Minnesota's Next Step? Be Better In the Clutch

Photo Credit: Kyle Ross (USA TODAY Sports)

Clutch is not a word you regularly associate with Minnesota sports teams. It’s been mostly pain for Minnesota sports fans outside of Kirby Puckett’s game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and Jack Morris’ subsequent masterful shutout in Game 7. You don’t need me to rehash all of the ways the Vikings have found to lose big games in their 61-year history (but as a Packers fan, I’ll do it anyway). The Gary Anderson missed field goal in the 1998 NFC Championship game. Nate Poole knocked the Vikings out of the Playoffs on the last play of the 2003 regular season. The Brett Favre interception in the Bountygate NCF Championship game in 2009. Blair effing Walsh.

Okay, I promise I’ll stop twisting the knife without even mentioning the four Super Bowl losses.

The Timberwolves have never been good enough for long enough to rip their fans’ hearts out with a single crushing defeat in an important game. But it should be no big surprise that the Minnesota Timberwolves have never identified as a clutch team. Despite Karl-Anthony Towns converting an incredibly clutch and-1 opportunity to essentially win the game against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, the Wolves consistently fall apart with the game on the line.

Through 45 games this season, the Timberwolves are 10-11 in games that end in clutch situations defined as the last five minutes of a game in which a team is leading or trailing by five points or fewer. Their record in the clutch isn’t that bad in terms of win percentage, but the advanced stats at the end of close games are startling. Granted, Minnesota’s offensive rating of 109.4 points per 100 possessions isn’t amazing, but it craters to 98.8 in clutch situations — the 26th-best mark in the NBA. We’re used to seeing bottom-dwelling Wolves teams with marginal NBA talent bleed games away down the stretch. But you would think a team with Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and some steady veteran leaders would be better under pressure.

The Achilles heel for this team is that everyone wants to be the hero when the game is on the line. The Wolves genuinely move the ball well for 43 minutes a night with the 11th-best assist rate in the league. Guess who has the second-worst assist rate in the last five minutes of close games? Obviously, it’s the Wolves whose clutch 37.3 assist rate is barely half of their full game rate. Across the entire season, 60.3 percent of all of KAT’s made field goals were assisted. Teammates notch an assist on 44.8 percent of DLo’s makes and 46.7 percent of all of Ant’s made field goals. Ant’s rate drops to 40 percent in the clutch, KAT’s percentage is cut in half, and only 17.6 percent of DLo’s clutch field goals are assisted.

The offensive stagnation creates tough shots often late in the clock, forcing the Wolves to make just 38.5 percent of their clutch shots and 29.9 percent of their clutch threes. Towns is shooting the best of the big three in crunch time at 47.6 percent. Russell gets a bump from his everyday shooting struggles at 41.5 percent, and Edwards hits just 35.7 percent of his clutch shots. The already inconsistent offense grinds to a halt as Minnesota’s pace falls from the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA to 23rd in clutch situations. More than halfway through the season Chris Finch and the rest of the coaching staff needs to identify the issues when games tighten up. Instead of reverting to hero ball, he needs to prepare the team to work its way out of those situations.

As much as the Wolves have rebuilt their identity as a top-10 defensive team, things begin to break down when possessions matter most. The tenth best defensive rating falls to 21st in the waning minutes of close games, giving Minnesota the fifth-worst net rating in the clutch in the NBA this season. Again the culprits are the stars on the floor to close out games in KAT, Ant, and DLo.

It’s been a consistent theme of the season to sit down to enjoy a Timberwolves game only to spend the next two and a half hours screaming and at times begging anyone on the team to please box out and grab a rebound. The Wolves have improved quite a bit in that department recently, rising to 20th in the NBA in total rebound rate. Jarred Vanderbilt’s increased role as a modern budget Dennis Rodman has helped assuage the rebounding woes. But if you’ve learned anything from the previous 800 words, it’s that any trust the Wolves have built up this year becomes invalidated in the last five minutes of a tight game. The worrying figure isn’t that Minnesota’s overall rebound rate slips from 20th to 28th. It’s that their offensive rebound rate falls from third-best in the league to 22nd down the stretch.

The Wolves will always allow other teams two, three, or four chances to score throughout the whole game. But they usually can counter with their second and third chances of their own. But that mutually assured destruction disintegrates when the stakes are at their highest. I’ll finally give the big three a break to say that Vando is the biggest culprit here, going from the team’s best rebounder to slightly better than Taurean Prince. V8 has bailed the Wolves out of tight spots with a timely hustle rebound all season, but he needs to kick it up a notch late in games to add to real winning basketball.

None of this is meant to be a referendum on Karl-Anthony Towns. I’m not adding to the years-long media narrative that Towns isn’t clutch or can’t lead a winning team. However, the numbers suggest that the Wolves need to figure things out if they want to be taken seriously in the West. And that needs to come from a collaboration of coaches and team leadership. The Wolves have begun to turn the page from their days as a laughingstock. But they must figure out how to come through in the clutch. Otherwise, it will be another disappointing season to add to Minnesota sports fans’ therapy bill.

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Photo Credit: Kyle Ross (USA TODAY Sports)

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