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Heat 115, Wolves 113: You Can’t Win Like This

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Sneak peek: The first half was miserable and Miami got whatever they wanted.

NBA: Miami Heat at Minnesota Timberwolves Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – The league’s hottest team came to Target Center and started the night by pouring in a flurry of easy buckets in the first quarter.

“40 (expletive) points?” Tom Thibodeau screamed with disgust at his squad after an awful start on the defensive end. Miami, winners of ten straight and suddenly two games out of the eighth spot in the East, continued their outstanding play of late under Erik Spoelstra.

Minnesota’s defense was criminally bad in the first half. At the break, the Heat were shooting 60.9 percent, leading 71-57. Tonight was the worst first half defensive performance of the season. Miami’s 40 first quarter points and 71 at halftime were the most points scored in an individual quarter and half by an opponent this season. Lethargic would been an underwhelming way to describe how the team looked.

Miami deserves a little credit to be fair. They ran precise sets, consistently identified mismatches, and when it came down to it, they made shots. At times, it felt like they were unconscious. Good for them. But to be even more fair, there was no resistance; no adjustments made until after halftime.

The Wolves appeared to have no idea what was going on over the first 24 minutes. Miami abused them with pick-and-rolls, quick ball movement, and dynamic off-ball cutting. They easily ran off screens to get, and hit, wide open threes. When the opportunity presented itself—because Dieng or Towns would sag off him or hedge too hard or just be in the wrong position—the Heat threw lobs towards the rim to an open Whiteside. That’s never going to be good news for any defense.

“Offensively, 113 points, 53 percent, we’re scoring the ball plenty,” Thibodeau said in his press conference, which was more animated than usual.

“The defense, if we don’t straighten it out, it’s going to be hard to win,” he continued. “I have to do a better job to get our team to play better defense. We have to prioritize it and it has to be important to everybody. You can’t win like this, you can’t. I think there’s an understanding of what we’re trying to do (scheme-wise) because there’s times when it’s done well. There’s not consistency to it. There’s not an urgency to it.

There’s some things that we’re trying to concentrate on, we’re not recognizing and reading the ball correctly, we don’t see the play, and so the anticipation, the understanding of what your responsibilities are when away from the ball, how you control the ball, all of that stuff is critical and if one guy’s not doing their job it’s going to cost us, we’re going to break down. Our starters have to lead, they can’t be one-sided players. This isn’t football where you have an offense and a defense. You have to play both sides of the ball and you have to play it well. You have to play it unselfishly and you have to play it together and you have to have the discipline to do it over and over and over again.”

We've been over this before but Thibs' message was loud and clear again. Until the team puts everything together defensively, winning with any consistency is going to be tough. In particular, Towns and Wiggins need to be much better.

Thibodeau continued, “I just told them that they have the capability of doing this well, and we have to really work at it and I have to make sure that they understand it better and I have to do that. I’ve got to make them understand how important this is. So I have to ask myself ‘is it being taught properly?’ And then you have to have the responsibility of understanding what your job is and then going out there and doing it and us being able to count on you to do your job and you can’t do what you feel might be best for you at the expense of what’s best for our team. The team has to come first and everyone has to understand that.”

I’m going to assume Andrew Wiggins received some stern words from Thibodeau at halftime; he went from looking completely asleep and disinterested to super engaged. He hit his first three shots of the third, scoring 13 in the quarter alone, and picked up the pieces defensively. Wiggins woke up. He lit a fire underneath the Wolves along the way, though that doesn’t change his bad start.

“It was one of our worst defensive nights,” said Wiggins, when asked about the defensive effort Thibodeau was seriously displeased with. “We made shots, had good offense, had good ball movement, but we didn’t get stops to win.”

Wiggins was also asked about areas he could improve on defensively. “We just need to play defense,” he responded. “That’s what it comes down to. I feel like I’m a pretty good on-ball defender, but off-ball I can lose sight of my man a little bit. We all have room for improvement.”

How to Let the Dragon Drop 33

Goran Dragic simply destroyed the Wolves. There’s no question who the player of the game was, and Thibs was clearly upset with the lack of an adjustment made on Dragic throughout the night.

The point guard who was rumored to be available for a discounted rate before Miami’s huge winning streak, scored 28 points in his first 23 minutes. He was 11-13 from the field, including 6-6 from deep with no free throws and six assists. Again, that was in 23 minutes. He wasn’t finished.

Dragic was licking his chops every time down the floor and ended up finishing with 33 points (13-17) on a career-high seven three-pointers. He added nine assists, two rebounds and a steal in 34 minutes. The Dragon got whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. Once he caught fire, the Wolves had no answer for him.

Hassan Whiteside was quieter than expected. After all, talented opposing centers have been giving the Wolves the business this season. I don’t even have the energy to go through the entire list at the moment, but it’s...been an issue. Without going into this further right now, I’ll leave it at this: Towns is a very bad defender. But back to Whiteside...he finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. That guy is massive. I’m always amazed at how large of a person he is up close. Almost shocking, I tell you.

Karl-Anthony Towns has a long ways to go defensively (he does show spurts of greatness, no doubt) but there’s no question he is sensational on the other end. Mr. KAT dropped 35 points on 13-20 shooting. He added eight rebounds and (this is something for another post) zero assists.

In fact, the Wolves’ starting front court had zero assists. That’s pretty hard to stomach. Without looking, I have to imagine that’s the first time this season that has happened. For those keeping score at home, that means Shabazz Muhammad had more assists (1) than Wiggins, Towns, and Dieng. I feel like that is pretty revealing. On the bright side, Ricky Rubio (13) and Tyus Jones (9) combined for 22 assists.

The real killer tonight were the threes. We already talked about Dragic’s seven triples, and the Heat finished 15-28. The perimeter defense was terrible; the second and third rotations were way too slow. As Thibs notes, second chance points (25, which is the most they have given up this season) was also a crucial factor in the loss. The defensive rebounding has to be better.

Towns on the loss:

“It’s one of those things you’ve got to learn from. You’ve got to take it to the next game so you can come out with a W. Next game’s a big game for us. We’ve got to find a way to win.”

On improving the team’s defense:

“Obviously, we all have a part. I think that we all have to do a better job, including myself, of finding ways to get stops. It’s something that we’ve got to do. I think, for myself personally, I know how important defense is. I never would have been undefeated in college without it. We need to go back to the lab tomorrow and find ways to make ourselves a better team. We have to do this as a unit.”

On the team’s defensive issues this past week:

“I think that we just need to regroup. We need to reassemble a little bit. You always look at yourself first. I think for me, I could help us out a lot more if I could rebound the way I was before. Less second chance points given. I’ve got to find a way to do what I did before. It seemed like a good formula last month.”

NOTES

  • Ricky Rubio left the game in the third quarter after getting crushed by a James Johnson screen. He started riding the bike behind the bench and walked back to the locker room shortly after. Luckily for the Wolves, who can’t afford anymore devastating injuries, Rubio trotted back out towards the end of the third, got back on the bike to stay loose, and rejoined the bench to start the fourth. Thibs immediately put him back in the game. There were no signs of an injury.
  • We saw more of the Rubio-Jones backcourt in the fourth; they were effective together and seem to compliment each other pretty well.
  • Kris Dunn is still sitting out due to a sore right hand. This was the third straight game the rookie point guard has missed, and they could have used him on Dragic. At least give a scorching point guard a different look. I have a hard time thinking Dunn couldn’t have at least slowed The Dragon down. KD3 is a bully on D!
  • Random thought: Good thing Dragic no longer plays for Phoenix. That would have been awkward with Dragan Bender in the picture.
  • Another quick note on Dragic, since he dominated this game: I kept thinking to myself about him looking in the mirror when he returned to the hotel later tonight, probably Loews Minneapolis Hotel across the street from Target Center, and saying to himself “BRIDGE POINT GUARD? I’M NO BRIDGE POINT GUARD. I’M AN (EXPLETIVE) STAR. I’M THE (EXPLETIVE) DRAGON.”
  • Thibs’ expectations for Gorgui Dieng on defense might be higher than anybody else on the team at this point. I suspect Thibs was pissed off with Dieng’s defense, because he pulled him for Nemanja Bjelica and G was limited to only 24 minutes (read: that’s unusual).
  • Rodney McGruder was fantastic in 36 minutes, scoring 15 points to go with four assists, and four rebounds. He plays extremely hard. He leaves everything he has to give on the hardwood. It’s tough not to appreciate players like him. McGruder is like that guy at Lifetime or YMCA or whatever gym who has very little skill whatsoever but pisses everybody off because he goes 200 percent and ends up being super effective because of the shear level of energy and effort he puts forth. Erik Spoelstra must love him to death. I would.
  • Somehow the game still hung in the balance until the final possession when Wiggins attempted to tie the game. The Heat almost pulled a Wolves. Wiggins gave them a chance to steal one. I don’t want to hear about his last two shots.
  • Now losers of four straight, and going to war without their best shooter for the rest of the season, the Wolves are unfortunately fading in the West.
  • Up next: Toronto (32-21) comes to Minneapolis for a game on Wednesday. One has to imagine tomorrow’s practice and film session at Mayo Clinic Square will be all about defense.