After the All-Star Break, the Wolves had started meeting expectations of respectability. Sure they were not winning every game, but gone were the terrible games of the beginning of the season or even the first games under Finch. Perhaps it was too much to expect the veneer of normality to remain.
The Thunder did not field a normal NBA team tonight. They were missing their NBA cast-offs and role players that have made the team competitive, with Al Horford, George Hill, and Dort all missing tonight’s game. Instead, the Thunder ran nine-deep, mostly with players who would struggle to make most NBA rosters.
The starting lineup included two first-round draft picks, Theo Maledon and Poku, that came into the season incredibly raw, as well as two second-year players, Moses Brown and Isaiah Roby, who were second-round picks that played sparingly last season. Taking out Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, the remaining Thunder starting lineup has played a combined 2,464 minutes coming into tonight’s game. Anthony Edwards, by himself, has nearly half that. Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns combined have nearly four times as many career minutes as the entire Thunder starting lineup.
So, this game certainly brought no joy when the Wolves played down to the competition. The Wolves offense was stilted and struggled to convert wide-open looks. Karl-Anthony Towns had 15 of the Wolves 22 first-quarter points, then did not score again in the first half. Outside of a few threes from Naz Reid in the first half, the Wolves could not get anything going.
Nothing better exemplified this game than when Theo Maldeon stole an inbounds pass and preceded to miss two dunks in a row all by himself.
The Wolves may have had a talent advantage, but they certainly did not have a shooting one. Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards were able to get around the rim at will, but neither were able to convert open looks. The end numbers appear fine for both, as KAT still had 33 points and 10 rebounds, but it took him an uncharacteristic 28 shots to get there. If both KAT and Ant are having poor shooting performances, the Wolves are deplete of other talents on offense. The other usual suspects, Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell, chipped in their typical points, but in a game like tonight, the Wolves needed them to be supernovas.
On the scale of Ant scoring 42 and shooting 0-8, this was somewhere towards the tail end. Ant was noticeably bad on defense tonight and started gambling to make up for a lack of attention. But yet, it’s hard to fault him much. These are normal rookie problems that get exposed when a 19-year-old rookie becomes the focal point of a team.
Ant did not play to close the game and his negative sound bites are certain to spark a bit of attention. However, this was not a strong game from Ant it felt fair for him to watch the proceedings from afar.
The Wolves roster clearly needs work. The forward rotation of Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels, and Juancho Hernangomez is not serving anyone well. Cycling through each player leaves little consistency. The soon-to-be guard/wing rotation is also bound to be a disaster, as Jarrett Culver got a few more short stints on the court and is only going to be further squeezed when Malik Beasley returns.
Meanwhile, the Thunder took advantage of the Wolves’ new chaotic defensive strategy. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander was able to carve up the Wolves in a familiar manner, scoring 31 points, but the rest of the Thunder were able to quickly move the ball around the perimeter to get wide-open shots. Sometimes the Wolves would keep up, such as during the three 24-shot clock violations in the third quarter, but most of the time the Thunder could find the open man.
It’s hard to describe seeing Alexej Pokusevski in person. No one on either team had any idea what to do with Poku. The Wolves let anyone guard him by standing in his general vicinity. He responded by flicking up shots every opportunity and leading a particularly magical fast break that culminated by driving to the basket and throwing a wild behind-the-back pass way out of bounds. But then other times he would sink a three with a little squat jump and pat Jake Layman on the back for deigning to stand in his presence.
And maybe the skill gap is not large between these two rosters and just looking at the three-point numbers tells us all we need to know. The Thunder hit 57% of their threes compared to the Wolves 36.8%. The refs called an incredibly low number of fouls until the fourth, there were 10 or so combined free throws in the first three quarters, giving either team little opportunity to wide or close the point differential. That is all it takes on a bad night for the Wolves.
Considering how poorly the Wolves played, at least they notched another loss against a fellow tanking compatriot.