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Thunder 112, Wolves 92: Another third quarter nightmare

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What is it about the period after halftime that drives this team to play worse than at any other point in the game?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

OKLAHOMA CITY — “The big thing is, when we start the third quarter, if we don’t make a couple shots, we allow it to impact the defense, and then we try to get out of the hole. The intentions are good, but I think misguided at times. You can’t try to do it individually. Everyone wants the team to do well so you think you have to do more yourself, and the challenge is to do more collectively. Sometimes the ball has to swing side-to-side just to get movement, get player movement, and then we have to make sure that, if the ball isn’t moving, that we do get it moving, and then, when the ball is shot, to make sure that we have floor balance. We can’t compound errors by not getting back or jogging back. To me, thats what’s leading to those problems.”

It may surprise you that this quote came from coach Tom Thibodeau’s press availability before the Minnesota Timberwolves, once again, gave up a horrific third quarter and were thoroughly beaten by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 112-92. This time, the run was 18-1, taking the Wolves from a competitive, three-point game to an insurmountable 20-point deficit over a five-minute stretch of that third quarter.

Up to that point, the Wolves had done a decent job of containing Russell Westbrook. Westbrook had 18 points, six rebounds and six assists at halftime, but had been relatively limited to distributing. However, his activity and scoring took off in the third quarter, his 13 points a key part of the Thunder’s 31 in the quarter. He was hitting threes, getting takeaways on defense, and drawing fouls almost at will, and was brilliant during the key stretch.

Even so, the Wolves did everything they could to hasten their demise. It was like Thibodeau had described the future before the game: the Wolves did not move the ball; they allowed multiple transition opportunities through turnovers or bad shots; and they tried to work individually rather than as a team, with Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine all guilty of forcing up unwise shots.

“Our defense was poor from start to finish, but there’s no excuse for not having floor balance and protecting the basket, so we have to get that straightened out,” Thibodeau said, this time after the game. “Where we got in trouble was the same thing, trying to do too much individually. You have to hit the open man. Hit the paint, the defense collapses, there’s people open, you gotta drop the ball off.”

At halftime, one might have had dreams of a great win on the back of a career-best night from Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns had 25 at the half, his most in any half in his career, and finished the game with 33, only two off of his career best, but he was unable to stop the Thunder’s run, and did not play in the closing stages of the game after the result was clearly decided.

“It’s frustrating. We’ve gotta fix it,” Towns said after the game. “For us, we gotta worry about what we can control, and that’s making sure that we come in as the most prepared team we possibly can be, coming in here and executing offensively, defensively, physically, mentally.”

The third quarter is the easiest problem to look at, but there are plenty of others that may provide more understanding. LaVine entered this game averaging 21.3 points and 14.8 shots per game through the Wolves’ first four games. Tonight, he was 1-6 for four points. Victor Oladipo was glued to him for the entire night, and did an excellent job preventing LaVine from even receiving the ball, but the Wolves did him no favors.

Wiggins had a pretty horrific shooting night of his own, finishing 3-13 for just seven points, and notably shooting only two free throws on the night. The refs did not call much this game, and it clearly threw some Wolves who are used to easily getting to the line off in the first half. With LaVine and Wiggins struggling, Towns was the only starter who even got into double figures, and would have been the only player to do so had Shabazz Muhammad not gotten a few easy buckets in garbage time.

The Wolves are 1-4, but this is their first loss by more than four points. The Thunder are clearly a better team at this point in time, and they have the best player between the two teams in Westbrook. The Wolves are missing their starting point guard, which leads to plenty of problems that are always beneath the surface of each game’s specific problems. This is still a young team, no matter how great its potential, and tonight the young team had a bad game. They’ll learn, and grow from it, and get better. We just don’t know how long that will take yet.

Other Notes

  • The Wolves’ bench had absolutely no answer for Kanter, who finished with a 20 point, 10 rebound double-double off the bench. Kanter could get to the rim and score at will against Cole Aldrich, and while the Wolves managed to score with him and keep it close in the second quarter, that was a big problem all its own.
  • Muhammad finished with 15 points and four boards, and provided a good spark in the second quarter to keep the Wolves in striking range in the face of Kanter’s onslaught. He played so well that Thibodeau gave him a couple of minutes with the starters as the Wolves closed an early deficit in the second quarter. This was the good Shabazz, aggressive on both ends of the floor and contributing well.
  • It’s a good thing Bazz did the scoring he did: Nemanja Bjelica, Tyus Jones and Brandon Rush finished the game a combined 0-12 (0-9 from 3) from the field, and the only points between them were six free throws from Jones. Rush’s shot has not been anywhere near the mark to start the season, which cripples the expected offensive output of the bench.
  • The Wolves play next on Tuesday and Wednesday, their first back-to-back of the season at Brooklyn on Tuesday and at Orlando on Wednesday. They should be better than both the Nets and Magic, but they need to be better.