MINNEAPOLIS – The early season bewilderment surrounding Sam Mitchell's highly questionable rotations continued Thursday night at Target Center as the Wolves were dominated by the Miami Heat on their home court.
But the Wolves interim head coach pointed towards the team's youth and the collective inability to share the ball as the deciding factors in the 12-point loss.
"The thing I laugh about every day is, they think they know how to play," Mitchell said after the game. "That's the toughest thing with kids today, they think they know how to play. It will take a certain amount of failure before they realize you're not going to reinvent this game."
Mitchell was clearly dissatisfied by the lack of ball movement.
"When you have young players, the first thing they're trying to do is figure out how to play in this league. 'How do I get minutes?' That's the most important thing on their mind," he said before going on a tangent about too much individual play.
And it's true, the Wolves played selfish basketball. The lack of ball movement was obvious from the jump, but there was absolutely no rhyme or rhythm to the lineups Mitchell tossed out on the floor and ultimately it's up to him to put the right mix of players together to get the desired results. Ricky Rubio entered the game leading the entire NBA in assist to turnover ratio. It's well established that Rubio is the engine that drives the Wolves to competent play. He makes the offense go, and with him controlling the rock, running tons of pick-and-rolls, the ball movement is typically good. There was very little of that action in halfcourt sets tonight.
Rubio only logged 24 minutes; a true recipe for disaster with all that isolation-heavy play when LaVine is the lead guard with Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad as the wings. Rubio finished with nine points, five assists, three steals, and three turnovers.
"The game was out of hand. Come on now, I'm not going to leave our starting point guard out there in a game we're down 19 points when we have six games in the next nine days," Mitchell responded when asked if Rubio's minutes had anything to do with him not feeling well (he appeared to throw up water on the sidelines mid way through the game but looked fine a minute later when play resumed).
Eleven Wolves players received between 13 and 31 minutes in the game, from Adreian Payne's 13 minutes (9 points, 6 rebounds, five fouls, two turnovers, and one shove by his teammate Muhammad after he appeared to hit him in the face accidentally) to Andrew Wiggins' rough 31 minutes and 5-18 shooting. Wiggins' early season shooting woes continued, as his attempts near the cup often rimmed in and out, and he settled for undesirable long contested two's off one dribble.
Towns only played 22 minutes. He struggled mightily against Hassan Whiteside (who posted 12 points, nine rebounds, and four blocks) as he shot 3-13. It was the worst performance of his bright young NBA career. But still, it felt like he was barely on the court. KAT was never able to get comfortable out on the floor and Mitchell wasn't willing to ride him out through the bricks.
Entering the fourth, the Wolves were shooting under 30 percent. They finished 30-85 (35.3 percent), were limited to 4-12 from downtown (not conducive to winning in 2015), and only scored nine fast break points. For a young team that should be able to run in transition with Rubio leading the break, well, that's a rather embarrassing number.
At the end of the night, the dreadful rotations seemed like an obvious place to start when describing the loss. Miami certainly deserves credit, their veteran-laden starting lineup dominated the Wolves starters by outscoring them by 52 points in the lethargic performance, but Mitchell needs to cut down the rotation and restructure the way he's currently playing the lineups. Right now he's relying on all five bench players on the second unit to keep the score within reason for the starters for long stretches of play. If the Wolves want to compete, Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns must play effectively in major minutes.
Tonight provided further evidence that the second unit has little to no synergy. As another media member joked to me at one point during the third quarter, "they need five basketballs out there."
Where do the Wolves go from here?
"My biggest hope is that we learn from it, because there's going to be a next time when the ball isn't going in," Mitchell said during the postgame presser. "Larry Brown used to tell us all the time when I played for him, 'the only time players listen is when they fail.' When they're having success, it's hard to reach them."
His hope, of course, is that tonight's failures will yield future success. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many onlookers, future success this season might not be as easy to come by if the questionable rotations continue. Muhammad (14 points and six rebounds) was playing at an incredibly high level, yet he was limited to only 22 minutes off the bench even as he worked diligently on the offensive glass with supreme effort to get them back in the game during the second quarter.
Muhammad summed up the game perfectly afterwards. "I think we didn't move the ball, I think we were playing really selfish out there," he admitted.
"I think if we move the ball, great things happen. That's something that we really need to worry about. We started off 2-0 and we were playing the right way, moving the ball and staying positive and now I don't know what you saw out there tonight. We were pretty disappointed with that performance. Definitely got to get to practice tomorrow and turn it around on the road."