The eventual 96-93 final score of Tuesday's loss to the Magic marked the second time this season (both against the Magic) that the Minnesota Timberwolves have been down by a single possession with the ball and a small amount of time left. The Wolves have been in enough close games this year that they need to find ways to tie and win these down-to-the-wire games.
Last night, their first opportunity came with the score at 94-92. After a defensive stop, Andrew Wiggins drove down the court and was fouled attempting a layup with 5.6 seconds left. He only made one of the two free throws, but this was a successful idea against a broken defense in transition. The foul call was a little questionable, but Wiggins made the attempt and was rewarded. However, a better attempt could have been available.
Wiggins has picked up his dribble and is clearly going for the basket. However, the Magic have three players around him already, and he is far enough from the basket that a foul is likely his saving grace. The other three Wolves on the floor (Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Zach LaVine) are not even in the shot when Wiggins makes his attempt, still with seven seconds on the clock. Wiggins could have pivoted and looked for LaVine, who could have had a clear run at the hoop with all the defenders focused on Wiggins.
A LaVine shot would have likely been easy, but there may have even been an easier option in this picture already. Look at Gorgui Dieng, with absolutely no one between him and the hoop. If Wiggins had been able to either bounce pass it or lob it to him, Dieng would have had one of the easiest dunks of his career and a simple two points.
Again, the play resulted in what should have been a tied game, had Wiggins made both free throws. However, taking the time to look for a clearer look at the basket may have taken the need for free throws out of the occasion.
The second opportunity came on an out of bounds play with 3.1 seconds left and the Wolves down 96-93. On the first attempt, Tayshaun Prince was unable to inbound the ball, looking first for Wiggins at the top of the arc, then LaVine cutting to the corner. Prince took the Wolves' final timeout and tried again. The play was an attempted "elevator doors" screen for Wiggins, but the Magic's Aaron Gordon was not caught by it and Wiggins' jumper was blocked.
Wiggins is through the screen, but Gordon just went straight around it and is stuck to Wiggins by the time the ball gets to him.
As the shot goes off, Nemanja Bjelica, notionally the 5 in this lineup with LaVine, Wiggins, Prince and Shabazz Muhammad, has barely moved from the spot where he set the screen. LaVine's move to the right side essentially let Evan Fournier guard for a pass to either him or Tayshaun Prince. A potential better outcome could have been a pass to Muhammad, guarded by the slightly smaller Elfrid Payton, who has some space on the left side. Wiggins took the shot with 1.5 seconds left, so there was still time to throw a pass and get a different shot off.
The other possibility: send LaVine and Prince towards the right corner and move Bjelica out to the arc to Wiggins' right. Bjelica has already shown that he is a more than competent shooter from beyond the arc, and it would have given Wiggins another out when he saw that his shot would be heavily contested. Bjelica also had a slight height advantage on Tobias Harris, so he would have stood a decent chance of getting a clear shot away.
Since Wiggins will often draw the opponent's best defender, why not set up a play for Zach LaVine? This was the attempt in the first meeting with the Magic. Again, the Wolves were down 3, and again there were 3.1 seconds left. The Wolves had Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor instead of Dieng and Bjelica, a more conventional lineup.
LaVine has control of the ball and still could have tried to make a pass out, if there were any opportunities to do so. Rubio and Wiggins are both beneath the basket, and neither makes it outside of the arc even before time expires, much less to catch a pass and take a shot. Towns is at the free throw line, and Prince is still out of bounds. For better or worse, this was LaVine with only one option, and his shot after the bad handle is from way too far away, and fails to even hit the rim.
So, what can change?
Obviously, the possibilities change depending on whether the Wolves are down one or two points or the full three. I'll take a look at options for both scenarios below.
Down one or two points
For a team with unreliable three point shooting like the Wolves, when it is possible to win or tie with a two, that should be the preferred angle. The clear option is Andrew Wiggins, who, in addition to being the team's star, is adept at creating his own shot when called on. However, there are more possibilities than just Wiggins.
Wiggins, LaVine and Rubio drive to the basket more frequently than any other members of the Wolves (all average nearly 5 drive per game: the next closest is Andre Miller at 3.4). LaVine actually has the best field goal percentage on drives of the three (55.1%), but Wiggins gets to the line at a much higher rate (2.4 free throw attempts per game to LaVine's 1.4). Rubio, unsurprisingly, looks to pass rather than score, with 49.1% of his drives ending in a pass.
These three being on the floor together paired with at least one shooter for spacing makes a lot of sense. Bjelica is shooting 39.5% on catch-and-shoot attempts from beyond the arc, behind only LaVine (43.5%) of players taking more than one such 3 per game. The opportunity for second chances from crashing the boards is also vital, and Bjelica remains one of the better rebounders on the team: his 5.9 rebounds per game is tied with Dieng for second on the team.
This leaves the center, and regardless of Sam Mitchell's preference for Dieng the last few games, Towns remains the better statistical choice in almost every category. Towns rebounds better (9.2 per game to 5.9), passes more (23.3 passes per game to 16.0), and shoots a higher percentage on pull ups, from the elbow and in the paint. While Dieng has been rightly praised for his defense the past few games, when looking on the offensive end, there is very little question that Towns is the better option
The lineup of Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins-Bjelica-Towns is likely the Wolves' most potent offensive lineup. It features Rubio's playmaking ability combined with four players who can score in a variety of ways, from all over the floor. It is a lineup full of players that have the ability to pass well, featuring five of the Wolves' seven highest totals of passes per game (Bjelica is actually second on the team in passes per game, which is fascinating). When a two (or two free throws) is all the Wolves need to tie or win a game, there is very little doubt that this is the best option.
Down three points
When, as in Tuesday's game, the Wolves need a basket from beyond the arc, the lineup calculus changes a little bit. Do Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad or Adreian Payne come into the equation? Does Rubio move out of the lineup for a better shooter, as Mitchell did on Tuesday?
LaVine and Bjelica are almost locks for the lineup. They shoot the highest percentages on catch-and-shoot threes of frequent shooters on the team (LaVine 43.5%, Bjelica 39.5%). On pull ups (after taking one or more dribbles), Bjelica is 4-10, while LaVine's percentage slips to 31.7%, and he has taken more than double the number of those shots than anyone else on the team. This is not on my clipboard: Zach LaVine is a better shooter off the ball, and should not handle the ball in these situations.
Wiggins and Martin are the next best catch-and-shoot options (both at 34.5%). Even with Martin's well-documented shooting struggles on the year, he is still a competent shooter from distance, and that number is much more likely to go up than down. The issue this creates, of course, is that a lineup featuring the above four players will almost definitely be too small against most opponents' defenses.
Sam Mitchell had Muhammad as his next best option on Tuesday night, and while Muhammad, as a slightly bigger body, might find a better matchup, he remains a somewhat questionable choice from beyond the arc. Shabazz is still shooting under 30% overall on threes this season, and his catch-and-shoot number is also still below 30%. That is simply not good enough with the game on the line.
Towns has shown the ability to make a three every now and then, but he more than likely needs a few more NBA attempts before trying a game-winner. Instead, try Adreian Payne or Damjan Rudez at the 5. Payne and Rudez, while playing minimal minutes, have both shot decently from range in small sample size (Rudez is 5-11 on the year, Payne is 5-9) and offer a little more experience. There are few things that Payne has demonstrated he can do well this year, but he has shown flashes of three-point shooting in the past.
The three-point seeking lineup, then, could look like this: Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins-Bjelica-Rudez (or Payne or Towns). It keeps a true point guard in Rubio in the lineup, and even through all of his career shooting troubles, Rubio is a career 30% shooter from three, miles better than Andre Miller (20%). It takes Tayshaun Prince, who has made one of his five attempts on the year, out of the lineup, and forces the opponent to guard every position closely, other than maybe Rubio (2-3 on pull up threes on the season, but 1-19 on catch and shoot threes).
On a single attempt like Tuesday night's play, I would have designed a play for LaVine again. Wiggins should be the number one option with a two (or fewer) point deficit, but at three, LaVine has to this point been the team's best shooter from range, and depending on Bjelica's development and Martin's malaise, may continue to be that best option moving forward.
The Holy Grail Lineup
The lineup of Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins-Bjelica-Towns seems like a pretty solid offensive lineup for more than just the ends of games, with a little research behind it. However, this lineup has only appeared for 7.3 minutes this season. Various four-man combinations of it have spent a lot of time on the floor together (Rubio-Wiggins-Bjelica-Towns 67.6 minutes, most of any four-man combination; Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins-Towns 43.6 minutes), but the complete picture has rarely been unleashed.
The good thing is, rather than needing Andrew Wiggins to be the one go-to guy that he is developing into, this Wolves team has a multitude of options when the game is on the line, any one of which can win a game. This is a phenomenal position for a franchise to be in, and highlights the great amount of potential this young team has the opportunity to grow into.