The Minnesota Timberwolves desperately need a break. Their play has been tailing off lately, especially defensively. It’s time to reevaluate. They have given up 119 points per game in February, and at times they have looked completely lost, with a lack of communication leading to collapses.
That wasn’t the ideal scenario coming out of a trade deadline where they could have made some moves around the margins but decided to stand pat and rely on the chemistry. Teams have been abusing favorable mismatches and making the Wolves uncomfortable, whether that was the Sacramento Kings with pace, Chicago Bulls pounding the paint or the Indiana Pacers with their new acquisition energy.
There are many vital components to keep this team on track. They’ve been locked in the seventh seed for a while and would love to escape the play-in at all costs.
Minnesota’s defensive lapses have been evident, and it has materially resulted from poor on-ball fundamentals. When teams can get easy dribble penetration in isolation or with the pick-and-roll, it creates a predicament for the Wolves. We saw this highlighted by Tyrese Haliburton, who found gaps in the defense and ended the night with 16 assists.
The Wolves have to continue to work as a unit. Far too often, one player will have a slight lapse in attention, and it will cost the team significantly as they have to scramble. No matter the facet, they’ve created a bad habit of ball-watching, leading to open cutters and shooters.
Correcting this issue probably won’t be an overnight fix, but surrounding the game plan on the opponent’s most lethal weapons and making others beat them is a great start. Chris Finch’s agenda against the Chicago Bulls last Friday? Stop DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine while letting Chicago’s depth players try and beat the Wolves. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Javonte Green and Coby White shot 9-of-14 from downtown, something the Wolves can live with. They did well with containing Demar for a while and getting active contests, but it quickly got out of hand in the fourth quarter.
However, that strategy should work brilliantly when the Wolves play worse competition. Every team wants to have their best defenders swallow up the best scorers, limit them, and coast to a victory.
Getting a fully healthy D’Angelo Russell for communication on the floor and Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley for their energy help the cause. But every team will face adversity and injuries. The Wolves have to capitalize when they have favorable situations. The chaotic defensive energy, forcing steals and turnovers is the modus operandi and something they should stick with. Others have to buy into that and provide their best effort even if they may not have the complete defensive instincts.
Closing out games isn’t easy. Minnesota can’t afford lengthy losing streaks down the stretch, given that the sixth seed remains in play. They have to be able to win in the clutch. The issue with the Wolves is that they have three players who can close out games: DLo, Ant, and KAT. That sounds like a first-world problem, but Minnesota still needs to prioritize the hot hand.
Exhibit A was when KAT was on fire in the fourth quarter against Charlotte, but DLo decided to take a step-back with nine seconds left in regulation. Minnesota won in overtime, but they wasted an opportunity to win it on the first night of a back-to-back.
The NBA defines clutch time as “any game time when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or any overtime period.”
Here is how the top-3 compare in clutch time:
If we are looking statistically, KAT should be the No. 1 option. To have anywhere near your regular season statistics in clutch time is impressive alone. However, the stat that sticks out the most is D’Angelo Russell‘s AST% of 29.7. It shows a clear pathway to the Wolves having a plan for their late-game situations, getting the ball in DLo’s hands, and using his vision to find KAT. That should be the No. 1 plan and option at all times and was executed incredibly well against Charlotte.
The Wolves can also turn to Ant late if he is the hot hand because of his ability to drive to the rim. But he still has a lot to learn regarding late-game shot selection and time/game management. Time and development as a scorer will only make Edwards more lethal. Being a secondary threat behind Towns and Russell is a great “problem” for the Wolves to have as he adjusts.
Like any other team, you will look to close games with as much consistency as possible. But with an inexperienced and young group, there will be road bumps. That the second half of the season will have meaningful regular-season games will be huge for the growth as a unit. It will only put them in a more comfortable situation come playoff/play-in time.
These early developments are meaningful to a young squad regardless of how the season ends, and it will continue growing towards something bigger and better. It may sound cliché, but when you have multiple players bought in with this team and under contract for the near future, it’s all about building that culture from the ground up.