As if the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t have enough problems of their own making, they were victimized by a stumblebum trio of referees whose periodic disabilities cast a shadow over the Wolves loss to the Boston Celtics at Target Center on Wednesday night.
It was the kind of chaotic, chippy game that required resolute competence from the officials running the show. Both teams are locked in tight battles for playoff seeding as the 2022-23 NBA season enters its stretch run. Both teams shot the ball poorly and sought to compensate with physical play. Pro basketball is arguably the toughest sport to arbitrate because certain levels and types of contact are inevitable and allowable, and because no other competitive team sport blends sheer mass and athleticism so consistently throughout the game. Mistakes are going to be made.
And plenty were, against both sides. Coming down to the final seconds, most observers probably wished the officiating crew had been sharper that evening. But errors at the end were not related to any of those spontaneous, sophisticated, necessarily excusable snap judgments.
With 10 seconds left to play and the Celtics with the ball leading by two, Marcus Smart missed a three-pointer that was rebounded by Celtic teammate Grant Williams. The Wolves players desperately sought to tie Williams up. As Williams was twisting away from their efforts, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, ran from the sidelines in front of his bench at the opposite end of the court to well past the three-point arc where the action was occurring, frantically trying to get the attention of his players or the officials to call a timeout.
The NBA rulebook specifically states: “A coach is not permitted to cross the midcourt line and violators will be assessed an unsportsmanlike technical foul immediately.”
Mazzulla was probably 30 feet beyond the midcourt line, screaming and jumping up and down. Wolves players and coaches started screaming and pointing to him and his obvious infraction. Meanwhile the refs ruled that Williams had indeed been tied up by Wolves center Rudy Gobert, requiring a jump ball to determine possession.
The media is allowed to send a representative to ask questions of the head of the officiating crew after the game, known as a “pool report.” When Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press asked crew chief Brian Forte why Mazzulla was not assessed a technical foul, Forte answered, “During live play the officiating crew did not see coach Mazzulla cross the midcourt line.”
Replays showed that immediately after the officials had ruled a jump ball, Mazzulla, still inside the three-point arc, pivoted to the official almost next to him by the sideline wondering why he wasn’t granted a timeout. Even assuming none of the three refs saw him before then, how did he travel from in front of his bench to the other side of the court in a split second to argue with the ref? (Also, you can’t call a timeout unless you clearly have possession of the ball. A jump ball ruling indicates that no team had clear possession.)
A technical foul on Mazzulla would have resulted in a free throw for the Wolves. If they had made it, the Celtics lead would have been reduced to one.
On to the jump ball. The NBA rulebook specifically states: “Neither jumper may tap the tossed ball until it reaches its highest point.”
Frankly, this rule is often abused, with both players leaping to tap it near its apex, but while it is still going up. But what Grant Williams did was a ridiculous violation. Williams, who stands six-feet, six-inches tall, knew his odds of winning the tap against Gobert, who is seven inches taller at seven-feet, one-inch, were slim. So he tapped the ball after it had barely cleared the height of his head; for Gobert to have contested it at that level would have resembled a slap fight more than a jump ball.
The NBA rulebook specifically states that if a team’s jumper tries to steal the tap under those circumstances, “Ball is awarded out-of-bounds to the opponent.” But, instead of getting the ball out of bonds with a chance to win the game down by just one or two points with 1.7 seconds left, the Wolves were forced to foul the Celtics after Williams stole the jump ball. And the Celtics Jason Tatum converted both of the ensuing free throws, bumping the lead to four, beyond the scope of a single possession.
It was at this point that the Wolves lost their temper. Both Anthony Edwards and Kyle Anderson were given technical fouls and ejected for comments to the officials. Tatum hit one of the two free throws (a foul shot is awarded for each tech). Mike Conley’s three-pointer at the buzzer made the final 104-102, Boston.
Gemini men: What’s the true identity of the Wolves?
The loss put the Wolves back to .500, their nesting ground this season, at 35-35. If you chart the season in seven 10-game increments, the Wolves have only been below or above .500 twice, at 19-21 and 31-29.
Ironically, mediocrity has been about the only consistent thing about the team this season. Before the game on Wednesday, coach Chris Finch was asked what has made him proud of the team during the nearly four months it has been without the services of All Star center/forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who suffered a severe calf strain in late November.
“Very proud of our guys,” Finch began, shouting out a couple of players in particular, forwards Jaden McDaniels and Anderson. “I think our team has an identity now – the way they play, the way they like playing with each other. We have been through, with the trade (for Mike Conley in place of D’Angelo Russell) and everything, we have had to reinvent ourselves several times. It has not always been seamless, but guys have figured it out.”
This is a mixture of truth and aspirational thinking – fact and fantasy. Finch is most accurate referencing the fairly incessant tweaks required on his club this season. Some of that churn was logically inevitable. Acquiring a unique bulwark like Gobert in exchange for three players who ranked among your top seven in minutes-played the prior season mandated significant adjustments. Losing KAT, generally regarded as the team’s best player at the start of the season, produced a massive retailoring. The ascendance of Ant into an alpha force on the court and the acquisition of Mike Conley for D’Lo each buffeted and rearranged the status quo.
But these things did not arrive as a baton-passing progression. Each tweak generated a new pattern of momentum, fostering distinct pros and cons that have sloshed into each other like a choppy sea. The reason this season has felt so disjointed and stylistically bereft is because it has been.
Where Finch is merely wishful is in his proclamation that the team “has an identity now.” He is referring to the progress that has been made in mating the smart deliberation, grounded in fundamentals, brought forth by the newcomers, with the fly-around aggression that was the identity last season. I endorse and fervently share that goal for the team – it is the only synergy that can justify the heavy investments and raised expectations that this rejiggered roster has imposed. But the turbulence from all the tweaks hasn’t smoothed out nearly enough to let an identity settle in. And with KAT’s inevitable return, the chop in the surf, for better and for worse, isn’t going away anytime soon.
Arguing that the ‘grand experiment’ of Gobert doomed
The most consequential figure in all of this is Rudy Gobert. With 70 games in the books, there is enough of a sample size to say that fitting a nine-year veteran of a single franchise into a very different style and culture was tougher than imagined –both in acclimating the team to the player and the player to the team.
It should be stressed that very little of this is Gobert’s “fault.” The length and evolution of his career in Utah almost stipulated that both his strengths and his weaknesses would be fairly hidebound. I won’t forget asking him about the adjustments he was making a month or so into this season. Speaking reflectively, without a trace of a whine, he compared it to coming to the United States from France as a 21-year-old rookie who didn’t know anybody and decided that this current change was “probably a little tougher.”
I’m not sure anybody fully appreciated this bottom-line truth: If the aspects of the game that make Gobert elite in the NBA can’t flex and accommodate some fly-around aggression from his team without eroding his value, this grand experiment is doomed. By the same token, if the players who thrive via fly-around aggression heedlessly ignore the fundamental, mature virtues that Gobert and Conley and “Slo Mo” Anderson require to maximize their ample penchant for teamwork, this grand experiment will blow itself to frustrated smithereens.
Some will credibly argue that the main reason for underachievement on preseason expectations is that the team has had their two-time All Star, KAT, a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses who is a historically accurate and versatile scorer for a big man. Indeed, the prospect of phenomenal synergy between the potent skill sets of KAT and Gobert is why the blockbuster trade was executed in the first place.
But that huge upside had its corresponding potential chasm: If Gobert was the classic center, elite and rim protection and rebounding, how and where could KAT be deployed as an effective defender? That remains very much an open question. For that matter, so does KAT role on offense, given the (somewhat understandable) lack of synergy with Gobert at that end of the court, plus the emergence of Ant as the alpha point-producer.
In other words, to the extent that the identity wishfully cited by Finch has evolved into a tangible thing, it has been forming without KAT as one of the ingredients in the recipe. He is too talented not to provide a lift once he is incorporated back into the Wolves rotation. But that incorporation phase will bring its own slosh and chop as he knocks the rust off, copes with basketball played at the highest level in the midst of a historically wide-open playoff race, and helps his coaches, teammates and own learning curve to discover the ways his virtues are best utilized and vices are best camouflaged in the current status quo.
Arguing that the ‘grand experiment’ is working
Because the hiring of Tim Connelly as president of the team and the acquisition of Gobert signaled a bold new paradigm with a higher threshold by which we measure success, there is a tendency to shortchange the tangible gains that have been made during the 2022-23 season. I’ve done this before, but this context bears repeating: In their previous 17 seasons, only two Wolves teams had a better record than Minnesota’s current .500 mark – the playoff teams helmed by Tom Thibodeau in 2017-18 and Finch’s squad last season (Rick Adelman’s best team in 2013-14 also was .500 through 70 games).
And in keeping with the theme of this column (after the referee rant, anyway), let’s focus on Gobert. Before the Boston game on Wednesday Finch answered a question about the team’s productive first quarters by asserting that “I think we have a fly-around mentality now, which we are always best at.”
After the Celtics game, my podcast partner (and host) Dane Moore asked Conley to compare how Gobert was used against “five-out” offenses that play “space and pace” by spreading the floor with smaller, quicker players, compared to the way he used here against that same style.
Per Moore, Conley responded that in Utah, “we were doing schemes and things to try and keep him underneath the basket as much as possible.” In Minnesota, Conley continued, “he is basically a guard at some points (in the defensive scheme). He ends up at the nail (foul line), he ends up at the top of the key. So we’re just basically sticking to our (high wall defensive) principles.”
If you look just at the defensive stats, incorporating Gobert in a fly-around, high-wall type defense more often is a fat failure. When he was strictly a drop coverage center in October, the Wolves allowed just 101.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. During the six games in March, that number has mushroomed to a whopping 114.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, Gobert’s worst defensive month of the season.
But fly around trades some inefficiency for more points off turnovers and quicker decision-making on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. With Conley and Slo Mo blending fundamental play with rapid decisions that stimulate movement off the ball, the Wolves are scoring 120.2 points per 100 possessions when Rudy is on the court in March – 16.9 more points per 100 possessions than what the team was scoring with him playing in October. Consequently, his net rating is better now than in October, and better than any month except for the Wolves season-best stint in January.
The eye test confirms the difference. Gobert is much less awkward and frustrated now, and you realize that is because he isn’t being static with the ball in his hands. Instead he is making quicker, more intuitively correct decisions on when to shoot, pass and screen. Although his shooting percentage is down slightly, he is taking and making more shots and getting to the line more frequently.
For the first four months of the season, his usage (the percentage of plays when he was directly involved on offense) never got above 16.4. In February it was 17.3. In March it is 19.4. From October through February, Gobert never had an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 0.64, meaning he always had more turnovers than assists. For March, the ratio is 2.33, the product of 23 assists versus only 10 turnovers. A large portion of those dimes are simply dribble-handoffs to Conley out by the three-point line. Conley uses it as screen, steps back and splashes the trey. This rarely happened with D’Lo, or Ant for that matter.
This scenario is a long way from perfect. Positioning Rudy Gobert away from the paint while you allow 114.2 points per 100 possessions turns an elite strength into a weakness. But it represents a basic flex away from Rudy’s comfort zone that is paying enough dividends on offense right now (six games in March is a small sample size) to offset the decline on defense. All of these things have to be calibrated and recalibrated – and recalibrated again when KAT returns.
Meanwhile, “flying around,” Gobert has averaged far more steals (1.5 per game compared to the previously monthly high of 1.0 in January) and bettered his season average in blocks during the month of March. And unlike what happened to KAT when he went from drop coverage to the high wall, Gobert’s rebounds haven’t dipped appreciably – 10.7 per game versus 11.4 overall this season.
“Rudy is kind of playing with a little more pep in his step,” Finch said before the Celtics game. Embracing the compromises of teamwork.