Some things in this world cannot be conquered. The notion of the Minnesota Timberwolves winning the second leg of a back-to-back in which they’ve won the first game seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream at this point. No amount of help, save for that of divine intervention, appears to be on the way to help Minnesota overcome this years’ long curse.
Of course, this is not to say that the Wolves aren’t trying to win these games. However, the team lacks the mental and physical fortitude to go out there and perform well. It could be against a rejuvenated Philadelphia 76ers team or a lowly Sacramento Kings squad — it doesn’t matter. Head coach Chris Finch can only do so much against the deistic will of whatever controls the outcome of NBA games.
Then again, if you do not believe in that sort of thing, there should be obvious and tangible solutions to win these games. After all, the Timberwolves are not the only team in the NBA that plays back-to-backs. These poor performances are likely emblematic of a young team trying to establish its identity. But that’s a tired excuse that Wolves players and fans are beyond sick of hearing.
It all boils down to that the team is coming out flat on these second legs, and much of these flat performances result from laziness and an insurgence of hero-ball. Let me explain.
Lazy basketball is an optically evident phenomenon. Anyone who watched the Timberwolves from 2014 to halfway through 2019 should be familiar with what these performances look like. Players are characteristically apathetic:
- Not engaging on defense, getting back in transition, or looking to make the extra pass
- Pulling up from wherever rather than trying to find the best shot, etc.
Analytics don’t necessarily tell the whole story of a tired and disengaged team, but they can help track patterns of unproductivity in these back-to-back situations. Using Cleaning the Glass, I looked at the Wolves’ performances in five of their most recent B2B losses following a win:
- 2/25 vs. Philadelphia 76ers
- 2/16 vs. Toronto Raptors
- 2/9 vs. Sacramento Kings
- 1/19 vs. Atlanta Hawks
- 12/28 vs. New York Knicks
Philosophically, Minnesota’s offense is simple. Hit your shots at the rim to create more open looks from three, which is supposed to be the team’s strength. It is the analytically-savvy approach that many teams are taking in the modern NBA. The Wolves have been doing this well for much of the season. However, they’ve disregarded the commitment to this offensive plan in these second legs.
In all but one of the five games above (NYK), the percentage of shots taken at the rim (within four feet) went down compared with the performances in wins the night before. Cumulatively, these shots decreased by an average of 4.8% fewer shots per game. Most of these shots went to the midrange, which as a group went up in three of those five games (PHI, SAC, ATL) and on an average of a 4.1% increase. The percentage of 3-point shots also saw an increase, with the percentage increasing in four of five games and averaging 3.1% more shots from beyond the arc in those games (vs. ATL being the exception, with a 0.2% decrease).
What all of this says is that players are shying away from contact and just pulling up from wherever in these losses more often than they are in the wins. That could be due to a variety of factors, but it does not change the reality that the shot selection gets worse for Minnesota at the end of a back-to-back. Anthony Edwards‘ recent slump could surely be representative of this phenomenon, but the team as a whole is losing offensive focus in these critical games.
The result was Minnesota’s points-per-100 possessions numbers plummeting in these second legs. Not including the loss against the Hawks in which the Wolves scored more points than the night before yet still lost by 12, the Timberwolves had an average of 13.3 fewer points per 100 possessions. That’s the result of throwing away precious opportunities with the ball and not getting to the spots where your team has seen success.
Defense has been a mess in these games as well. In all but the game against the Knicks, a 96-88 two-way struggle, Minnesota averaged 15.5 more points allowed per 100 possessions. Any excuse could fit in here: tired legs, lack of execution, etc. Regardless, they’re not getting the job done.
There is no quick fix for this other than for the team to lock in. Despite the Timberwolves feeling the most impact of the NBA’s scheduling change, which increases the likelihood of back-to-backs, every team has to undergo similar circumstances. Other franchises find ways to succeed in these difficult scenarios, yet the Wolves are stuck in their own mediocrity. Internal leadership beyond Finch needs to step up. Players need to hold themselves accountable and make sure they follow the coaching staff’s directions. No plays off. This is a Wolves team rich with depth, and it should be utilized at a moment’s notice if these players begin to lose focus.
If the Timberwolves want any realistic chance at that coveted sixth seed, they will need to start closing out these back-to-backs. That will not happen without complete buy-in regardless of the scenarios of each game. Potential play-in games will be equally, if not more-so, unforgiving. If Minnesota can toughen up in these games now, playoff success will follow.