Why Are the Wolves Letting Go Of the Rope This Year?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing more important in sports than having a great team motto. Okay, maybe winning. But the second most important thing is the team motto. The Raiders were on top of the world when Al Davis said, “just win, baby.” “Trust the process” gave Philadelphia 76ers fans hope after years of tanking, a 10-win season, and Joel Embiid’s early career injury issues. And coach Taylor’s “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” inspired the Dillon Panthers to win or lose every single game they played on a last-second miracle play. The right words can inspire greatness, so it’s probably not a very good sign that the unofficial Timberwolves team motto for the last few years has to be “let go of the rope.”

Out of context, letting go of the rope doesn’t really mean anything. You could be talking about waterskiing, mountain climbing, or pranking the nerds during the climactic tug-of-war battle in any ‘80s movie. In Minnesota’s case, though, letting go of the rope is not a good thing. Tom Thibodeau was known to use the phrase when things weren’t going well, and Chris Finch has used the phrase a few times since taking over as head coach in February 2020. It’s usually meant to mean the team has lost its way.

It’s safe to say this team has let go of the rope at the quarter-mark of the season. The Wolves are a disappointing 11-11 after embarrassingly losing their last three games before an emotional win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. They were third-to-last in the NBA in defensive rating during the losing streak, only ahead of the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards, who scored 142 points against the Wolves on Monday. Minnesota’s negative-11.9 net rating is the fourth worst in the league over that span. With Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined with a calf strain until the new year, it’s time to regain their grip quickly or lose control for the rest of the season.

So how does a team currently fighting for a play-in spot in the Western Conference turn things around without their “best” player for the foreseeable future? The silver lining of the Towns injury is that the defense should improve in his absence. It’s no secret that Towns is one of the worst defenders in the league. After years of hoping that Towns would develop any kind of defensive presence he showed during his lone year at Kentucky, it’s safe to say that it will never happen in Year 8. Minnesota’s defensive rating is six points better (106.2) when KAT sits than when he’s on the floor (112.4). It sounds a little morbid, but Towns’ absence might give the Timberwolves a chance to find their defensive identity.

Arguably the biggest gripe about this team 22 games into the season is their lackadaisical attitude and generally sloppy play. (Okay, that’s two gripes, but there’s a lot not to like about this team now.) There’s one quarter of almost every game this season where the Wolves forget how to play basketball for 12 minutes. The no-good, dirty-rotten, pig-stealing third quarter. The Wolves are god-awful in the third quarter. Instead of asking Santa for presents this Christmas, young Wolves fans (and those few adults who still believe in Santa, like Jonah Maves) will be asking for the Wolves to skip the third quarter for the rest of the season.

The Timberwolves outscored the Grizzlies 31-24 in the third quarter of their impressive 109-101 win over their hated rivals, but they still boast a negative 7.6 net rating in the third quarter this season. For whatever reason, this team cannot figure out how to begin the second half win any semblance of a plan and routinely see comfortable halftime leads evaporate and turn into frustrating losses. It’s the epitome of letting go of the rope. Halftime is supposed to be when you talk to your coaches and make adjustments. For the better half of the season, the Wolves have either been napping, drinking, or planning their night out during the stoppage.

Hopefully, the Memphis game can be a blueprint for the Timberwolves going forward. It turns out that if you play with intensity for 48 minutes and act like you’re in the playoffs, you usually play your best basketball. It will be a hard road for the Wolves to regain their composure and instill confidence in this gun-shy fanbase. Towns being out for the next 20ish games automatically exposes Minnesota’s depth. And adding Jaden McDaniels, Jordan McLaughlin, and Taurean Prince to the shorter-term injury list is no picnic. But winning basketball games is never easy, and it will start with Anthony Edwards setting the tone as he did against Memphis.

Edwards had his best overall game of the season on Wednesday. He racked up 29 points, three rebounds, five assists, five steals, and three blocks against the rival Grizzlies. Playoff Ant hadn’t shown up yet this season, even after all the hoopla of his hard work in the offseason. If Edwards can play with even a shred of the intensity he did against Memphis, he might finally make the leap we bring up every 24 seconds.

Even with the fanbase in a frenzy after the Grizzlies game, let’s not crown the Wolves just yet. This team has been known to follow up an emotional win with a stinker, but things could be shifting in the right direction.

It will take the entire organization to figure things out and get the squad’s grip firmly back on the rope. But if they can keep the intensity up for a full game and make some small defensive improvements, the Wolves should be able to weather Towns’ injury and cement themselves in the playoff hunt in 2023.

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