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1-on-1: Offensive Doldrums and Lingering Questions

We dive in to game two and what it tells us about this franchise

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

EiM: OK. We’re back for another one-on-one, this time about the much less entertaining game two, which the Rockets controlled from the second quarter on. I tweeted after the game that it was much more what I expected out of the series, but I should qualify that. I meant the margin of victory for the Rockets, not so much how we got there.

Although there is synergy between offense and defense, usually we can accurately point to the Wolves’ defense as the reason for their losses. Last night, it was more a function of a dysfunctional offense. The Rockets still shot it poorly, though made 16 threes to the Wolves’ five. James Harden shot 2-18 from the floor, scored 12 points, and dished only seven assists. The Rockets shot 36.5% overall from the field.

John, although the Rockets are clearly capable of being better offensively no matter what the Wolves throw at them, I thought the defensive effort was good, especially Towns defending the pick and roll, which really limited Houston. Before we get to all the bad stuff, what did you notice about the Wolves defense last night?

JM: The first quarter was wonderful to watch. While the Wolves were struggling to score, they put together one of the best, most complete defensive quarters of the season. There was so much promise. I loved the way Jimmy Butler was opening up and shading James Harden to go right. Jeff Teague and Butler were doing an excellent job of staying up into the bodies of Chris Paul and Harden and funneling them into Towns, who was more active and aware than he typical is. He was stepping up and dropping back in a way that inspires real confidence in his future on the defensive end.

KAT was playing with outstanding verticality at the rim, launching straight up with his arms stretched high above the rim to make shot attempts near the cup extremely difficult for Houston. Towns was showing us what he’s capable of doing when he is reading pick-and-rolls well, and his guards are pushing their man to the right spots. The shot contesting early on was tremendous. Andrew Wiggins was playing with a certain fire on that end that we don’t always see. Taj Gibson was being physical in the paint.

Everything was going so well. The Wolves led 23-18 after the first quarter. Houston started 5-25 from the floor with five turnovers due to the defensive intensity and execution. It was like the Tom Thibodeau defense finally arrived at the most important time. Harden was 1-7 and the Rockets were bricking everything again. The defense, as a whole, was way better than I expected going into the series. Holding Houston’s dynamic offensive attack to 102 points after allowing 104 in game one is about all any reasonable person could ask for.

But the offense ... yikes. We spent the entire season talking about the lack of creativity on that end. We also mostly shrugged. I mean, should we really be complaining about the league’s 4th rated offense (113.4 points per 100 possessions) when the defensive issues are ten times worse? Well, game two was the perfect example of why plenty of people didn’t like the offensive system, or at least had issues with it. The lack of movement, passing, and spacing. The vanilla halfcourt sets. That stuff isn’t going to cut it in the playoffs against a top defensive unit like the Rockets (6th in defense at 106.1 pp/100). There was too much standing around while one guy played hero ball.

The start of the second quarter drove me completely up the wall. The first 12 minutes were extremely promising but the lineup of Death—and not in the positive Golden State Warriors sense—reared its ugly head once again.

Eric, please tell me how in the world Thibodeau can not see that Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose are absolute lineup killers? How is he comfortable playing this group (Teague-Crawford-Rose-Butler-Towns) in the playoffs. There was a 22-point swing in 8+ minutes. Rose and Crawford on the court together is now -23.8 points per 100 possessions in almost 32 playoff minutes. Meanwhile, Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones sit on the bench collecting dust.

EiM: I have no answer. All season, Tyus Jones has played well, and has deserved more time. EVEN THE GUY IN FRONT OF HIM, Jeff Teague, said so on more than one occasion. Thibs was asked about playing them together: Not interested. All of a sudden, Derrick Rose is on the squad, and hey presto! Tiny lineups are in! It’s beyond my comprehension, really. At any rate, that group was horrendous. Bjelica got his three decent minutes at the end of the first quarter, but was then yanked for that eyesore, which just bled points while Harden was resting. Seeing Rose get turned away at the rim time and again was brutal, and Crawford, who doesn’t really help even when he’s making shots ... was not making shots. I have no idea what Thibs sees in that setup.

Meanwhile, as a whole, yeah, the offensive problems that people have been pointing out all season are coming home to roost. One of the interesting things this year has been seeing tweets from national NBA writers wondering as they watch Wolves games how the offense works given how ugly it generally looks. Well ... yeah. Obviously this is exacerbated by Butler not being 100 percent. Towns tried to get going a bit early last night, but it didn’t work. It still seems like the plan is to get the switch and then send Towns away so that a guard (who by definition isn’t as good an offensive player as Towns) tries to make a play. That’s poor thinking.

It was all on display last night. Their lack of spacing and shooting. No ball movement or player movement. Over reliance on isolations. It was no fun to watch.

Look, we knew the Rockets were going to win this series, and we all would have predicted four or five games, so it’s not as if this is coming as a surprise or we should be particularly disappointed with the outcome. But so many of the frustrations of the season, of Thibs, of this team were on display last night. In particular, roster and playing time management remains a central theme that galls me and many others. It still feels like such a missed opportunity from draft night 2017 to now.

To wit: On the same night the 8th seeded Wolves get blown out, Ricky Rubio gets his first playoff win with the 5th seeded Utah Jazz. His 22-7-9 line and go-ahead three pointer are looking pretty good. How do you like them apples?

JM: I had a blast watching the Jazz beat OKC to tie up the series at 1-1. That’s probably the best first round matchup. Rubio battled Westbrook all game and he even went 5-8 from deep! Ricard gave Russ everything he had and I was happy to see him win his first playoff game. Last night was a bit of poetic justice in this sense. Most people know how I feel about Rubio, but I said my goodbyes last summer. What’s done is done. I’m genuinely happy he’s living his best life in Utah and playing at a high level in the playoffs. So many people always questioned if that was even possible.

Getting back to the Wolves, it’s not like anybody really expected them to make this series interesting. But it’s extremely frustrating how they set themselves up for all of the problems they’ve inevitably encountered. Rose getting wing minutes next to Crawford because Thibs doesn’t have any other wings he trusts, not taking or making threes, having four centers on the roster, barely playing the bench. These issues were all easily avoidable. Have you lost faith in Thibs? If so, more as a POBO or coach? Or do you still believe in him? Maybe you’re worried about both sides of the job?

EiM: One from column A and one from column B. Look, I was wrong about this. I was enthusiastic about the Thibs hiring, and although I had some reservations about giving him both jobs, I thought it was worth the risk. I admired the job he did in Chicago and thought there was a good chance he learned some things on his year off, both due to personal reflection and all of his travels around the league.

Nope. He’s the same stubborn guy who doesn’t appear to listen to anyone, and refuses to honestly assess himself and his performance, at least to the point of changing things. The answer is that it’s both. I think the personnel side was such a letdown after the Butler trade. They failed to address the issues on the wing, which has been a gaping wound all season, and one that Rose does nothing to fill. I don’t have to go over everything; we all know what happened.

On the coaching side, he hasn’t brought the one thing we all expected: Consistently good defense. We’ve seen the offense falter in this series in part due to a lack of creativity and understanding who your best scorer is.

His playing time decisions have risked wearing out some guys while leaving potentially useful minutes on the bench, and it’s difficult to understand his logic to substitutions much of the time.

More than anything, and perhaps this applies to both roles: He seems to have alienated people throughout the organization.

Which brings us to this: It seems fair to say from my seat that many of the players are not happy with Thibs for various reasons. Thibs is also not going to change. Those factors have led to what has been on the one hand the most successful season in recent Wolves history, but on the other hand what has looked for much of the time like a joyless endeavor. I thought this tweet summed things up nicely:

So, to finish up, I’m wondering where you think this organization is going? How many players, both currently here and potential acquisitions, want to be here? Can this group achieve more with Thibs at the helm, or will we need to see yet another change at the top in order to move forward, especially with Karl-Anthony Towns? What’s your read?

JM: Where are they going? Who knows. There’s a lot up in the air right now. I still think they have the talent to be a real force but until they become a deeper team, and the bench can be trusted to positively chip-in, they will likely exist in this same tier of teams. Good, with the potential to be very good, but certainly not elite. I don’t know how each player is feeling. My sense is that guys like Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng are not at all satisfied with their roles. Why would they be? To steal a Thibs-ism, they’ve all shown More Than Enough to get consistent minutes. I’d be surprised if they weren’t irritated.

I worry that meaningful free agents, capable of soaking up bench minutes, won’t look at Minnesota as a good landing spot due to the heavy reliance on the starters and Thibs’ complete reluctance to use his bench. An excellent sixth man is going to want 25-30 minutes, for example. Good role players are never going to be satisfied with 10 minutes. I think the way Thibs has managed the Wolves over the past two seasons makes this franchise much less of a desirable destination than it should be with two All-Star pillars.

This group can definitely achieve more with Thibs at the helm but he needs to adjust and adapt to the NBA in 2018. That means adding shooters. That means having wing depth. That means taking a real hard look at old schemes that may no longer work. He needs to change for the better. And that’s the real concern. Can he? Will he? Is he too stuck in his old ways?

If the Wolves want to move forward in a positive direction under Thibodeau’s leadership, he has to look in the mirror, take ownership over mistakes, take the legitimate criticisms to heart, and start fixing the problems.

If he doesn’t, this organization will continue treading water in the same tier of Western Conference teams.