On March 21 at Target Center, the Minnesota Timberwolves were tied with the Golden State Warriors with two minutes left to play, down by just a bucket with 56 seconds left, and ultimately losers by a 5-point margin, 109-104.
What was notable in the immediate wake of the defeat was the lack of self-satisfaction. The Wolves had entered the game with a record of 22-47, a whopping 40 games behind the Warriors’ gaudy slate of 62-7. Deploying a switching defense designed to trap reigning MVP sharpshooter Stephen Curry and get the ball out of his hands, they limited Curry and his backcourt marksman Klay Thompson below 20 points and less than 50 percent shooting apiece. Only a lack of depth — Minnesota’s bench was outscored 36-8 — prevented a major upset.
But it was obvious by the demeanor of the team — a confidence chafed by genuine frustration that ran through the starters and members of the coaching staff — that moral victories weren’t going to be a balm this time. The Wolves were hunting for the sort of signature victory that definitively announced their growth as a team.
They got it on Tuesday night, in a nationally televised rematch with a Golden State team aiming for its 70th victory of the season. After being kept at bay through most of the game — they were down by 17 points midway through the third quarter — the Wolves beat the slightly complacent Warriors at their own aggressive, pace-and-space style of play, and pulled out a 124-117 overtime triumph on the road that was simultaneously thrilling and stunning.
In a complete reversal of the previous Golden State game, Minnesota’s bench players provided welcome sustenance. After failing to register a point or an assist in over 15 minutes in the last meeting, rookie point guard Tyus Jones was a plus 19 in 19:10 of action.
Jones is frequently overwhelmed as an on-ball defender and thus benefited from the frequent switches and traps on Tuesday. Like starter Ricky Rubio, he thrives when he can utilize his court vision and anticipation as an up-tempo choreographer. Three of his five assists, with zero turnovers, came on fast break situations.
Most of all, however, Jones and the rest of the second unit rode the best game Shabazz Muhammad has ever played. Bazzy has hopeless tunnel vision and an infinitesimal attention span at both ends of the court, which has contributed to a train wreck of a campaign in his third NBA season, jeopardizing his future status with the Wolves.
But when he is able to seamlessly shift into fifth gear, muscle up some putbacks and watch a couple of shots fall in early, he is a scoring juggernaut with few rivals in the NBA. On Tuesday, he roasted the Warriors for 35 points on only 12 field goal attempts, phenomenal scoring efficiency achieved by concentrating his efforts beyond the three-point arc (2-of-4 from long distance), directly beneath the hoop (4-of-5 within two feet of the rim) and at the free throw line (15-of-17, including 12-of-13 in the second half and overtime).
The Wolves’ chaotic defensive switching meshed into Bazzy’s jump-cut flow, and his relentless hunt for points was so chimerical that it didn’t matter that he failed to put up an assist during his entire 38:55 of court time. He was a game-best plus 29.
Wiggins finishing strong
From a big-picture perspective, however, Tuesday’s magnificent upset was most enthralling for beleaguered Wolves fans because it ratified the maturing legitimacy of the team’s two cornerstones, second-year swingman Andrew Wiggins and rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Wiggins was the subject of a superb article by Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated, coincidentally published the day Wigs erupted for 27 points on just 12 field goal attempts in the second half and overtime of the win over Golden State. Entitled “Can’t Miss: Andrew Wiggins and the Timberwolves need each other,” Mahoney’s piece explored the pros and cons of motivating and fast-tracking a high school and college prodigy into a co-savior (alongside Towns) of the Wolves latest and most promising chance at relevance.
Specifically, the torrent of post-up opportunities that comprised the bulk of Wiggins’ scoring in his rookie year and even the beginning of this current season has morphed into more facing-the-basket isolations, pick-and-rolls, and three-pointers in an effort to better space the floor and improve his scoring efficiency.
Since the All-Star break, the Wolves have also consciously deployed a more up-tempo and freewheeling style to exploit the athleticism of their starters, enhanced by the insertion of Zach LaVine into the shooting guard slot. The changes have bumped Wiggins into the more physically rigorous small forward position and compelled him to tailor his offensive production into a faster-paced, more ball-sharing environment.
These alterations have been a tonic for Wiggins, which is a fabulous development for the team moving forward. Since the All-Star break, his usage rate has declined slightly (from 28.2 percent direct involvement in his team’s plays, to 26 percent) while his scoring efficiency, subsidiary skills and overall impact on the team has improved.
Despite a slight uptick in minutes played, Wiggins is shooting 1.5 fewer two-pointers per game since the break, and almost the exact same amount of three-pointers. But the faster pace, purposefully greater spacing and rapid ball movement have provided him with much better looks from three-point territory and his accuracy from long distance has taken a quantum leap forward from 24.4 before the break to 42.9 after the All-Star hiatus. His two-pointers edged up from 48.1 percent to 50 percent and his accuracy on free throws rose from 74.4 percent to 79.2 percent.
Wiggins has also become a more willing and effective passer. He has bumped his assist rate from 1.8 to 2.6 per game since the All-Star break with only a slight rise in his turnovers, from 2.2 to 2.5 per game. Despite the switch from shooting guard to small forward, his rebounds and blocks are remarkably similar, while his steals are way up — 33 in the 23 games since the All Star break compared to 43 in the 53 games before then — and his fouling has plummeted from 116 before the break (2.19 per game) to 39 (1.6 per game) since then.
This welter of stats help demonstrate that Wiggins is addressing the criticism that his tremendous skill set doesn’t translate into synergistic teamwork and winning basketball. Before the All-Star break, the Wolves were minus 2.3 points per 100 possessions while Wiggins was on the court and minus 3.7 points per 100 possessions overall. Since the break, Minnesota is minus 0.3 points when Wiggins plays and, because of their depleted bench unit, minus 4.7 points overall.
Best of all, the team’s won-lost record has improved from 17-37 before the break to 9-15 since then.
Mahoney’s piece provided some excellent quotes from the typically close-mouthed Wiggins, including his growing confidence in both pick-and-roll plays and three-pointers. Mahoney also quotes Mitchell conceding that he yells less frequently at Wiggins than at the other high-profile youngsters, Towns and LaVine, because Wiggins responds better to private and pointed one-on-one communication.
It’s no secret that the lack of consistent motivation is a flaw in Wiggins’ makeup. The appropriate credit he gets for elevating his play against tougher competition and his desire to seize the spotlight in high-pressure situations is besmirched by his lassitude on rotations and in transition on defense and the proclivity of his shrug-worthy performances during the more mundane matchups on the schedule.
But it still doesn’t dissolve the giddy emotions Wiggins generates when he taps his phenomenal skills at the most crucial moments. His spinning layup past premiere defender Andre Iguodala with 30 seconds left to force overtime, for example. Or his domination of tall but thin defender Shaun Livingston to the tune of 9 points in overtime to secure the victory.
Interviewed afterwards, a still-glowing Wiggins proclaimed, “My team is good,” and talked about preparing for the playoffs in the future. Given the Wolves’ currently wretched record, commentator Marv Albert — who uses a stage name, sports an obvious toupee and has pled guilty for his biting and other aggressive antics in sexual role-playing with prostitutes — called such talk “delusional.” Maybe so. But while Albert was lobbing stones from his glass house, Wolves fans were cherishing the possessive ownership of Wiggins’ statement for its passion and accountability.
Crunch time for Mitchell
Mahoney’s thorough reporting and trenchant observations about the Wolves operation — not only in the Wiggins piece but in a long, wonderful sidebar — cast a generally positive light on the coaching of Sam Mitchell.
As mentioned in my previous column, the latest statements and maneuvers by Wolves owner Glen Taylor makes it likely that Mitchell will be retained for at least another season as head coach of the team. While I would prefer the process be opened up to a search and examination of other coaching options, just to see what other fits are available, the rancor and backlash against the notion of Mitchell returning by a sizable minority of Wolves’ fans seems disproportionately negative relative to his performance.
Mitchell’s young team owns road victories over three of the top four teams in the Western Conference. Their record against the top five teams in the Eastern Conference is 5-5. Yes, this is emblematic of Wiggins heightened motivation for larger challenges, but the greater point is that under Mitchell, the Wolves have occasionally transformed their enviable potential into palpable performance against quality competition.
In his extensive interview with me back in January, Mitchell conceded that he wasn’t able to install an offensive during training camp, given the uncertainty over the possible return of Flip Saunders. His decision to emphasize defense utilizing veterans Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince helped propel the Wolves to an 8-8 record that in some respects prompted the backlash when the Wolves fell to earth in December and January.
But as Mahoney’s sidebar indicates, with the tragic death of Saunders a few days before the season changing the landscape on their futures, Mitchell and General Manager Newton had their first extended opportunity to revamp the offense over the All-Star break. Those changes have borne fruit in the improved play of the cornerstones, Towns and Wiggins, and the placement of LaVine in his proper shooting guard position.
The flipside, of course, is that the Wolves have been gruesome on defense — 29th out of 30 NBA teams, a handful of which are purposefully tanking the rest of the season in hopes of a higher draft pick.
But that failure is hard to pin on Mitchell, given that much of it stems from the abominable play of the second unit, which has been besieged by the loss of Garnett and Nikola Pekovic and the buyouts of Andre Miller and Kevin Miller, with only the signing of D-League forward Greg Smith to fill the void.
Mitchell and the Wolves still have four games to play, beginning tonight in Sacramento. And it is not a slam-dunk that he will be retained. Granted, deciding who gets to guide the course of this tantalizing roster next year is a significant, high-stakes event. I’m not sure keeping Mitchell is the best decision that could be made. But I am sure it wouldn’t be the worst.
In a season full of magical wins and, more often, numbing defeats, Mitchell has earned the right to a clean slate should he still be around for the 2016-17 opener.