The Atlanta Hawks strip-searched the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half of their NBA game Monday night and found almost no evidence of resistance or character.
The first half culminated on a blown layup by Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson trying to beat the buzzer via a full-sprint dribble. As he clanged it off the back-iron with four-tenths of a second left to play, he lay collapsed on his back from the effort, as his teammates rushed over to pull him up, broad smiles on their faces.
What’s to worry? After coming into Atlanta with the worst offensive efficiency of any of the 30 NBA teams over its first two games, the Wolves had put up 79 points in 24 minutes, making more than two-thirds of their shots and sharing the ball to the tune of 18 assists versus just two turnovers. Anthony Edwards had a stupendous half surfing the flow of the offense – 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting (four of them three-pointers), three rebounds, and a full handful of assists with just one turnover. Karl-Anthony Towns had finally calibrated his shooting eye, using his superior size to convert six of eight shots, all but one of them – a baby jump-hook from 11-feet – inside the painted area.
In the first three minutes of the third quarter, the Wolves nudged their 19-point halftime lead up to 21. Then they disintegrated. The Hawks imposed their will, outscoring Minnesota 62-27 the rest of the way.
Asked what happened after the game, Coach Chris Finch began his lament by noting that “we were 2-for-13 (in shots) around the rim in the third quarter.”
KAT missed five, Mike Conley three, Ant two and Shake Milton one. The two makes were a Rudy Gobert tip-in and a layup by Jaden McDaniel (in his first game of the season following a calf injury), both occurring in the first three minutes of the period.
All those misses from close range “got (the Hawks) loose, got them out (in transition), and then of course we couldn’t contain anybody in our pick-and-roll defense,” Finch continued.
If only it were that simple. Shooting guard Dejounte Murray destroyed the compliant defense in multiple ways while not missing a shot – six twos, two threes, four free throws – in his 22-point third-quarter outburst. It began when Conley fell asleep on an inbounds play for a layup. Then Murray stuck a jumper in Ant’s face in isolation. Then Murray beat Ant to a loose ball, squared him up, and beat him driving left along the baseline for a layup. All that was prelude to the final 4:14 of the period, when Murray scored 14 of his team’s 17 points, using the outstretched arms of Nickeil Alexander-Walker (NAW) as a sextant to size up the rim on a bevy of sweet two- and three-point jumpers. Tie game at 98 heading into the fourth quarter.
But the game was over.
Hawks point guard Trae Young lobbed a pass from half-court into the paint for Murray over the head of Milton for another Wolves-napping layup that broke the tie. When Milton tried to atone with a layup attempt off the bounce, the shot was blocked. Then Atlanta stripped Naz Reid as he attempted to drive. Young hit a floater for Atlanta; Milton missed a floater for Minnesota. Young fed Murray for a driving layup, Conley missed a trey, Young hit a trey. Boom. Three minutes into the fourth quarter, Atlanta had a nine-point lead.
The rest of it was a joyous jailbreak for the Hawks; Harlem Globetrotter-style flash with the Wolves in the role of the Washington Generals. They had no other answer, so they fell into the guise of the saps. From the first to the fourth quarter their point totals went 42, 35, 19 and 15. Steadily deprived of any dangerous weapons upon inspection, they were allowed to gather their belongings and head to the locker room.
In his postgame comments, Finch said, “I don’t think we came out lackadaisical” in the third quarter. “We came out doing the things we had done in the first half. We needed some shots to go in so we could kind of reset the game.”
Asked about the team’s maturity – or lack thereof – he replied, “I don’t think we necessarily lost focus. Once we missed some shots we let our defense down.”
But when Strib beat writer Chris Hine went into the locker room, he found some players willing to say the quiet parts out loud. Conley, the point guard and steadying veteran presence whose encounter with food poisoning as he played gave him a credible excuse for his own lackluster performance, told Hine, “It might’ve been too much focus on the past. We gave up leads in the past. You get that in your head and it happens sometimes.”
Or, as Gobert succinctly put it, “The first half we looked like a championship team. Then in the second half, we looked like a high school team.”
New song, same lyrics
This, of course, is all depressingly familiar. Ever since the Wolves raised the stakes on their profile by sending five first-round draft picks (when you include 2022 draftee Walker Kessler) and three rotation players to Utah for Gobert, the questions surrounding the Wolves have been less about cumulative talent and more about the way the pieces fit together. The most obvious incompatibility was pairing two centers in a league that has tended toward quickness, space and pace. But that has bled into more intangible concerns, involving resilience, chemistry and a collective psychological fiber.
Tracking the Wolves game-by-game in the 2022-23 season invoked a crazy-quilt of emotional responses. The team blew games it should have won – a 7-13 record against the teams with the seven-worst records in the NBA is the neon stat – but played surprisingly tough against more rugged competition. As the season unfolded, it became almost uncanny how relentlessly the Wolves remained mediocre.
The big excuse that compelled the “run it back” template that allowed for only minor tweaks in the roster this season was the four-month absence of KAT due to a calf injury. But the Wolves were pretty much a .500 team with or without KAT. Along the same lines, there is near universal consensus that the trade deadline deal for Conley and Alexander-Walker in exchange for D’Angelo Russell was a steal for the Wolves. And yet with D’Lo or with Conley and NAW, the record was pretty much .500.
Carve that season into 10-game increments and the Wolves were 5-5, 10-10, 15-15, 19-21, 25-25, 30-28, 35-35 and 40-40 before winning their final two games.
But within those staid increments were some wild swings in performance. Ant broke out into near-superstar territory, and took over as a nifty playmaker in the month of January. Slo Mo unlocked superb shooting from D’Lo when they were paired together, and then Conley was a seeming godsend when he arrived. But on the flipside, Gobert seemed too clumsy and inert and his chemistry with D’Lo was nonexistent. Aside from Naz, the bench play was often horrid. The team complained their way to a league-lead in technical fouls and frequently fell out of games due to a lack of composure. The offense frequently stagnated, owing to “sticky” hands and a lack of ball movement. The transition defense was such a joke that Finch stopped trying to get offensive rebounds a month into the season.
This “run it back” season would benefit from the painful lessons of that campaign, pivot off the good, increasingly familiar relationships that had been unearthed and provide a healthier, deeper roster. It made sense. Large contracts were offered and accepted for key personnel, including Ant, McDaniels and Naz. An unbeaten preseason and some sterling World Cup performances this summer – including from Ant, NAW and KAT – nudged faith ahead of curmudgeonly reservations.
But in the season opener, the Wolves ignored ball movement, chucked up a ridiculous amount of midrange shots that were magnified by how often they clanked, and allowed the Toronto Raptors to score a whopping 34 points in transition while the Wolves could muster only 12. The optimists could counter that the Raps presented a bad matchup and besides, with all that, the Wolves only lost by three points.
Flip to the home opener, where the Wolves took care of business with glorious resolve, grinding down a gritty but tired opponent who had just played a heated rival on national broadcast the night before. Naz continued to open his bag of charming tricks, Slo Mo showed evidence that he could flourish at small forward, Gobert was a springy dervish blending the vintage rim protection of his days in Utah with the roam-and-return that benefits the Wolves defensive schemes. Bottom line, the Wolves suffocated the Miami Heat and headed to Atlanta with the second-best defense in the NBA – and the worst offense.
But huzzah, a 79-point first half explosion. The return of McDaniels with his usual defensive acumen and immediate range on his treys and drives alike. A 21-point lead with 21 minutes left to play …
Like the Wolves players, it is difficult for Wolves fans, and pundits, to resist the nagging of the past. Proclaiming this team is mediocre until it proves itself otherwise seems like a mindset that is both smart and safe.
But of course we can’t leave it alone. Certain things beg for an explanation.
For example, for the fourth straight season, Ant is shooting much better from three-point territory than from the “long midrange” of 10 feet away out to the three-point arc – in fact the disparity in shot frequency and shot disparity is greater than ever this season. So, why is Ant taking 34.9% of his field goal attempts from the long midrange, where he makes less than 40%, and just 31.7% of his attempts from behind the arc, where he is making 60%? This horrendous shot selection cannot continue.
Where was Jordan McLaughlin (J-Mac) during the third-quarter collapse on Monday night? Against the Heat, J-Mac came in and immediately pulled the neat trick of settling down and catalyzing the offense at the same time, notching four assists in just four minutes of play. With Conley ill, why was NAW the primary ball handler for a key stretch of the carnage? (Not to mention Milton, also MIA at the time.) Is it an effort to boost his confidence and reassure his place in the rotation, given his slow start to the season and the return of McDaniels? Was it that he was best to guard Murray (debatable but not silly) and he and J-Mac were too small as a backcourt tandem? Is it the desire to “stick with the process” so early in the season and establish a standard rotation? Whatever the justification, J-Mac was sorely missed.
Can we get past the notion that mostly parking KAT behind the three-point line is demeaning to his overall skill set? Yes, it is true, but KAT also happens to a superb three-point shooter who would create great gravity in the corner or above the break – as Naz is doing in the same position with the second unit. Right now he is struggling to score anywhere – he is shooting 43.2% on twos (career mark 57%) and 23.5% from distance (career mark 39.4%). Take away the first half in Atlanta and he is 14-for-46 on the season. Why not focus on him as a floor-spacer as a means to get him and the offense more traction, discouraging the option of him driving into traffic?
Meanwhile, kudos to Gobert, whose physical improvement and overall engagement is legitimate cause for optimism.
The undefeated Nuggets come to Target Center Wednesday, looking like the best team in the NBA. Expect the unexpected – another patch on the crazy-quilt, now circa 2023-24.