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Game Preview #33: Wolves at Celtics

The Wolves head to Boston to face off with Jayson Tatum and the Celtics

Minnesota Timberwolves v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Game Info

What To Watch For

A Look Into the Future?

While Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert are the highest paid Minnesota Timberwolves, the future success of the franchise rests largely on the shoulders of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. As far as wing duos across the NBA, few are as lethal as the Boston Celtics Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That’s not meant as a slight to either of the Wolves big men, especially as Towns is still the Wolves best (most consistent?) player when he’s on the floor. It’s just reality when you have two young wings who care barely legally drink that are also pushing for All-Star and/or All-Defense teams.

While Ant/Jaden are inherently different players than Tatum/Brown, the point is more about roster construction than any of their games individually. The Celtics are a great team for many reasons, but one of them is that the flexibility afforded to the team from having two great wings. You avoid awkward conversations about who to take off the floor when you want to go big or go small, and in general you avoid having to worry about size/speed issues in most matchups for them. It just gives you more avenues to building out a roster.

For the Celtics, this has meant that they don’t necessarily need a “true” point guard on the floor. Marcus Smart keeps things organized and runs a good amount of offense, but it also isn’t a big deal if Tatum or Brown is the initiator on most possessions. Smart is fully capable of playing off-ball and expending more of his energy on the defensive side of the ball. The Celtics are able to go big and remove Smart for another wing if they feel the need to, knowing that Tatum in particular can get them into their offense, or they’re able to remove one of Al Horford or Rob Williams for another big wing like Grant Williams if they want to more easily switch. Having great wings just gives you more avenues to success.

For the Wolves, it’s exactly why the growth of Edwards and McDaniels is paramount moving forward. If they both ascend the way that many of us locally believe they can, it just makes it easier to field a competent team. That type of duo makes the pool of players who “fit” on your team much larger, and as we’ve seen this season already, fit matters just as much as raw talent. Ant and Jaden may never be Tatum and Brown, but something close to it will breed long-term success in the Twin Cities.

Catching Boston at the Right Time

I wouldn’t ever say there’s a “good” time to play a team as great as Boston, but if there was a better time, it would be right now compared to earlier in the season. The Celtics shot out of the gate, but have started to come back to earth a bit of late. They’re just 4-6 in their last 10 games, and are currently on a three-game losing streak.

There are a few reasons for the recent skid, but the most basic one is just shooting variance and regression. In November, Boston was 14-2 and made 41.1% of their 42 3PA per game. Only the Warriors attempted more threes in November, and nobody made them at a higher clip. In December, Boston is making just 31.8% of their 42.5 3PA each night. Only the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors have made a lower percentage of their threes in December. Shooting variance comes for everyone, even a team as good as the Celtics.

Which Defensive Coverage(s) Will We See?

Minnesota has found success playing their high-wall concept again recently, so I’m intrigued to see if they continue to go to it with Rudy Gobert tonight, or if that was a Luka Doncic-specific decision by Chris Finch. The reality of this matchup is that the high-wall and drop should theoretically work better against one of Boston’s star wings, but each leaves some to be desired against the other.

Their isn’t really a “good” coverage for Jayson Tatum, which is why he might just be the early MVP favorite, but drop coverage with a big as good at it as Rudy is one way to potentially slow him down. Tatum’s in-between game has never been his strong suit, and while he’s started to mix in more floaters, it’s still by far the biggest hole in his offensive game. He’s shooting 75.3% at the rim and 35.8% from three this season on massive volume, but his mid-range shooting varies between roughly 37%-44% depending on the area. If you have to take your pick, that’s far preferable to giving up shots at the rim or from behind the three-point line.

Alternatively, Tatum has worked to become a really good, smart passer, so playing in the high-wall could create some of the same issues we saw against Luka Doncic on Wednesday.

For Brown, the opposite is true. He’s an absolutely killer mid-range shooter, but he really struggles with his decision making and passing at times. He can be turnover prone when things aren’t simple. Brown would likely see more success against drop than he would against the high-wall.

With all that being said, the Celtics are one of the best overall passing teams in the league, and with Smart, Brown, and Tatum, they often have multiple players capable of attacking close-outs and creating for themselves or teammates. That’s generally the kryptonite of the high-wall scheme, where a playmaker who receives the release pass can now play four-on-three against a scrambling defense. Because of that, and because if you have to pick between slowing Tatum’s or Brown’s strengths you’re always going to pick Tatum, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota play more drop coverage tonight.

If the Wolves do indeed play a larger amount of high-wall, I’d take it as an indication that they’re really going to lean into that style of play again, as opposed to just using it in specific matchup-based opportunities.

Injury Report

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Rudy Gobert: QUESTIONABLE — ankle sprain
  • Kyle Anderson: QUESTIONABLE — back spasms
  • Karl-Anthony Towns: OUT — calf strain
  • Taurean Prince: OUT — right shoulder subluxation
  • Jordan McLaughlin: OUT — left calf strain

Boston Celtics

  • Marcus Smart: PROBABLE — non-COVID illness
  • Rob Williams: QUESTIONABLE — non-COVID illness
  • Danilo Gallinari: OUT — left ACL tear