Yesterday, I wrote about how the Minnesota Timberwolves are paying the piper; all their losses to subpar teams are finally taking their toll with the team on the brink of falling out of the play-in race. The Wolves had lost five out of six games, and they were traveling to New York City with their two best offensive players injured. Add in a New York Knicks team that has been one of the best in the league since the All-Star break, and a loss just felt inevitable.
It is easy to only latch onto one part of this team’s DNA - their underwhelming performance against poor teams. The Timberwolves have proven this year that their makeup isn’t so simple and easy to dismiss. They have another aspect of their identity that shows up when you least expect it: They are going to find a way to bounce back when everyone begins to count them out.
November 13th: After dropping three games in a row and starting the season a very disappointing 5-8, the Timberwolves on the road to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game where Darius Garland dropped 5 1points - the start of a five-game win streak that would include victories over the the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers.
December 31st: The Timberwolves hit what was arguably the low point of their season, dropping a game to the Detroit Pistons at home on New Years Eve, capping off a six-game losing streak. Their response? Beating the Denver Nuggets at home two days later, followed by victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Houston Rockets.
January 23rd: The Wolves lose a game to the Rockets in Houston (after talking about how the Rockets lack necessary veteran leadership) and then follow it up with three straight victories over the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings.
February 28th: After losing three straight, the Wolves bounce back and have an unprecedented west coast road trip with victories over the Kings, Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
Which brings us back to last night. After a couple of heartbreaking losses to the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls (and one run-of-the-mill loss to the Toronto Raptors), the Timberwolves showed up and played one of their best offensive games of the season without their two best scorers. They overcame a rowdy crowd at Madison Square Garden and a completely unconscious Julius Randle who scored fifty-seven points.
Now we head into the final nine games of the season wondering which part of the team DNA is going to win out. This predictably unpredictable, overachieving underachiever of a team still gets to decide their fate. Buckle up.
Onto the grades.
Three important reminders:
1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
2. Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I may alter or add statistical categories as we see this team step into their identity.
3. Fourth quarter grades will only involve stats accrued in the twenty games between February 24th and April 9th unless otherwise noted by an asterisk. As we get to the end of the season, I’ll be mixing in some season-long advanced metrics that better track defensive prowess and aren’t as much of a prisoner of the moment.
Taurean Prince Fourth Quarter Check-In: 85% (B)
Before the Knicks game: 65% (D)
Here’s a fun one to start with. It shows how quickly grades (and perception of a player’s performance) can change. Posted above is Taurean’s grades before and after his game in New York last night.
Say someone had written a piece on Monday about Prince’s shooting struggles, it was completely fair criticism. Perhaps such pieces might even inspire a player to give a career performance by shooting 8-8 from three-point range and being the key offensive force that pushed the team over the top to win the game.
Taurean Prince had a career performance when the Timberwolves desperately needed it. The outlook of the season is now different because he showed up when the team needed him most.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker Fourth Quarter Check-In: 84% (B)
While Alexander-Walker’s initial shooting hot streak has slowed in the recent games, his defense has remained a consistent factor in why he should continue to get playing time. According to defensive estimated plus/minus, he’s the team’s fourth best defender, just behind the guys you’d expect: Kyle Anderson, Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels.
For NAW, the ability to knock-down shots and create offense is going to be a bonus, but what he will offer every night for the Timberwolves is a very good perimeter defender on the bench unit; a player tailor-made to step in and slow down microwave scores on an opposing team’s bench.
Naz Reid Fourth Quarter Check-In: 71% (C-)
Reid is another player that is just hard to get a handle on. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards injured, you could make the argument that he is the next most-skilled player at creating their own shot. For all of the flashes of offensive brilliance, his defensive limitations have been showing a bit more lately with notable moments of getting beaten on rotations or off the dribble.
With Towns returning, Reid’s minutes as a bench contributor may be in jeopardy. But then, that was exactly what we all thought at the start of the season, and Reid’s early season play demanded that he get more time. This will be an interesting one to track over the final stretch of games.
Jordan McLaughlin Fourth Quarter Check-In: 82% (B-)
McLaughlin continues to be an assist guru - ranking in the top three in the league in AST ratio, a stat that compares shooting probably versus making a pass that leads to a bucket for a teammate. What is becoming noticeable in games is that he is going to get a lot of opportunities to hit open threes, something that he quickly can become hesitant to do if he misses a couple.
For McLaughlin to hit his ceiling as a player, his confidence in taking those shots needs to remain high as it will open up so much of the offense for the rest of the bench unit if opposing teams need to consider him a shooting threat.
Austin Rivers Fourth Quarter Check-In: 64% (D)
This is again for Rivers, a very small sample-size, so there is no need to pile on. He was a key bench piece for the Wolves in December and January as his shot came to life. He’ll be an important veteran presence on the bench that may see the floor based on matchup, but there are probably a few too many players ahead of him on the depth chart for him to see consistent time.
Jaylen Nowell Fourth Quarter Check-In: INC
Nowell only played a total of twenty-seven minutes over this stretch due to injury. Last night, he had a brilliant first half against the Knicks - showing how much the Timberwolves bench unit missed his offense. Then in the second half, he forced a couple of shots without any ball movement and was quickly benched. The balance of hunting your shot as a scorer and keeping the offense flowing is one that has been haunting Nowell all season long.
The Minnesota Timberwolves Fourth Quarter Check-In: 70% (C-)
Staters Average Grade: 86% (B)
Bench Average Grade: 77% (C)
Over the last twelve games, the Wolves are 5-7. They’ve lost ground on every single Western Conference playoff hunting team except for the New Orleans Pelicans (4-8) and Portland Trail Blazers (3-10). They’ve been injured, but they continue to fight. Perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel:
Nine games to go. The team is going to have its full arsenal of players for the first time since November. They’ve given us as fans equal reasons for optimism and pessimism. Every time that we’ve wanted to count them out, they’ve fought back. One more shot to see if they can still make this season something special.