When the first half of the NBA schedule originally came out, no reasonable Minnesota Timberwolves fan expected victories against either the Lakers or Clippers, especially with both games taking place in Los Angeles. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie added to the injury report, expectations fell even lower to simply hoping for competitive basketball.
I mean, why not?
The Timberwolves have one of the youngest rosters in the league, meaning they still have several players looking to establish themselves and make a name for themselves in the league. D’Angelo Russell, former all-star and designated team second star, was still healthy. Veterans Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis were still available to not only suit up but also provide that much needed “veteran presence.”
And yet, none of this came to fruition. Two days after losing 121-97 to the Lakers, the Clippers handed the Timberwolves a 124-101 defeat on Tuesday night. The Clippers and Timberwolves were tied at 39 in the second quarter before LA broke the game wide open. At the half, the Timberwolves trailed 70-50 and struggled to cut the deficit below 20 for the rest of the night.
There are a lot of ways to shrug these losses off — from the absences of Towns and Okogie to the truncated training camp or whatever you like. With that said, the Lakers and Clippers had the same preparation time before the season and were also missing their stars in Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, respectively.
Of course, these are still good teams without those players, but you wouldn’t have guessed these teams were short an all-star after their performances against Minnesota.
No one was coming to save the Timberwolves in L.A.
The worrying thing is, without Towns, who will step up for this team? If not Russell, then who? Anthony Edwards and Jarrett Culver are too inexperienced for that responsibility. Despite his best efforts, Rubio has never been that kind of player.
Ricky Rubio on the Timberwolves' consecutive blowout losses:— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) December 30, 2020
"We gotta adjust a lot of things... The last two games have been ridiculously bad. That can't continue, and we've gotta do something about it."
Russell finished with 22 points on 19 shots with four assists and three rebounds. He may have swiped two steals but he also committed three turnovers. His defense also left much to be desired. Fair or not, this team is built for Russell to be the second guy. You need more than that when your best player is out for weeks.
Honestly, Russell wasn’t the only one who looked in over his head on Tuesday night. Naz Reid, starting in place of the injured Towns, looked very much like a previously undrafted player playing his 34th career game. Reid shot 4-of-6 from the field and grabbed just three rebounds while often looking overwhelmed on defense. That’s not to say Reid can’t become a player someday but he still looked extremely raw against the physical Clippers.
Jake Layman and Juancho Hernangomez played a combined 31 minutes and produced six total points on 3-of-9 shooting and five rebounds. Not that Okogie brought the offense to the 4-spot, but the Wolves weren’t even close to replacing Towns’ production either.
That leaves someone like Edwards, playing his fourth regular-season NBA game, to have to do more. Edwards was fine considering he came off the bench against a team with Patrick Beverly, Paul George, and Lou Williams. Edwards made 4-of-7 three pointers but didn’t register a rebound or assist and committed a bad foul on a Williams triple. However, Edwards is a rookie and is supposed to make mistakes.
The Clippers routinely exposed their opponent
Tyron Lue’s team also spent the night throwing lobs over the Timberwolves’ heads and creating countless easy looks off screens against a team that had seemingly never seen one before. The Timberwolves were neither the most talented nor hardest working team on the court on Tuesday.
You could look to the coaches. Did Ryan Saunders or supposed defensive specialist David Vanterpool make any adjustments? Perhaps they did and Lue just countered against an overmatched opponent. But if they did and the roster failed to execute, that’s a pretty big problem.
Saunders: "When you start switching just to switch with it not being part of what we’re doing with certain guys, that’s going to cause confusion and miscommunication. It wasn’t one guy. It wasn’t two guys. It was multiple guys that started doing that."— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) December 30, 2020
The lethargy and what felt like apathy is the type of energy that typically comes from a team trying to get their coach fired. That certainly doesn’t seem like an applicable explanation for this team (at least not this early into the season), but the Timberwolves did lose all of their fight after playing 18-or-so competitive minutes in both games at Staples Center.
Was this a preview of the next month?
This may seem like an overreaction to the fourth game of a season shrouded in unusual circumstances. Yet, these questions matter because the Wolves may be Towns-less for up to a month. With a plethora of games coming up to kick off 2021, the team cannot simply wait out the storm and/or hope these problems will figure themselves out.
More specifically — after Wednesday’s game against Washington, the Wolves face Denver (2x), Portland, San Antonio (2x), and then Memphis (2x). The schedule is not letting up and the Timberwolves need to figure out how to compensate for Towns’ and Okogie’s absences as much as they can.
In the first two games of the season, we saw that there is a lot of talent on this team outside of Karl-Anthony Towns — now Minnesota must figure out how to reconfigure that remaining talent before it’s too late.