this year will slip away without meaningful growth having occurred. Ultimately, the enforcer of that change is Saunders. It’s not only his job to put together a system for his team but to tell his players directly how they need to perform within that system.
“It’s just like, if you get yelled at, then you know,” Wiggins explained in a way that only he can.
Simply being a yeller isn’t the answer though. That may have worked one night with Wigging but the greater issues this team faces are more dynamic. Together with Towns, the locker room’s alpha, Saunders has to apply different types of grease to all of the squeaky parts of the Timberwolves wheel. Lighting a fire under their asses on Wednesday is a start but there is more work to be done to salvage this floundering season.