The Minnesota Timberwolves trailed the Memphis Grizzlies by 13 points early in the third quarter on Wednesday. While Memphis led 73-63 at halftime, the lead quickly grew to 79-66 just a few minutes into the third. It felt like the Grizzlies were beginning to pull away. Karl-Anthony Towns was in foul trouble and the offense was having trouble getting going.
Simply put, this was not where the Timberwolves wanted to be against Ja Morant and the Grizzlies.
Over the next four minutes, the Timberwolves would march back to reclaim the lead. This comeback was fueled by their 3-point shooting. Sure, the Wolves got to the rim and forced turnovers, but it was the treys that felt most impactful. Anthony Edwards hit back-to-back triples, Jaden McDaniels connected on one of his own, and D’Angelo Russell’s bomb with 5:53 remaining retook the lead at 90-88.
The Timberwolves made 8-of-10 3-pointers in the third quarter alone and were 16-for-30 (!) through three quarters. While this volume of 3-pointers is nothing remarkable in 2021 since everyone shoots 3-pointers now.
What is noteworthy is how far this franchise has come in embracing the deep ball.
Sad, Sad Stats
From 2015 through 2018, when every team began taking more 3’s, the Timberwolves averaged the fewest 3-pointers per game in the entire league. In 2019, Minnesota went from last in 3-point attempts per game to...26th. While jumping four spots is progress, it was not enough. They went from 22.5 attempts per game in 2018 to 28.7 the next season and were still bottom-5.
Here’s another fun one — the Timberwolves fired 2,540 threes in 2021 (in only 64 games). Yet, the 2015 Timberwolves shot 1,223 triples in 82 games. They went from just under 15 attempts per game to almost 40 attempts a night in six years.
Before 2020, the Timberwolves had ranked higher than 10th in 3-point attempts per game just once (2011). Now they’ve done it in back-to-back seasons.
A lot of this is how the league has evolved — everyone is taking more threes, so everyone is adjusting their shot profiles accordingly. However, it’s evident this franchise has gone from late adopters of the 3-point shot to one of the highest volume 3-point shooting teams in the league.
Now Versus Then
If the Timberwolves played the same type of game just five years ago, not even 10 or 20 years ago, they lose that game. Ten threes in one quarter? They would be lucky to take that in one game.
Watching the Timberwolves chew the clock to grind their way to contested midrange jumpers or long 2-pointers while their opponents bombed away from distance was maddening. Here’s an example of why this was frustrating:
The 2018 Timberwolves took more 2-pointers than anyone in the league but averaged the fewest 3-point attempts per game. They were actually okay shooting the threes, though, connecting on 35.7 percent of those attempts (19th in the league). You would think that ever if increased volume would lead to slight regression that overall it would still be worth it because their makes would be that much more valuable. Though these are different rosters, this season’s team shoots just 35.2 percent from deep (23rd).
Minnesota made 8.0 of their 22.5 threes that season, good for 24 points off 3-pointers per game. Meanwhile, opponents were launching 29.6 threes a game and making 10.9 of them. That’s 32.7 points per game allowed off triples. Because the Timberwolves were too set in their ways, they began every game at almost a nine-point disadvantage.
In contrast, this year’s team is 39.3 points per game on threes and allowing just as many points from opponents. A hot night for the Wolves or a cold night for their opponent can now give them an advantage from beyond the arc. Part of that could have to do with Minnesota being in the bottom-third in 3-point efficiency. At a minimum, the Timberwolves no longer need to make several more 2’s per game to compensate for the opposition’s threes.
(Note: The Timberwolves have been consistently bad at allowing opponent threes, too. However, they are 12th this year and were fifth last season in treys allowed).
Of course, that 2018 team actually made the playoffs — they were still pretty, pretty good. This 2021 team is not very good and they take a ton of threes. Whether a team takes more shots from deep is far from a guarantor of success — there are numerous factors that go into making a team successful. With that said, this Timberwolves team looks much different than any iteration we’ve seen before, and a large part of that is due to their shot selection.
A Team Capable Of Overcoming Double-Digit Deficits
What seems safe to say is that it’s hard to imagine the 2021 Timberwolves playing like the 2018 team and making the same third-quarter push. Imagine the game slipping away and Minnesota continuing to pound the ball inside and settling for a Gorgui Dieng jumper at the end of the clock. Then rinse and repeat with an Andrew Wiggins 18-footer. Hey, maybe Jimmy Butler would get to the line, though.
The way the Timberwolves’ hot outside shooting opened up the lane for easy shots at the rim (same for buckets off turnovers) — this is the modern philosophy Timberwolves observers have been waiting for the team to embrace, even if they are five years or so late.
One last fun stat that shows both how the league and team have evolved. The 1990 Timberwolves attempted a whopping 294 threes while the 2020 team shot 2,540 — nearly ten times as many.
It was not long ago the Timberwolves were among the league’s lowest-volume 3-point shooting teams. When you consider this team’s shot profile and overall offensive philosophy nowadays, that era feels like an eternity ago. Wednesday’s third quarter comeback (and many of these late-season victories before it) has shown that this franchise’s newfound affinity for the long-ball may finally be paying off.