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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves
Where Art Thou Crunch Time Box Outs And Rebounds?
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Nuggets 107, Wolves 100: A Familiar Flaw

Dawdling in familiarity

MINNEAPOLIS — A little over five weeks ago, amid that deflating 11-game losing streak, I asked Ryan Saunders whether or not the team could improve their defensive rebounding in spite of small-ball.

His answer was yes, essentially. Ryan believed the coaching staff could emphasize gang rebounding on the defensive end, asking everyone to buckle down and become vitally important in this process of collecting boards and shutting down possessions. He specifically mentioned sophomore Josh Okogie as a key weapon that could help them greatly in this regard, even as my question suggested disbelief.

As of this writing, according to Basketball-Reference, the Wolves currently sit 22nd in defensive rebound percentage at 76.7%. The point for bringing this up? That question was asked after seeing Kawhi Leonard crush their comeback dreams with a critical offensive rebound and putback bucket. That sequence reminded me of a common theme throughout some of the closer losses this season. When they desperately needs stops, a recurring issue plagues them. It’s not being able to corral a rebound. Allowing second chances and deflating backbreaking buckets has crushed them.

This happened again tonight. A familiar flaw popped back up. Denver missed 14 shots in the fourth quarter and responded with six offensive rebounds on those attempts. The Wolves offered too many opportunities for redemption.

“I think that we just couldn’t finish possessions and get the defensive rebound,” said Josh Okogie. And in truth, that’s ultimately what defined the end of the game.I think that we were good for the most part throughout the game finishing our defense and getting the defensive rebound but you know it was a couple times down the stretch we just couldn’t get it and then it just led to threes,” he continued.

The 19 second-chance points allowed felt like far more in real-time probably due to the magnitude of the possessions. The Wolves surrendered 50 points in the paint and were outrebounded 40-31. As KAT said in the locker room afterwards, second-chance points are like building a sand castle that gets washed away by the ocean.

“Yeah, they got too many easy looks at the basket, shooting 48-percent on the second half of a back-to-back. Then outscoring us in transition, fastbreak points, that’s not a recipe for victory for us,” said Saunders. “I think as a team our activity and our contesting — contesting passes, contesting cutters, contesting dribblers, and contesting shooter was better during that stretch [with Gorgui Dieng starting at center as Towns recovered from injury]. We have to find it.”

Karl-Anthony Towns (28 points, 8 rebs, 5 assists) and Nikola Jokic (17 points, 13 rebs, 5 assists) both got their stats as they always do, but the latest chapter of their appointment watching feud was almost stolen by rookie Michael Porter Jr. He was an electric youngster who captivated with an impressive second double-double of his career — a team-high 20 points on 7-12 shooting to go with a game-high 14 rebounds. His trey-ball looked smooth. He was soaring above OUR guys for boards. He even ruthlessly rejected Culver at the rim in transition, which wasn’t cool to witness in the flesh given my affinity for JC, who is essentially one of the only reasons to be happy watching this team slide back down that old Wolves slope again.

This was Porter’s second 20+ scoring effort of his career and my eyes beheld a future star in this league that could absolutely match the hype surrounding him, a movement that should grow stronger rather quickly given the pure talent he flashed at Target Center on Monday night.

In the end, it was not rookie MPJ that had the last laugh. Will ruined The Thrill of victory by putting the Wolves to bed with a crucial triple against the normal drop coverage (though Vanterpool allegedly doesn’t like referring to it as drop coverage) which felt a bit ridiculous to ride out at that moment. Watching Towns drop that deep, totally leaving Barton room to rise up for the wide-open trey was a real head-scratcher with the game on the line.

Adjusting the scheme to get a crucial stop doesn’t feel like you’re bailing on the scheme at all. Aren’t those the type of requisite chess moves required in close games? Does it sound reasonable to be so attached to a scheme that you can’t adjust in any given moment that calls for it? Karl needed to support Shabazz Napier in coverage, as he’s getting screened by Jokic, in a way that allowed KAT to get up into either of the pick-and-roll duos space if necessary. Giving Barton, or any number of other players, that much room in crunchtime situations, no matter what the scheme is, feels insane. The game is on the line. He should be way higher trying to ensure a shot contest.

Judge for yourself...

“We have a lot of talent here,” said center Mason Plumlee. “We know we’re talented offensively and if we can play great effort defense, we are really good there too. Guys like Malik Beasley stepped up, Jerami Grant having 20 points and being so efficient too, I thought his game was great tonight. A lot of guys played at a really high level.”

Another Monday is in the books. The scheme limitations given the current personnel frustratingly persist. We watched the Denver Nuggets live at the rim all night in what became a painful Wolf exhibit of How Not To Protect The Paint or win the battle of the boards. For all the promise that small-ball offers, its downside continually finds a way to define losses, especially in games like these where they’re abused by straight-line drives, uncontested layups, and agonizing second-chance buckets.

While it’s always beneficial to see weaknesses with such clarity, fixing them has always been the real problem with this organization. Dawdling in familiarity should no longer be an option. Preaching patience will never work. This franchise needs to recognize what’s killing them right now. They should do their best to fix these things to keep another season from completely falling into the abyss.