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Breaking down the Wolves’ fourth-quarter blues

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.”   

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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.