The late Minnesota Timberwolves coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders used to like to chop up an NBA season into 10-game increments to get a sense of how his teams were faring. It’s a chunky sample size that pans out to a roughly three-week span; enough to smooth out huge outlier performances yet still pick out surges and trends that bear watching as to their sustainability — harbingers with some heft behind them.
Flip’s idiosyncratic measuring stick suddenly feels more relevant because the Wolves have just completed a ten-game stretch that deserves to quicken the pulse of the most jaded fan of this franchise. This team is churning out performances that cater to both the highlight-besotted consumers of ESPN’s SportsCenter and the fundamentalist preachers of diligent defense.
Star-spangled fireworks and anonymous synergy are functioning as yin-yang energy boosts. Consequently, and at long last, the ephemeral hype is taking on the concrete contours of flesh-and-blood achievement.
Does this mean the Wolves will snag their first playoff berth since the 2003-04 season? Doubtful. The fact that they retain a slim chance despite the dispiriting slapstick of a 6-18 record in their break from the gate the first six weeks of the season is a testimonial both to their dogged improvement since then and the curiously bifurcated Western Conference that currently boasts seven winning teams and has eight playoff spots.
They are still three-and-half games behind eighth-place Denver with only 16 left to play. Eleven of those games are on the road, where the Wolves have lost twice as many as they’ve won. If Denver wins only 7 of its remaining 15 games, Minnesota would have to go 11-5 to tie them.
But the chance to be obliterated in a first-round playoff series by the top seed in the conference is a short-term endgame that ignores the greater good of the Wolves metamorphosis from a batch of young, talented athletes into a team learning how to synchronize their roles under their fourth coach in the past four years.
That abrupt upward torque in the learning curve is what the past ten games have demonstrated. It includes one game before the All-Star break — a win over Denver — and everything since then. The Wolves are 7-3 in that span. All three losses were on the road. One was a shootout in Houston against a team with the third-best record among the 30 teams in the NBA. One was an overtime defeat in San Antonio against a team tied with Golden State for the best record in the NBA. And the third was in Milwaukee against a Bucks team that has won five in a row.
The last four wins have been against opponents in the top eight of the NBA in won-lost record — Utah, the L.A. Clippers, Golden State and Washington.
You don’t put together a three-week stretch like this by fluke.
There are many reasons for this emergence, but three stand out. Ricky Rubio. Karl-Anthony Towns. And team defense.
Rubio discovers the satisfaction of shooting
It is tragicomical to realize that just three weeks ago, supposedly sensible NBA analysts were taking rumors of a Ricky Rubio for Derrick Rose trade seriously. I addressed this absurdity in my last column and since that time Rubio has gone on the most productive run of his polarizing career, to the point where his legion of critics should only be opening their mouths to burp crow feathers.
What happened? For the most likely answer, we again have to invoke Saunders.
For his entire career, Rubio has been besieged by his inaccurate shooting, an unsightly, potentially malignant blemish on his otherwise gorgeous game. Saunders surmised that these shooting woes were a result of Rubio never allowing the pass to be dislodged as the top priority of his offensive execution. In other words, Rubio only shot as a last resort, which almost by definition meant with little-to-no preparation and a hurried form. As proof of his theory, Flip pointed to Rubio’s extremely accurate free-throwing shooting, when the only option was to gather himself and personally shoot the ball through the hole in the hoop.
But the foible of Flip and every other coach of Rubio’s before Thibs was in not demanding he factor his own scoring into his array of possibilities for offensive choreography. Rubio is a point guard purist who genuinely prefers to set up his teammates. But that thinking is anachronistic in the modern NBA.
The genius of Thibs — who, truth be told, came to it by default, after the option of letting Rubio die on the vine at the expense of “point Wiggins” and the burgeoning of Kris Dunn, was no longer feasible — was in making that fateful demand that Rubio launch those open jumpers or lose his already tenuous playing time. The young cornerstone Towns, born and raised with the logic that everybody reap harvestable points for the scoreboard, also induced Rubio to change his behavior.
Consequently, for the first time in his six-year career, Rubio is a genuine scoring threat whose inclination to shoot has to be factored into opposing game plans. This phenomenon was slow but sure in coming: His field goal attempts have risen every month this season but have spiked since the All-Star break, and particularly over the past five games, when he has averaged 12.6 shots per contest, versus his career average of 8.4.
Rubio shot 46 percent during this five-game stretch, against opponents who were first, second, third, 13th and 16th in team defense. More importantly, he made the tangible discovery that the more he shot, the more passing lanes opened up for him as defenders became compelled to guard him. This of course is common sense, but the arrogance of Rubio’s point-guard purism ignored it — until it hit home that the necessity of more shots generated the satisfaction of more dimes.
Rubio has 62 assists and 15 turnovers over the past five games, a glorious stint in which he has convincingly outplayed his elite counterparts Chris Paul, Steph Curry and John Wall. Last night versus Washington, he set the franchise record with 19 assists while scoring 22 points for the second consecutive game. Against what were long odds at the beginning of the season, he is beginning to establish himself as the Wolves point guard for at least the next couple of years while providing his team with an added, cost-free dimension.
KAT match fever
Meanwhile, after a wince-worthy careen into hero ball on offense and a stubborn refusal to engage his peripheral vision or inner golden child on help rotation defense, Karl-Anthony Towns is back to being the most coveted NBA player to deploy three or four years from now. He is eight months removed from his 22nd birthday and he is already running roughshod over the competition.
Feast on these numbers, for they are laden with savory calories. Over the past ten games, Towns has averaged 28.7 points, 15.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He has been unbelievably accurate, shooting 61.6 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from three-point territory.
Towns is fifth in total rebounds, 7th in total points, 12th in total blocks, 17th in effective field goal percentage. His accuracy, assist-to-turnover ratio, and rebounding have improved over last season’s Rookie of the Year numbers. KAT is regularly double-teamed, yet still scores in volume, largely because he can make buckets from anywhere in the half-court and is a relentless offensive rebounder with a devastating jump hook on the putback.
But anyone who has watched Towns play for more than ten minutes knows he is a prodigy on offense. If we’re really going to tip our hats to this fundamentally improved Wolves outfit, it belongs to the upgrade on defense, and as the largest cornerstone on the team, (in more ways than one) Towns is integral to that process.
Connected at last
The logic behind the hiring of Tom Thibodeau couldn’t have been simpler: He is renowned as a savant of team defense and over the past few years the Timberwolves have minted a reputation for wretched, confused, soft, indifferent, and flat out lazy team defense.
The results were desultory earlier this inaugural season under Thibs and even seemed to take the coach by surprise. But the relentless taskmaster just kept whetting the grindstone, running the drills, ignoring any fake-positive signs and lamenting that his charges weren’t sufficiently “connected” — his favorite word — on defense.
Well, they are connected now. There have been two points during the seasons when the Wolves seemed to have made a jump. The first was on the road in Chicago in December, when a roaring comeback against the Bulls turned around a season that was 6-18 at the time. The second was March 1, when the Wolves snuffed the Utah Jazz, allowing only 80 points as the opponent shot 38.9 from the field and 21.1 from three-point territory while rarely getting an open look. On each of these occasions, something seemed to click, and lock into a more reliable mean.
I was busy dredging up defensive statistics to portray what has happened but then noticed a story out this morning from my friend Dan Devine at Yahoo Sports. He correctly notes that Wolves were 26th in defensive efficiency at the end of the 2016 calendar year, but have boosted their standing to 10th in 2017, shaving 2.1 points per 100 possessions off what they allow, from 108.2 to 106.1.
But the real leap forward has been since the All-Star break. In those nine games, the Wolves are yielding 99.9 points per 100 possessions, behind only the San Antonio Spurs.
More significantly, the team holds on to that 99.9 point figure during the 38-plus minutes Towns has been on the court during that span. They are yielding 96.8 points per 100 possessions in the 37-plus minutes Andrew Wiggins has been on the court, reflecting Wiggins’ noticeable consistency in expended energy since the All-Star break.
Rubio’s defensive rating is 98.3 over 34 minutes since the break. And so it goes: Connection.
Yes, there are a bundle of explanations. Thibs has been pounding the rock and has finally broken through on rotation patterns, communication, and attitude. Terrible defender Zach LaVine is sidelined with an injury, removing one of the weaker links in the chain of defensive connectivity. The two players most often filling in LaVine’s minutes, Brandon Rush and Shabazz Muhammad, have, respectively, veteran savvy and communication and physicality and aggression that upgrades the D over LaVine. Both players also allow Wiggins to get more time at shooting guard instead of small forward resulting in less wear and tear and more doggedly effective defense.
The absence of LaVine has made Gorgui Dieng less effective on offense (he and LaVine have glorious chemistry in the half-court offense), which in turn has enabled Nemanja Bjelica to erode Dieng’s playing time. Bjelly has responded to the extra burn by jousting in the paint more effectively, thus allowing the Wolves to benefit from his defensive advantages over Dieng, which include better close-outs of shooters on the perimeter and a greater penchant to use his length and quickness for steals and deflections when opponents open up the floor for “pace and space” plays. Dieng remains the better overall defender, but Thibs has more flexibility when matching up on defense.
In the big-picture, it was utterly predictable that a proven motivator and tactician like Thibs, working with superlative athletic talent and relatively high-character players like Towns and Wiggins, would eventually foster something special. But forgive Wolves fans if they needed to see it with their own eyes before totally buying its inevitability.
Over the last three months, the Wolves are 22-20. That’s more than a half-season’s worth of games over .500. Since the All-Star break, the record is 6-3, against rugged competition.
The juggernaut is inching out of the station. Cross your fingers on continued health — Towns and Wiggins have missed exactly one game between them out nearly 400 contests — savor the current hot streak and let it sink in that the laughingstock Timberwolves are receding into our rear view mirror.