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Cavs 140, Wolves 138: Heartbreak in Threeveland

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Combining for a record-setting 40 made three-pointers, the Cavs and Wolves game everyone a night to remember.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The nationally-televised matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves pitted two teams with obvious strengths and glaring weaknesses.

Coming into the night, the Wolves found themselves third in offensive rating (110.8), trailing only the scorching-hot Warriors (113.1) and Rockets (112.9), with the Cavs only a few spots behind in fifth (108.8). Conversely, both teams also found themselves in the bottom third of defensive rating, with the Wolves (107.5) 23rd and the lowly Cavs (109.5) 28th, only ahead of the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings.

Those strengths and weaknesses were on full display last night on ESPN, resulting in an offensive performance that only a video game player could dream of. With a combined 278 points and a record-setting 40 combined made three-pointers, the Cavs and Wolves spent 53 minutes exchanging offensive haymakers, while “conserving their energy” on the defensive side of the ball.

LeBron James paced the home team with yet another triple-double (37 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, and 1 timely block), willing his team to only their second win against a Western Conference opponent since before Christmas. The kid from Akron capped off his 64th career triple-double with this buzzer-beating turnaround jumper against the kid from Tomball:

Speaking of Butler, he was once again brilliant on the offensive end, pouring in 35 points on 67% shooting, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. Butler’s All-Star running mate Karl-Anthony Towns was equally if not more impressive, tallying 30 points on twelve (yes, TWELVE) shots, including 6-6 from deep and 4-4 from the charity stripe. Towns also secured his league-leading 48th double-double of the season by collecting 10 rebounds.

While the game was aethstically pleasing for everyone who tuned in, the overall performance (and end result) highlighted yet again some concerning season-long trends with this Wolves squad.

For starters, the Wolves defense at all levels last night was outright abysmal, resulting in the Cavs shooting a kiln-like 59.1% from the field. Considering the Wolves are dead last in the NBA in opponents FG% (47.8), this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Moreover, the Wolves came into the night 21st in opponents 3P% (36.8), and this unfortunate trend was taken full advantage of by J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver, who combined for 34 points on 10-17 from deep.

Secondly, the Wolves late game execution continues to leave much to be desired. In the last ten combined minutes of the game (five minutes in regulation and five minutes of overtime), Towns took three total shot attempts, all of which he successfully made (two three pointers and a 4-foot bunny). In overtime specifically, Towns failed to record one single shot, while his teammates took nine of them.

While the strategy of putting the ball in Butler’s hands late in games and letting him create is a sound one, the odd desire from the coaching staff to only play isolation ball in late-game situations is resulting in the team's most efficient and effective scorer getting frozen out for large stretches of time.

Overall, the three-point shooting was encouraging (although understandably not sustainable), and the performance from the Wolves’ two All-Stars demonstrated that they can compete with any team on any given night. But “competing” and “winning” are two vastly different things in the NBA, and this current collection of Wolves players (and coaches) needs to start re-examining things like defensive rotations and late-game execution if they want to “win” in the playoffs, not just merely “compete.”

Other Game Notes:

  • Towns’ 6 made three-pointers set a new single-game career best.
  • Jeff Teague finished with 14 points on 50% shooting and tallied 15 assists. The assist total marked Teague’s most assists in a Wolves jersey, and was 2 shy of his career best.
  • The Wolves won the turnover against their opponent yet again (11 vs. 15), and are currently second in the NBA in fewest turnovers per game (12.5).
  • Andrew Wiggins poured in 19 points, including 4-8 from beyond the arc, but failed to make much of a mark anywhere else on the box score (2 rebounds, 1 assist, and no steals or blocks).
  • Tyus Jones failed to score in his 14 minutes on the floor, but he did dish out 5 assists and swipe 2 steals. Since Teague’s return on January 10th, Teague has seen his minutes crack the 20-minute threshold just 3 out of a possible 15 games.
  • Tonight’s loss ended a streak of consecutive wire-to-wire wins for the Wolves (against the Bucks and Pelicans). At 34-23, the Wolves currently find themselves 4th in the Western Conference, a game behind the San Antonio Spurs and two games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
  • Cedi Osman, selected 31st in the 2015 draft by the Wolves, provided a much-needed spark off the bench for the Cavaliers, adding 9 points and 4 rebounds.