Simply put, the Timberwolves have not lived up to expectations this season.
At 8-19, the team is several wins behind the suggested pace for a playoff team (which was the preseason expectation by not just fans, but also national media).
But it appears this team might be starting to figure things out. And before I explain why, just know that I am absolutely getting my hopes up way too high based on a small sample size.
This epiphany apparently took place when head coach Tom Thibodeau took a full timeout in the building in which he used to coach home games just over a week ago. With his team trailing 26-6, Thibodeau was facing complete humiliation against his former team.
But during that timeout, something Thibodeau said must have struck with his team. I’m not going to pretend to know what it was, but whatever it was didn’t just spark a dramatic comeback victory. The Wolves carried that momentum into their next two games.
(This is where I remind you that the Wolves played 45 minutes of terrific basketball against a very good Houston Rockets team before my television signal was interrupted and I was unable to catch the finish).
Okay, but seriously. For as much as we want to beat a dead horse about the improbable comeback the Wolves allowed there, we need to give credit to them for containing an extremely high-powered offense for a majority of the game.
Minnesota followed up that performance against Houston with another tough home victory against Phoenix. Sure, the Suns have one of the worst records in the NBA. On paper, it’s not a super impressive win. But for awhile in this game, it was playing out like a typical Wolves loss. Get out to a fast start and build a double-digit lead before squandering it in the second half.
But the Wolves were able to fight off Phoenix’s comeback attempt with maturity and earn a hard-fought win. If not for a meltdown of catastrophic proportions against Houston, this team is on a three-game win streak.
This “streak,” for lack of a better term, will be put to the test in Atlanta tonight against the Hawks. While Atlanta isn’t what they used to be a couple of years ago, they certainly pose a a viable threat.
Atlanta now hangs its hat on the defensive side, ranking in the Top 10 in defensive rating and points in the paint allowed and coming in fourth in defensive rebounding percentage.
The offseason addition of Dwight Howard has placed a bruising, rim-protecting presence in the middle of the Atlanta defense. Paul Millsap, despite standing just 6’8”, pairs with Howard as another effective post defender for the Hawks.
Offensively, the Hawks have slumped to 25th in three-point percentage after dominating from there a few years ago. Overall, however, the Hawks are 10th in field goal percentage, thanks again to Howard. The 6’10” journeyman built like an action figure is shooting over 63 percent from the field, good for fourth in the NBA.
Since I have mentioned him so much already, it’s worth noting Howard is a game-time decision tonight, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. He sat out Atlanta’s last game with back soreness.
Atlanta escaped with a 110-108 win at Oklahoma City two nights ago. Millsap’s 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting and 11 rebounds led the way, while Dennis Schroder poured in 31 points.
Again, worth noting — of the nine players who saw the floor for the Hawks against OKC, Millsap’s defensive rating (110) was the lowest.
Expected Starting Lineups
PG - Ricky Rubio
SG - Zach LaVine
SF - Andrew Wiggins
PF - Gorgui Dieng
C - Karl-Anthony Towns
Injuries: Nikola Pekovic: OUT (ankle).
PG - Dennis Schroder
SG - Kent Bazemore
SF - Kyle Korver
PF - Paul Millsap
C - Dwight Howard
Injuries: Dwight Howard: GAME-TIME DECISION (back), Tiago Splitter: OUT (hamstring)
NOTE: If Howard is unable to go, expect Thabo Sefolosha to slide into the starting lineup.
As we always do in game previews, let’s take a look at how the Wolves and Hawks match up using the Four Factors. Reminder, the Four Factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TOV%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw rate (FTR).
stat / Wolves / Hawks
eFG% / 50.0 / 51.3
TOV% / 15.5 / 16.4
ORB% / 27.6 / 24.2
FTR / .300 / .269
Atlanta’s 16.4 TOV% is actually second-worst in the NBA. Schroder (3.2 per game), Howard (2.5) and Millsap (2.3) are the most common offenders that contribute to this for the Hawks. The 24.2 ORB% mark for the Hawks is surprisingly low (17th in the NBA), especially given Howard leads the NBA in offensive rebounds per game (4.7).
Whether Howard plays in this game or not will make a significant difference in the outcome of this game. Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng have struggled with bruising big men in the past. For the sake of my prediction, I’m assuming Howard plays for Atlanta. In that case, I’ve got the Hawks winning at home.
Prediction: Hawks 100, Wolves 93