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Pistons 122, Wolves 101: Adjusting Expectations

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High expectations come crashing down to earth as the Wolves get worked by the Pistons.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, the Wolves were touted by many as a team to be reckoned with, one that without question got better in the offseason. With the acquisitions of veteran defender Taj Gibson, former all-star Jeff Teague and a two-way superstar Jimmy Butler, surely this team was a lock for the playoffs.

Right?

Well, we’ve all known that it’s not going to be quite that easy. Sure, the Wolves took some great strides in improving on offense and defense during the offseason, but these things take time to gel — Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. Swapping out three of your five starters is a big adjustment, because basketball is a game of chemistry, and chemistry requires reps.

And yet, what we witnessed last night against the Indiana Pacers and tonight against the Detroit Pistons is something with which we’re all way too familiar. Problems from seasons past are still currently plaguing this team, and it’s quickly becoming clear these struggles won’t disappear overnight. Maybe it’s time to re-adjust our expectations.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Early on in Detroit, the Wolves started out strong by executing on offense and controlling the glass. The Pistons missed a few open looks to begin with, which helped the Wolves get out to a 9-0 run to start the game, forcing Detroit into an early timeout.

Unfortunately, that run did not last long and the good news ends there. With players like Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris, it was only a matter of time before Detroit’s shots started to fall. And boy, did their shots come raining down. Gone are the days where Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond steal the spotlight in Detroit. Harris and Bradley caused some serious problems for the Wolves tonight, and I suspect they’ll continue to do so for other teams around the league.

The Wolves held their own throughout the rest of the first quarter, but that energy did not carry over into the second. Detroit started turning mistakes into points, which ultimately led to Harris and Bradley heating up. And somewhere in the middle of the second, we regressed from a capable basketball team to an assortment of players who look like they’ve never played together.

Once the Pistons started scoring in transition halfway through the second, this thing was as good as over. They ended up outscoring the Wolves 24-0 on fastbreaks, and if that sounds familiar it’s because the Pacers outscored us 18-6 on fastbreaks just last night. Clearly transition defense is a huge problem for this team. I’m all for crashing the boards, but when you’re crashing from the top of the key or if you’re chasing a rebound that leaves you out of position, teams will exploit that and make you pay — just like tonight.

What’s perhaps most concerning about those fastbreak points is that, while the Pacers are seventh in the league in pace, the Pistons rank 20th. This is not a team that typically thrives on running opponents out of the gym, and yet they rebounded, made smart outlet passes and hit open jumpers.

When it comes to halfcourt defense, I’m afraid the Wolves aren’t much better on that front either. Detroit runs a pretty mean pick-and-roll game with Jackson and Drummond, and an even deadlier pick-and-pop game with Harris, both of which caused problems all night. What’s more, there were plenty of possessions where the Wolves looked lost on defense, allowing players like Bradley and Stanley Johnson to make offball cuts that led to easy buckets.

I’m not sure where the miscommunication is happening specifically, but I will say that Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the biggest culprits here, along with Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad. It’s one thing to have bad instincts on defense, but it’s a whole other issue when you’re simply occupying space until you can get your next shot up at the other end. All three of these guys showed very little effort and resistance on the defensive end tonight, and truthfully I don’t see how this team can win without at least two of them showing some guts on defense.

The Pistons ended up outscoring the Wolves 40-18 in the second quarter, leaving them down 19 at halftime. (Ish Smith was +22 at half, so...yeah.)

In the second half, it was the same old story, only worse somehow. Harris kept firing up open looks while Drummond worked the glass like the monster he is, racking up second chance point after second chance point, including back-to-back and-one opportunities following offensive rebounds. It was a disaster.

At the end of the night, Harris wound up with 34 points (going 6-9 from deep), Bradley added another 20 and Drummond had a 15/15 double-double. I’m not even going to bother with the Wolves’ stat line, because there are much bigger concerns at hand here. This team has a lot to work to do — more than most of us were anticipating. And while there are still a lot of games ahead for them to figure it all out, the playoffs are a long way off from the team we witnessed tonight.

Stray Observations

  • Teague bounced back from the game against Indiana and was aggressive all night, but it’s clear he’s still finding his way with this squad. And man, he sure does dribble an awful lot in halfcourt sets.
  • Wiggins was 6-9 from the charity stripe after going 1-6 on Tuesday. He has to figure this out, especially if he’s going to be the one with the ball in his hands at the end of close games.
  • When Tyus first checked into the game with a couple minutes to go in the first, he had a great sequence of plays. All within a little more than a minute he got a steal, rebound, assist, two points and drew a charge. I know he has a long way to go, but he is clearly learning how to be a competent NBA player.