31 March 2022
Over the past two weeks, the Minnesota Timberwolves have discovered they don’t have the depth or big-game experience required to avoid the “play in” portion of the post-season and proceed directly into the first round of the playoffs. It is a comeuppance that prompts winces, a cutting to the quick via the fundamental, brutally efficient process of logic over hope.
Back in October, the Vegas oddsmakers put the over/under line for Timberwolves wins in the 2021-22 season at 34.5. On the last day of March, with five games yet to play, the team stands at 43 wins and 34 losses.
Head coach Chris Finch has been a prescient tactician and a blunt yet amenable two-way communicator, both trusting and trustworthy while salting in hard truths amid the encouragement and instruction of his players. He devised a bold defensive scheme that emphasized the virtues and at least temporarily obscured the vices of the team’s personnel, achieving a crucial buy-in from his two max-salary players thankful to rebut their reputations as sieves at that end of the court.
Those players, center Karl-Anthony Towns and combo guard D’Angelo Russell, bonded with second-year scoring prodigy Anthony Edwards for a remarkably synergistic and sanguine “Big 3,” sharing the ball and compliments so that each of their cups were filled with nectar. Meanwhile, Finch jiggled the rotations of the supporting cast in a manner that spread the spotlight and ownership of the team’s identity while lightening the load for all.
The acquisition of perpetual firebrand Patrick Beverley for a pair of problematic roster pieces not long for the NBA was the grand larceny that underwrote a culture of pleasantly abrasive accountability not seen since the heyday of Kevin Garnett. When it comes to the fire and ice of motivation and mentorship, PatBev has a feel for the temperature of percolation alien to fellow chest-thrusters like Jimmy Butler. When you can unlock the competitive psyches of people as diverse as KAT, DLo and Ant, not to mention four other guys in the regular rotation not yet 23 years old, you’re a sensei who has earned forgiveness for your own occasionally fraught forays into mania.
Put it all together and two weeks ago the Wolves were punking the Los Angeles Lakers and their two former MVPs, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. It was their 9th win in 10 games, seven of them by double-digit margins, and for the first time in decades, they were swaggering.
Looking at the next seven games, all against opponents who were likely to make the playoffs without the need of a play-in game, Finch said, “we know the competition gets a little stiffer. But that’s what we want. We need that right now. This is kind of a little check under the hood, if you will, so we see what we’ve got to do as we get ready for this all-important stretch run going into the postseason.”
Friday night’s contest in Denver against the Nuggets finishes that seven-game calibration of playoff worthiness. The Wolves have won twice, against the Bucks without Giannis and in a home rematch with Dallas, the victories sandwiched around a tough road loss to Dallas and a schooling by the NBA-elite Phoenix Suns. Less than a week ago, shreds of optimism could still be clutched as viable keepsakes.
Then the Wolves were decimated in Boston by the Celtics on Sunday, never getting within 20 points after the second quarter. Balled out by Finch for their lack of energy, and with a rare two days to prepare for the next game, they stormed out to a 17-point lead with little more than two minutes gone in the second period against the Raptors in Toronto, then were shelled by 40 points, 102-62, over the final 34 minutes. The comeuppance was complete.
Signs of trouble
In a column written during those halcyon days of two weeks ago, I detailed three “trending X factors of goodness,” by which to believe in these Wolves. In the wake of the disheartening woe since then, it seems fitting to now counter with a trio of trending X factors that spell trouble as this team closes out a season that, regardless of what is to come, still amounts to a salutatory campaign of overachievement, albeit with a potentially sour aftertaste.
1. One trick pony defense
The Wolves spent the autumn portion of the 2021-22 season thriving on chaos. As I have written many times, they replaced their classic drop coverage, where the big man protects the rim, with an aggressive, scrambling style that enabled KAT to become more actively engaged at the leverage point of the pick-and-roll while teammates rotated over and filled in behind him. This style was first referred to as the “low man” defense, to describe the rim protecting duty of a smaller teammate rotating over from his “low” station near the hoop. More recently it has been called the “high wall” in reference to the greater resistance put on the ball handler as he tries to pass, dribble or shoot his way out pressure being applied on the perimeter. Both describe the way the scheme can flex.
The scheme was genius because it simultaneously exploited the skills — and placated the desires — of the starters. It verified KAT’s contention that he could guard beyond the paint, utilized the scrappy tenacity of PatBev and power forward Jarred Vanderbilt, and tapped the off-ball scholarship of DLo and the predatory tendencies of Ant. Because very few teams deploy it as the staple of their defense, it ambushed unsuspecting opponents during the first six weeks of the season, forcing bundles of turnovers and subsequent points for the Wolves in transition. KAT began using it as shorthand to describe “Timberwolves basketball.”
But it is a gambling style of defense, with relatively little margin for error. Its chaotic pressure generates more turnovers and otherwise unwise decisions on offense, but also exposes itself more frequently to easy baskets, especially as opponents become more accustomed to the buffeting and utilize a set plan of counterattack. Obviously, opponents with greater talent and teamwork on offense will be more adept and effective at exposing the open seams and other flaws in the scheme.
In other words, utilizing this “high wall” style almost exclusively would be especially risky during the playoffs, when the regularity of series play promotes familiarity with the scheme, and when an opponent that has made it to the postseason is more likely to be skilled and synergistic on offense.
Consequently, way back in mid-February shortly before the All Star break, the Wolves began broadening their defensive palette, increasing their then-limited use of various types of zone defenses, along with schemes that emphasized more switching of matchups on pick-and-roll and dribble-penetration, and even delving back into the old classic drop-scheme package. Weeks later, coming into the crucible of meaningful spring games against quality opponents, we are learning that the “high wall” approach is still the Wolves bread-and-butter defense, and even that is increasingly vulnerable versus skilled foes.
The results of deviating from the “high wall” have been discouraging. Using the drop scheme against San Antonio and the first matchup against Dallas after the All Star break demonstrated why the Wolves were chronically among the ten worst NBA defenses the seasons they deployed it. Zone defenses have some limited value when the Wolves are in foul trouble or otherwise trying to bridge a tough set of matchup circumstances, but Finch has admitted in the past that he regards it mostly as a placeholder.
Finch also told me before the season that he dislikes switching because it limits the accountability of defenders, who can blame miscommunication or misreads of the action before them for their failure to stay in front of their man. Switching also enables opponents to manufacture favorable match-ups against poor on-ball defenders — indeed playoff series often unfold as a procession of both teams trying to identify good match-ups on offense and remedy bad match-ups on defense. It is not hard to imagine teams trying to “pick on” what are imagined to be the lesser on-ball defensive skills of DLo, for example.
Bottom line, the “high wall” is the scheme the Wolves execute best, but if the Wolves rely on it too much, it loses some of its effectiveness. How much? Depends on how well they play it, how they tweak it to avoid total familiarity, and, most importantly, how good their opponents are on offense.
Even without point guard Chris Paul, Phoenix toyed with Minnesota en route to a 42-point fourth quarter in their most recent meeting. The playmaking of Devin Booker, the inside presence of center Deandre Ayton, and three-point shooters like Landry Shamet stationed in the corner created spacing that made the high wall threadbare, then moved the ball until it found the open man. The Wolves lack of energy helped boost Boston, who had 18 fast break points but also dominated via 56 points in the paint and 43.6% shooting from long range. The Wolves couldn’t prevent the Celtics best players from going off — Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 65 points on 15-for-25 from two-point range and 8-for-16 beyond the arc.
The first 14 minutes of Wednesday’s game in Toronto found a revitalized Wolves defense applying pressure. Minnesota did a great job disrupting mobile big man Pascal Siakam and long-range marksman Fred Van Vleet, who combined for 2-of-11 shooting over that stretch. They also had 5 blocks, 3 steals, created 6 turnovers and held the Raptors to 33% shooting in that 14 minutes. But even so, a pattern was developing: Toronto was a horrid 4-for-19 from two-point range but a robust 5-for-8 from long distance.
Then the wheels fell off, with an aforementioned 102 points scored in 34 minutes. After the game, Finch blamed the overreaction to dribble-penetration by his defense, which enabled a bevy of wide open treys the fueled the scoring barrage. Siakam had a career-high 13 assists. Finch was reluctant to detail how the “high wall” and its variations were otherwise dismantled without looking at the film. But it was the latest sign of the Wolves not having enough size, speed, experience, talent and schematic versatility to prevent quality offenses from unloading on his team.
2. A lesser Big 3
Last week I wrote about the physical travails of Ant, whose painful knees are hindering the full range of his phenomenal athleticism even as the nature of his tendinopathy doesn’t prevent him from continuing to play. He is compensating pretty well, putting up 24 points in each of his last two games while adding 13 rebounding and 10 assists. But there are underlying signs of hindrance — the majority of his points are coming from Ant shooting over defense rather than driving and drawing contact. He has been to the free throw line four times total in the last four games and has committed nine turnovers in the past two.
But by far the biggest concern among members of the Big 3 stems from the clanking of DLo. Over the past five games in this crucial stretch he has shot 32.6% (19-for-62), including an awful 14.9% (4-for-27) from long range. His totals for the month of March aren’t much better—36.7% from the field and 27.3% from deep, which amounts to his lowest effective field goal percentage of any month this season.
DLo has gone through some dry shooting spells at other points during the season, but mitigated it by delivering as the go-to guy in the clutch. His 90 points in crunchtime of close games nearly equals that of KAT (48 points) and Ant (43) combined. But the vast majority of Wolves games since the All Star break have been blowouts, both wins and losses. Meanwhile, his current bout of clanking puts him at career lows in shooting accuracy from three-point range and from the field overall.
More significantly, it has diminished his overall presence on the court. Ironically, he is passing better than ever: His assist-to-turnover rate in March, 7.6-to-2.2, is his best of the season and the highest assist rate except for December. And his trips to the line in March are above his season average. But even with the dimes and the free throws, his usage has plummeted to season-low 21.7 in March, well below his next-most inactive 24.3 in December. And that’s because he isn’t shooting as often.
This matters because the range of Ant’s offense has been circumscribed by his painful knees, and because the team’s most frequent three-point shooter, Malik Beasley, is injured. Yes, KAT has more than picked up the slack, with a phenomenal run of performances since the All Star break that almost certainly has cinched his berth on an All League team, which in turn boosts the amount of money he can be paid. It also seems very likely that the Wolves will extend his contract with that salary boost intact at the end of the season.
DLo was also angling for a contract extension after this season, something he verbalized before the season started. But the Wolves extending both players at the same time would give the front office precious little roster flexibility in the near future. Given their respective performances, if a choice must be made, it will be KAT.
Whether that circumstance factors into DLo’s current shooting slump is uncertain but unlikely. But his recent inability to make shots has thrown more of the onus for the offense on to KAT, and opponents are noticing. Toronto was the latest team to swarm KAT almost as soon as he got the ball, and the extra attention has both elevated and depressed his overall game. He is more creative and diverse in his scoring, with an increase in the amount and efficiency of his dribble penetration. But a recent pattern has emerged of him going off in the first quarter and then being limited thereafter. Beset by defenders, his turnovers and fouls are up, with the whistles especially torpedoing the Wolves chances versus top-level opponents.
3. Injury luck turns against Minnesota
Through most of the 2021-22 season, the Wolves have been extremely lucky when it comes to injuries. Not only was the roster relatively unscathed, but the team frequently found itself matched up with an opponent missing a signature star for a game or a week. On the macro level, serious injuries have penalized some of their rivals near the cusp of the Western Conference playoff race. Portland began tanking when they lost Dame Lillard. New Orleans has been without Zion Williamson all year. The Lakers haven’t had Anthony Davis very often to pair with Lebron and the Clippers knew they’d be without Kawhi Leonard, but not Paul George and new acquisition Norman Powell.
Recently the tide has turned in the other direction. Losing Jaden McDaniels to a high ankle sprain in mid-March has been a factor in swooning inconsistency of the Wolves defense, and having Beasley go down last Friday robs the offense of spacing, especially in those rotations when Beasley would be on the court without KAT and Ant.
Wolves fans couldn’t help but gulp a little bit when George returned to the Clippers earlier this week for the first time since December and immediately tossed in 34 points while registering six assists and four steals. It is now almost certain that the seventh-place Wolves will host the eighth-place Clippers in the upper-bracket play-in game the second week of April, with the winner becoming the seventh seed and the loser going on to face the winner of the game between the eighth and ninth seeds.
If the more experienced Clippers with PG13 leading the way do manage to beat the Wolves, Minnesota would most likely host either a New Orleans Pelicans team that has beaten them twice this season or a Lakers team in a make-or-break contest to further buttress Lebron’s legacy, perhaps with Davis also on board.
It’s a doomsday scenario viable enough to trigger the reflex pessimism latent in most any Wolves fan. Despite the downward cast of this column, however, I think the more likely April drama will revolve around whether the Wolves get a relatively favorable matchup with second-seeded Memphis, or fall to eighth place and face the league’s best team, Phoenix, in a mercy killing out in the desert.
Either way, maintaining perspective is important. The realistic goal this season was tangible progress on the latest rebuilt, establishing a foundation by which the next stage can be added. On those terms, even if the Wolves do suffer a double pratfall in the play-in, this has been one season when being a fan of this franchise has not been a joke played on fools by April.
Hey folks: I’m doing another pregame zoom tomorrow, Friday night, at 7 p.m., an hour before the Denver game, to take your questions on the team and the season. It’s free, but you have to register here for the event.