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Breaking down the Wolves’ fourth-quarter blues

Ricky Rubio
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Ricky Rubio is on pace to become the most inaccurate shooting point guard in modern NBA history.

If there has been a hallmark in the disappointing first half of the season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, it has been that the team wins the blowouts and loses the squeakers. The most dramatic statistics in that regard are that the Wolves lead the NBA in 30-point leads, having already amassed 10 of them in their first 40 games of the season — and yet they have lost all 11 games they have played thus far that have been decided by four points or less.

This disparity has created some bittersweet rankings. According to basketball-reference, the Wolves currently have the eighth-best offense and the ninth-best defense in the 30-team NBA, rated by the amount of points they score and allow with each possession. Strictly by the numbers, their positive overall points differential should have produced a won-lost record of 26-14, good for seventh-best in the entire league. But because of their inability to triumph in close contests, they are instead two games below .500 at 19-21, mired in 11th place among the 15 Western Conference teams. Only eight will make the playoffs.

What’s responsible for this bipolar performance level? Why do the Wolves play so magnificently on a fairly regular basis, yet lack the capability to triumph in close games? Here’s my best shot at some possible answers.

Foul game is less effective in crunch time

One of the strategies the Wolves deploy to be successful is creating a dominating advantage at the free throw line. This is accomplished by consciously working to draw fouls on their opponents when they are on offense, while shirking away from committing fouls when they are on defense.

For much of the season, Minnesota was generating the greatest disparity in NBA history on made free throws per game. While they have tailed off somewhat in recent games, the Wolves still accrue an advantage of 7.45 points each contest at the free throw line, which is third-best in NBA history and obviously well ahead of any current team in the league.

Yet when the game is tight in the fourth quarter, the advantage not only disappears, but the Wolves actually lose ground to their opponent. According to the statistics page at nba.com, during “clutch” situations when there is less than five minutes left in the game and the teams are within five points of each other, the Wolves attempt 1.2 fewer free throws than their opponents. That is a huge, and damning contrast to their performance in non-clutch situations, given that Minnesota holds a commanding margin of 8.8 more free throw attempts per game overall.

A variety of factors likely play into this sorry comparison. First, considering that the Wolves have a record of 7-15 in the 22 games where they have been within five points with five minutes or less left in the game, they are most likely the team trailing in the final few minutes, and thus more likely to foul very late in the game.

Then there is the undeniable fact that referees tend to “swallow their whistles” on crucial plays late in games, because they don’t want to exert an outsized influence on the outcome. They’d rather “let the players decide” who wins and who loses.

Consequently, a team that purposefully angles for a free throw disparity faces rougher sledding at both ends of the court. Players who try to draw fouls are actually diminishing their chance of sinking their shot attempt — the up-fakes and creation of contact throw off the natural rhythm that occurs during an unimpeded field goal attempt. How many times have Wolves’ fans watched Kevin Love and Kevin Martin simply chuck the ball toward the hoop after absorbing what they assume is a foul? During crunchtime, however, they are less likely to berewarded with a foul call and that wayward toss is simply a missed shot.

On defense, a team that is accustomed to allowing a basket rather than contesting hard for a block or a purposeful foul (to make opponents “earn it at the line”) has to realize that more contact and contesting is acceptable at crunchtime. But even so, that is not their habit. Because team defense is so coordinated, one or two players can’t suddenly become more aggressive; it has to be everybody, working in sync. But even if that miraculously occurs, the players haven’t developed the nuances of defensive aggression enough to be truly effective.

Their top playmaker can’t shoot

As the Wolves have suffered a few embarrassing losses lately, coach Rick Adelman has generated some controversy by benching his starting point guard Ricky Rubio in favor of J.J. Barea for much, if not all, of the fourth quarter. Without endorsing Adelman’s strategy — Barea over Rubio is almost never a good idea — it is likely that one impetus for the switch is Rubio’s inaccurate shooting, which becomes more acutely damaging to the team late in close games.

I’ve focused on Rubio’s wayward shot numerous times, most prominently in this column. He is on pace to become the most inaccurate shooting point guard in modern NBA history. The bad news is that he is even worse during crunchtime.

Again we go to the statistics pages at nba.com. It shows that in “clutch” situation of five minutes or less to play in the game and the teams separated by five points or less  — a total of 59 minutes overall — Rubio is shooting 12.5 percent from the field and missed the only three-point shot he attempted. In the fourth quarter overall, he is shooting 18.2 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point territory.

There simply is no incentive for opponents to closely guard such a reluctant and terrible shooter. Nor can Rubio easily force opponents to cover him; his dribble penetration game leaves him with the option of a short jump shot or an attempted layup at the rim, areas where his shooting plunges even further below the league average in accuracy. His personal best bet to score would be to launch three-pointers, but is that really the prime option for the Wolves with the game in the balance?

The problem is compounded by the fact that the Wolves need the ball in Rubio’s hands at crunchtime. When the games are late and close, properly executing sets run in the half-court offense are increasingly important. This is especially true of the Wolves, who don’t really have an uber-athletic scorer who can create his own shot. Their best scorers, Love and Martin, rely on creating fouls for much of their offense, and we just finished explaining how that is less effective in these circumstances.

If that weren’t bad enough, without the need to cover Rubio with any diligence, opponents are also now free to devote more attention to scorers such as Love, Martin, and Nikola Pekovic late in close games. Put it all together and you have a team that shoots 36.2 percent from the field and 23.3 percent from long range in “clutch” situations, while losing the “foul game” along the way.

Oh, and Barea is shooting 13.3 percent from the field and has missed all nine of his three-pointers in “clutch” situations.

No wing stopper on defense

Teams that possess an athletic star player who can create his own shot have a significant advantage in crunchtime. This is the prototypical “go to” guy, the Lebron James or Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, who will almost certainly determine the outcome of the game for his team.

It follows, then, that it is very important for a ball club to have a defender to impede or counter this “go to” star, especially at crunch time. The Wolves had a pretty solid defender in that “wing stopper” role last season, Andrei Kirilenko. But AK47 is plying his trade in Brooklyn this year and his replacement is Corey Brewer. It is not sufficient.

Brewer packs just 185 pounds on his 6-9 frame. That’s at least 50 pounds lighter than James, Durant and Anthony, and while those are extreme cases, Brewer is almost always ceding significant bulk to the player he is covering. He tries to compensate with pesky activity, going for steals and deflections and antic over-coverage to one side or the other. All of these things heighten the risk/reward factor, which generally isn’t a great idea late in close games, when opposing offenses are more attentive toward taking care of the ball.

Here is a pretty nasty stat, again compliments of nba.com: Players guarded by Brewer have the highest percentage of makes on shots at the rim — 73.2 percent -- than any other regular rotation player in the NBA. Now a good portion of the blame for this also belongs to Minnesota’s big men, Love and Pekovic, who are notoriously poor protectors of the rim. But it also speaks to the downside of Brewer’s gambling, which can lead to breakdowns that result in layups.

A team of questionable character

The final factor in Minnesota’s late-game pratfalls comes down to the “intangibles,” to how much heart and commitment and internal confidence this team can muster when it matters most. And when you can put up a caliber of play that has you ranked as the seventh-best performing team in the NBA, yet you are below .500 with a record of 0-11 in games decided by four points or fewer, it is pretty obvious that there is dysfunction in the “intangibles.”   

Thus far this season, the Wolves have been like the playground bully who flexes his muscles against the easily exploitable younger kids but runs into difficulty going up against someone his own size — or a feisty underdog who refuses to fold. They have won exactly four of their 17 matchups against teams that currently sport winning records thus far this season, and each victory could be marked with an asterisk. In three of those wins — against OKC and twice against Dallas — the opponent was missing one of its top six players due to injury. In the remaining win, against Portland, the Blazers were playing their fourth game in five nights.

Put bluntly, there hasn’t been a truly signature win, one that announces that this is a ball club ready to compete at the highest levels in this league, through the entire first half of the season. Their crunchtime play, while obviously significant, is the tip of the iceberg, a symptom rather than a cause of their malaise. What lies beneath, in the collective heart of this talented team, is what most needs to be remedied.

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Comments (13)

solutions Britt???

Once again Britt, you have a firm grasp of the obvious. What are you recommending the wolves do about it? Ride Ricky to a ninth or tenth place finish in the west?

Like a bad penny

Ah yes, Mr. Gotzman. Apparently you misunderstand the purpose of the comments section. It is not to tell the writer what to do; it is to add something of your own to the conversation and further the debate.
If everything I wrote is so firmly grasped as obvious by you, please, stop wasting your time coming by. But before you leave, if you could find and link other stories that talk about how the Wolves free throw margin disappears in crunch time, how they lack a wing stopper and why Brewer is not good at it, and that puts the level of detail I put on Rubio (and Barea's) shooting stats late in close games, I'd appreciate it, because I pride myself on original research. You know, stuff that confirms or denies what I think might be obvious, rather than simply assuming I can throw up opinions and expect it to be enough.
For the second time in as many stops, Mr. Gotzman, let me remind you that the comments section isn't a slot where you put in a question and expect an answer. It is a place to bat around ideas, original ideas. Next time you return, please have one or two to offer.

The Rubio Conundrum

Really interesting, thoughtful stuff, Britt - as always. One would think that Rubio's skill set, vision and timing would eventually translate into competent shooting, but the one who is (obviously!) preventing this from happening is the man child himself. This is a confidence game, and he at times has looked like a guitarist who is convinced his stuff doesn't measure up to players who have incredible dexterity and speed. And then he turns down, in spite of his musical nature, over a perceived advantage that doesn't necessarily take full advantage of a band's superior musicianship.

If he is indeed harder on himself than anyone else, then someone needs to provide a tonic to his own powerful self-critique. Perhaps Rick, Flip and company are doing everything they can to turn him around. I would ask Ronnie Turiaf to stress over and over how lucky he really is - with Love as his witness.

I for one...

Look forward to these T-Wolf columns. And despite commenter #1 I do think you ride Rubio to wherever he can take you. To do otherwise this year would be unwise. Not to say I'm not disappointed in him and can see why Barea is getting the minutes at crunch time. Tough choice for the coach. But it isn't all on Rubio. Seems like late in close games the offense freezes up, people quit moving and passing, everyone tries to make the big play that they really aren't capable of making. I'd like to see Love take on the same responsibility that Durrant, Lebron and Anthony take for their teams. When the game is on the line you go to your top shooter or two or you run a good team play. I don't see either. I'm glad to see the bench playing better, especially Shved, but the top three; Love, Martin and Pek, need to step up either individually or together at crunch time and will this team over the hump.

Maybe Maya Moore could help Ricky with his shot; she has a beautiful arc on her shot.

Phil and Bill, re Rubio

I guess one of the reasons I reacted to Mr. Gotzman so strongly is because Rubio needs to be regarded in his entirety and not just the very limited prism of his bad shooting. Some of it is my fault; I make statements like "on pace to be the worst shooting point guard in modern NBA history," which is true in terms of shooting percentage but discounts his three-pointers and his free throws, the former of which is average and the latter very good. Rubio's true shooting percentage, in fact, which accounts for field goals, treys and free throws, is above a number of teammates, including Robbie Hummel, Alexey Shved, Dante Cunningham, Ronny Turiaf and (when he was here) Derrick Williams.
That doesn't mean Rubio isn't a significant factor, and drag, on the team's crunchtime play, when you need the ball in his hands and the opponents don't need to guard him. But a player who is leading the NBA in steals and is top five in assists is hardly an overall liability and those quick to say he is don't watch or appreciate the game in the same way I do.
Which is all to say that I agree with Phil and Bill in the need to stick with Rubio and find ways to both help him improve his shooting and provide plays and options that diminish his damage. For example, plays that have him receive a pass from the post while spotting up for a three-pointer on the right wing, where he is a pretty good catch-and-shoot player from distance.
Agree with Bill about how it is also about others, and notice that Pek has been unreliable in his shots at crunchtime.
Anyway, good stuff from both you guys. Appreciate you stopping by.

wing stopper

I agree that Brewer has size deficiencies as a wing stopper, but what about Mbah a Moute? I've read he's got really bad hands, making him a minus on offense, but is he that much worse of a minus on offense than Brewer? I'm still shaking my head about how he couldn't even get off the bench when Brewer was getting absolutely abused by Rudy Gay last week.

Luc Richard

Mark--

Yes, I am on board with more time for LRMAM, especially when he can be swapped in as a defensive stopper during times when the Wolves are on the foul line--for K-Mart if not Brewer.
Chase Budinger is so far behind in his comeback from this second knee surgery that Adelman has to start paying for attention to Mbah a Moute. Without doubt he has been a disaster on offense, with terrible hands and a wayward shot, but, just as Brewer has the outlet pass to beef up his shooting percentage, Mbah a Moute is adept at offensive rebounds and can score on putbacks.
Plus he's bigger and more rugged than Brewer, and smarter in terms of team defense, freelancing less and helping more when it is effective.

Offensive rebounding

The correlation between offensive rebounding and poor shooting percentage can play out as a good news/bad news report. The Wolves are near the top of the league in offensive rebounding, thanks, in large part, to Love (who is among the league leaders in the individual category) and Pekovic, who individually ranks just ahead of Dwight Howard - no slouch himself. However, Love and Pek are also among the league leaders in defensive rebounding. This across-the-board prowess suggests there is the potential for decent offensive rebounding numbers regardless of shooting percentage. Minneapolis isn't a bad place to be if you need to work on your shot - if you must. In theory, this advantage might one day soothe the nerves during crunch time. A higher form of trust and togetherness would help.

Amen

Good, perceptive stuff.
Not only that, but the spacing they provide--Pek in the low block, Love out beyond the arc--should be a godsend for any prospective jumpshooter in the half court, which increases my frustration with Kevin Martin.

Rubio shooting

What are the coaches doing with Rubio to help him improve his shooting? I am wondering if they should hire someone to coach him intensively over a significant period of time on his technique in general and in various shooting situations. I am sure he practices a lot but practicing using bad technique makes it much harder to get better. I agree that you have to look at his total shooting, but it doesn't take many goals to improve rather dramatically. It hasn't happened so far over several years now and likely won't if they continue with what they are doing.

some offseason glitches

William--

I get what you are saying but there have been extenuating circumstances. His first offseason before the NBA was the lockout, when teams couldn't interact with anyone under contract. His second offseason was when he was rehabbing his knee and no shooting could be physically undertaken.
This past offseason I believe was his play for Spain in the World Games or Euroleague Championships, or whatever it is called (international hoops folks can clue me in).

If, as expected, the Wolves go ahead with a large contract, in the range of $8-$10 million per year, for Rubio's services moving forward after this season, I think they have every right to insist upon input into his offseasons, and an intensive rehab of his shot mechanics. However, when I talked to Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders last month, he maintained that anyone who makes 80%+ on his free throws has good mechanics. So we'll see.

Rubio

I am a big Rubio fan and love the column, but I am starting to wonder about crunch time performance and leadership. Even in his last few seasons in Spain, he numbers were down and he did not always play in crunch time. I think his time in Spain also hindered him to the point where he did not have to be anything more than a passer because there was so much NBA level talent around him. He had the Gasol's, Navarro, Calderon, and Fernandez. He never had the pressure to improve, because he was essentially the 5th most important starter (when he started).

I sometimes question the late game decision making. I would like to see more Kevin Martin and Kevin Love action. At the very least, defenses need to guard both of them.

On a side note, boy do we miss AK. I know that when he missed the first six weeks or whatever, we looked smart, but his all around playmaking would mesh so well with what we are doing. The trade off from his all around excellent play and bb-IQ to Brewers inconsistency is huge. I am in the camp of getting Luc more pt.

D Stern and Rubio

Rubio was often the youngest, least selfish guy on his teams in Europe, and deferred to older, more experienced offense-oriented players. That was the routine for an unselfish player who was more than willing to meet his teammates half-way. Fast-forward to the present: The NBA is not in the business of forgiveness, and Rubio is learning that in order to survive, he cannot simply hide behind his obvious strengths. His weakness are there for all to see. This is a televised learning process, and his development may occur over the course of several years - and that's probably just the way it is. If his shooting leaps several levels in a hurry, he will be lauded for his work ethic, patience, basketball IQ and passion for the game. Rubio is acutely aware of the mistakes most fans don't even see. It's possible that one of the reasons his numbers took a downturn in Europe was because he had been drafted by the Wolves and was not expected to stick around. Whether his heart was in it or not, coaches knew they had other players to develop for their own purpose and his whiz-kid, point guard quotient may have bottomed out.

Kierlenko would have been a great guy to have around, no question. But he hasn't been on the court that much this year. And to whom would Love airmail those inspired full-court rockets? LRMAM's possibilities need to be explored, no question. He is a much smarter player than a lot of fans realize. His offensive is extremely limited, but his defense could end up being very meaningful, and because of his intelligence, he could also be taught to contribute in other ways.