The Minnesota Timberwolves walked into Target Center on Friday night as the No. 8 seed anticipating a sold out crowd, with a chance to beat the LeBron James and the No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers and firmly entrench their position in the race for the No. 6 seed Western Conference.
Instead of seizing that opportunity, the Wolves allowed Lakers to punk them on their home floor in embarrassing fashion, 123-111, headlined by a 38-point, 17-rebound effort from Anthony Davis. They woke up on Saturday morning in the No. 9 spot, two full games back of the No. 6 seed Golden State Warriors and just one-and-a-half games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks, who hold the 11th spot.
Unfortunately for Timberwolves faithful who braved a blizzard to support the team, these types of performances have typified the fan experience in Downtown Minneapolis for the better part of the last two months. Minnesota is a woeful 1-6 in their last seven games at home, including three losses to teams playing on the second night of a road/road back-to-back. Conversely, the Wolves are 7-4 on the road in that same six-week span, including wins over six playoff teams — and they gave two of those losses away late in regulation or overtime.
If the Timberwolves do end up missing the playoffs, they could surely (and rightfully) blame dropping all the games they did teams bringing up the bottom of the standings in November, December and January; but even still, they had a chance to control their own playoff fate independent of the Play-In Tournament, and they blew it.
What is perhaps most disappointing about Minnesota’s disastrous showing is that all year Naz Reid has exemplified the requisite physicality, toughness, mental fortitude and ‘never say die’ attitude that enabled this club to stay afloat for so long without Karl-Anthony Towns, and in the first game Reid missed with a wrist fracture, his teammates didn’t band together and play like Naz, for Naz.
And that is startling.
Let’s get into the takeaways.
An All-Time Weird Inflection Point
Davis went up for a rebound at the 6:35 mark of the third quarter with the Timberwolves winning 76-68 and carrying most of the momentum to that point. Minnesota then collected a loose ball, missed a wide open 3 in a four-on-three, gives up a touchdown layup, turns it over instead of accepting a take foul, and then commits a head-scratching shooting foul in transition. Somehow, Los Angeles went on a 4-0 run in a span of 26 seconds despite playing with Davis down on the ground writhing in pain.
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Not only did Davis stay in the game after the timeout, but he also went on to dominate the game from there on in despite playing through obvious pain. The eight-time All-Star dropped 21 of the Lakers final 55 points on 8/13 shooting and grabbed six rebounds (three offensive) in 13:48 of play over the game’s final 24 minutes. While all that was going on, the Wolves, on the other hand, scored just 35 points on 11/32 shooting (34.4%) and had more turnovers (9) than assists (8) over the same stretch due to inexplicably bad ball movement and a lack of shot-making that fed a cycle of poor offensive process affecting defensive effort and vice versa.
“It was (a turning point) actually. When I think about it, it’s almost like when that happened, we lost our talent. It was crazy. That happened, I had the ball in my hands and I could’ve went and dunked it, but AD was laying there. So I was like, that’s too ruthless, I’ll just pass it out,” Rudy Gobert explained about the sequence postgame.
“After that it was just turnover after turnover. It was just a tough stretch. It seems like we never really got it back after that. Once again, gotta watch film and see what really happened. But we definitely gotta be better. When tough stretches happen, which happens every night, we gotta be able to get together, cut it off and get back to playing good basketball.”
When it was all said and done, the Wolves allowed a 24-2 run spanning from the 7:36 to 1:00 marks of the third quarter that frankly was difficult to watch. A 12-point lead went up in smoke and quickly became a 10-point hole because Minnesota short-circuited in such spectacular fashion it looked like they forgot how to play basketball. I would say it’s something we haven’t seen in quite some time, but the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs wasn’t that long ago, and we all know how that went.
A Tale of Two Halves Offensively
The Timberwolves put together polar opposite halves that quite perfectly explain the problem that they will have to solve if they want to earn a playoff spot, let alone win a playoff series.
Minnesota blitzed Los Angeles early in the game with dynamic second side action off of initial pick-and-rolls, to the tune of 21 points on 9/12 shooting and four assists to one turnover that built a nine-point lead over the game’s opening 6:27. Head Coach Chris Finch’s group ran crisp sets, played well off of a scrambling defense, were decisive with the ball and did everything with confidence and intention. When that happens, McDaniels usually profits; he did again Friday night by scoring seven points on 3-4 shooting and creating a Conley triple on the drive in the first quarter alone. McDaniels went right at a noticeably slower James, who didn’t seem interested in sitting down and guarding the Wolves’ third-year rising star.
Mike Conley was great tonight. 7-11 FG, 7 AST, 2 TO. I wonder if the Wolves would've fallen apart offensively in 3Q with him out there the whole time. He's been a nice scoring boost, especially in the paint. Great with Rudy too— Jared Martinson (@JaredMartyMN) April 1, 2023
44.7% on C&S 3s, 45% on runners since he joined MN pic.twitter.com/6iZ8EGqLWf
Then, Minnesota’s ball movement slowed, missed looks began to stack up, and frustration mounted; a unit of Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Taurean Prince, Kyle Anderson and Gobert scored just three points over the next three minutes — in part to Jarred Vanderbilt taking Edwards out of the game — and the Lakers pulled even at the end of the first quarter.
Los Angeles kept that rolling into the second quarter and built a six-point cushion in the first 1:28 before Towns went on a personal 10-2 run to wrestle back a two-point lead, all without Davis on the floor. KAT quickly got to his spots, took advantage of mismatches and paid off his teammates for good looks on three straight assisted buckets. The offense then went cold once Gobert checked in for Slow-Mo; the Wolves scored just five points in the next three minutes and change because they turned it over and couldn’t make simple shots inside, which was part of a larger problem: Minnesota shot just 16/30 (53.3%) at the rim (ninth percentile per Cleaning the Glass).
Things got back on track once Conley entered the game, as Finch turned to more ball screen action to charge the Conley/Gobert battery. The former Utah Jazz teammates scored the next eight Wolves points before the Lakers defense forced Minnesota out of it; the aggressive defense forced quick ball movement, which unlocked Edwards and later Anderson to to score the team’s final seven points of the half in just 1:02 and build a 10-point lead entering the break.
The biggest difference in the second half is that the Wolves’ offense didn’t get back to PnR (and then playing off of it) when their ‘random’ sets couldn’t create any flow. That only got more difficult when Jordan McLaughlin entered in the midst of the big run for Conley, who is a much better self-creator, and wasn’t flanked by his former Iowa Wolves teammate — Reid — to form the electric offensive pairing that has buoyed the Minnesota offense at the end of the first and third quarters this season.
Without Reid and a version of Edwards even remotely close to himself (he is very sick with a stomach bug going around the team), that second unit of McLaughlin, Edwards, Prince, Anderson and Towns didn’t have any bankable sets to get into that could produce easy offense, and the passing died as a result.
“We got to get back to moving the ball. The ball is just sticky. We’re just not playing out of any concepts or any flow. That’s when we’re best. Get caught calling too many plays right now, trying to direct the offense this way, that way, get somebody going who hasn’t been going,” Finch explained postgame. “Sometimes you got to get yourself going. You got to get an offensive rebound, get something in transition. You got to make a cut, get to the free-throw line and play with more force. I think tonight, I was just as guilty of it, trying to get these guys going, and the guys that had it going early were the guys that were playing in the flow.”
That is partly why McDaniels has been so successful over the last three weeks — the team hasn’t abandoned flow for the sake of getting guys into the game. Granted, they also weren’t dealing with slow starts due to an excessive illness spreading through the locker room like a wild fire, but the point remains. McDaniels went on to score just eight points on 3/10 shooting over the final three quarters after putting up seven in the first few minutes, which is reflective of the “flow” he benefits from.
Simply put, the Wolves need to be better at understanding when the offense needs a reset that can be achieved by running a bankable set or concept to get someone a good look. With how well their defense has been playing of late, they will be able to turn stops into easy chances on the offensive end more often than not, but their postseason viability will be determined by their half-court offense. It’s on Finch to figure it out given all the talent at his disposal, even without Reid and even while the team recovers from sickness.
(Not) Controlling the Controllables
Los Angeles had a combined 46 points between second chances and fast breaks. Holding an opponent to 77 points in the half-court on first looks is going to win any team a ton of games in the NBA, but that doesn’t matter if you give the game away on the glass and with turnovers. The Lakers grabbed an offensive rebound on 37.1% of their misses in the half-court (88th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), yet still were only able to muster an offensive rating of 97.6 in set offense (49th percentile). If those 15 offensive rebounds and 17 second chance points were cut in half, you’re looking at a dominant defensive game.
After a very solid stretch of winning on the backboards since Towns returned, Minnesota was pummeled 53-39 in rebounding on Friday. Rebounding is crucial, especially with a team all-in on a big experiment.
“I thought there was plenty of missed box-out opportunities, particularly early where we just didn’t put a body on them and we should have,” Finch told Canis Hoopus about the rebounding disparity, before addressing his team’s poor transition effort. “There was a couple times I thought our offense affected our desire to get back, whether it was a missed play or the one crazy sequence where Davis was hurt, they were trying to foul and we turned it over, didn’t get back and then fouled. It’s inexcusable really at that point in time.”
The Wolves will host the aggressively tanking Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday at 2:30 PM CT in another must-win game in the Western Conference Play-In race. Fans can watch the game on Bally Sports North.