MINNEAPOLIS — Two years ago, Sam Mitchell took the podium following an ugly 99-79 loss to the Clippers and delivered one of the shortest postgame press conferences.
The Wolves’ former interim head coach sat behind the mic for about 30 seconds before walking off angrily without fielding any questions.
“They played a team that’s a real playoff team tonight,” he said in complete disgust. “You saw what happened, so we’re not ready yet. I wish they would stop reading the newspapers, stop talking to their friends, because we’re not good enough to just show up and play. That was the worst game we played all year.”
For whatever reason, this moment popped back into my brain as I was leaving Target Center last night. If the 2017-18 Wolves want to achieve anything meaningful this season, Tuesday night’s 130-107 loss to the Pacers will go down as the worst performance of the year.
If this team, expected by many to the make the leap into the elite class of franchises, is actually going make that jump, they can’t take the Pacers for granted. They can’t overlook anybody on any given night. Like Mitchell once said, they are not good enough to just show up and play. They can’t rely on their offensive prowess to carry them into April. They also can’t rely on Jimmy Butler to fix everything.
“We have more than enough to win with,” Thibodeau said during his postgame press conference, leaning back on a signature statement from his Chicago days.
“You can never underestimate how hard you have to play to win in this league. There’s going to be bumps in the road. There’s time in the game where it may not be going our way and you have to battle through those things. We’re at home, slow start, you gotta fight through things and find ways to win. We didn’t do that tonight.”
The reality is this: It can’t get much worse than what went down last night; the Wolves played some of the most uninspiring defense in recent memory. Not having Butler in the lineup—he sat out sick due to an upper respiratory illness that kept him out of morning shootaround, and required IVs and other treatment in the past 24 hours in an effort to get him back up and running—is not a good excuse for the total lack of effort, and awareness, in transition defense. Too many guys were hanging their heads.
Indiana was scorching hot, sure. Team’s get hot during the course of games. It’s a game of runs. Yes, the Pacers hit some tough shots throughout the night, and they couldn’t miss anything for long stretches, but this went beyond a team catching fire on the hardwood. There was no defensive resistance throughout the game. There was no response once things went sideways in the third quarter. Again, the miserable transition defense was terribly difficult to watch. It felt like an endless spree of gift-wrapped layups and dunks. Heads down, jogging back, bad body language. What happened to the team that gave the Thunder everything they had on Sunday night? Going back to what Mitchell said in that presser two years ago, the Wolves proved once again they aren’t good enough (not yet anyway) to take any team lightly. They genuinely seemed shocked by the Pacers’ fire and desire.
The great Britt Robson—now writing for The Athletic alongside another incredible reporter in Jon Krawczynski—asked Thibodeau if the Wolves came into the game overconfident because they are theoretically a better team on paper?
“I hope not,” Thibs responded earnestly.
“In this league, every team is—like you can’t get here without being a great player—so every team is capable of beating you. That’s why you want to have a consistency to your preparation, your approach to every game, so your routine, how you get ready, when the ball goes up, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. You should get ready the same way. Every game counts the same. You don’t get an extra point if you’re playing somebody that may be perceived as a great team. It doesn’t matter. The thing is, as I said, the biggest thing is you want to be able to count on your defense and your rebounding. We’re capable of doing better than we did.”
The communication in halfcourt sets was non-existent without Butler in the fold. Physicality? None. The toughness everyone has heard so much about? Completely absent. There was almost never five guys operating on a string like Thibodeau wants. There were breakdowns all night; more than three passes likely meant the Wolves were scrambling across the court. They could do nothing right defensively and were not on the same page on that end in any sense. Indiana finished with 130 points on 66.7 percent shooting. There’s literally no positive way to explain this tweet from Dave:
The Pacers shot 77% in the 2nd half (30/39 FG). Of that, their starters were 87% (19/22 FG)— Real Super Dave (@SuperStatsDave) October 25, 2017
These are shooting percentages that wouldn’t even happen in a rookie mode game of 2K18. This is not what an organization eager to break a 13-year playoff drought should be allowing to happen, with or without Butler. The effort was incredibly distributing to view and the starters from last night all need to look in the mirror. The Pacers’ guards, among others, trashed the Wolves. Darren Collison had 15 points, 16 assists, and five rebounds. Cory Joseph came off the bench, played 29 minutes, and went for 21/5/4/3. Victor Oladipo ripped them for 28 points. Bojan Bogdanovic licked his chops when he saw Shabazz Muhammad instead of Butler and turned in 19 points on 12 shots (+24 on the floor). The lack of wing depth really showed.
“We started very poorly,” Thibodeau explained, after showing up to the postgame presser later than usual. He likely delivered an extended message to his team afterwards. “I thought we got out of the hole in the second quarter and I thought our bench gave us a lift,” he continued.
“Third quarter started, we had a three-point lead, and then it just got away. I thought our rebounding was poor, our defense in transition. As I mentioned to our players, we have to have a toughness to win. You’re down Jimmy—you can’t come out, when you’re short-handed, and just think you’re going to go out there and win without putting the work into it.”
Most diehard NBA fans are familiar with Butler’s defensive resume. He’s an All-NBA type defender that can lock up a variety of players. But the difference tonight made him look like the best defensive player on earth. Maybe the league should give Jimmy the DPOY right now. Watching the Indiana Pacers run the Butler-less Wolves off their home court as boos rained down from the disturbed crowd that came to see the hyped New Era Wolves they’ve been told about likely left with the feeling that nothing has changed. With or without Butler, this was an embarrassing game that revealed how far this team still has to go.
Butler cannot cure all of the ailments, that’s clearly not a reasonable request. There was zero resistance defensively and mistakes happening all over the place. He wouldn’t have been able to fix all of the problems in this game. The team simply rolled over in the third quarter again and couldn’t gather themselves on the defensive side of the ball. These are two issue’s that plagued last year’s squad, popping up again the second Butler is out of the picture. The Wolves were not locked in and that seems to point to larger issues.
Why did they play such uninspired basketball last night? Are they already tired from the trips to San Diego and China? Are they not receiving Thibodeau’s messages? This is not what Thibs’ defenses are supposed to produce. It’s only one game, and that shouldn’t be forgotten by anybody, but the biggest names on this team—namely Towns, Wiggins, and Teague—have to put defense ahead of offense before the Wolves can realize their potential.
“Jimmy is obviously a big player on our team and means a lot, but we have to get the job done,” said Towns. “There’s nothing else to say. We have to get the job done. Whoever steps on the court, we have to get the job done.”
After starting 2-1, fueled by a corner three by Jamal Crawford in the closing moments against Utah during the season opener, as well as an unlikely Andrew Wiggins 30-foot buzzer-beating bank shot in Oklahoma City to steal the win, the team managed to kill a lot of the positive buzz with an abysmal, disheartening defensive performance against the Pacers. Aside from positive bench performances from Jamal Crawford and Nemanja Bjelica (18 points apiece) and another efficient offensive showing from Towns, everything seemed to go wrong last night.
“I didn’t like our body language when it wasn’t going our way,” said Thibodeau. “You get into things together, you get out of them together. If things aren’t going your way, make some hustle plays. Help unite and inspire your team. I think we are capable of doing that. It hasn’t been easy, we’ve had a tough schedule, but that’s the NBA. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it’s going against you, but you have to have the toughness to win under all circumstances. That’s, I guess, the thing that’s disappointing—more the mental part, the mental toughness of fighting through things, and you know the spirit has to remain strong and you have to find ways to win.”
As previously mentioned, the Pacers shot 77 percent in the second half while the starters, almost unbelievably, hit 87 percent. Those numbers seem fake to read and likely signal much larger issues that had not yet been exposed in the season’s first three games. Can Thibodeau even make sense of those silly shooting stats?
“You’re getting easy baskets,” he responded. “There wasn’t much resistance. We’re capable of doing better and we’re going to have to.” There’s little doubt his message to the Wolves was, and will be moving forward, much different than this subdued response.
And what about Andrew Wiggins? After starting out his fourth NBA season on fire, with a max deal signed and ready to kick in next season, he completely disappeared when his team needed him most. Could Wiggins pinpoint the Wolves’ lack of energy on a night that left everyone searching for answers?
“I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “We just have to bring it next game. This was a game we should have won and we just have to redeem ourselves next game.”
Perhaps the best part of the NBA is the unrelenting schedule. The season doesn’t stop for anybody and the next night can always reveal more answers to the questions at hand. The true test is whether team’s can bounce back from defeat or fall even deeper into their woes.
The first shot at redemption happens tonight in Detroit.