The Minnesota Timberwolves were back in action on Wednesday night as they hosted (again, finally!) Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans for the fourth and final game of the two teams’ season series.
Williamson wasted no time getting himself involved, drawing a trio of fouls in the opening minutes, and scoring seven points in the first six minutes of action. But none of the fouls were against Anthony Edwards, who guarded Zion to open the action. New Orleans did their best to utilize pick-and-roll to force switches on the perimeter, especially with Zion, given how tough it is for defenders to get around Jonas Valančiūnas screens. But after Brandon Ingram scored a pair of mid-range jumpers, Minnesota made adjustments. Rudy Gobert — who generally stays home in drop coverage — began switching those plays to good effect, as Ingram only had one more score in the frame after that.
On the other end, Minnesota spaced out a bigger and slower New Orleans squad by running spread pick-and-roll with Mike Conley at the controls. He got off the ball early, which stimulated good ball movement and action playing out of the corner. As a result, the Wolves assisted on eight of their first nine made field goals, and it activated Jaden McDaniels, who scored a couple of tough buckets that started from the corner.
Seemingly every time the Wolves got the to the corner, good things followed, whether it be a score or an open look. New Orleans then pivoted to a zone to try and slow that down, but Minnesota continued to get good looks for the most part. Karl-Anthony Towns after finding the soft spot in the middle of the zone drained a nice floater over the outstretched arms of Valančiūnas, which got his night off to a decent start.
Head Coach Chris Finch tried to multiple the Wolves’ kinetic energy on the offensive end by inserting Jordan McLaughlin, who played his way into the rotation with a strong showing on New Year’s Day amid the second unit’s offensive struggles. McLaughlin paid it off with a move to get the crowd “ooh”ing and “ahhh”ing and then by creating several open shots with cross-court passes on the drive and in transition.
JMAC PUT HIM ON SKATES pic.twitter.com/tajAsBgLyh— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 4, 2024
But the Wolves had their moment against the zone, as both Naz Reid and Edwards had turnovers trying to do to much dribbling the basketball, while Kyle Anderson had his moments as a ball-stopper and missing difficult contested 2s in the lane. Reid, Anderson and Alexander-Walker as a trio started 1/8 from the floor, continuing their struggles. Reid even played the 5 in an once Larry Nance Jr. entered for Valančiūnas, but that didn’t help much, either.
Minnesota trailed 27-24 after one, even despite their assist-to-turnover ratio getting north of 2.0, as a result of their inability to knock down open shots.
New Orleans in the second quarter did a phenomenal job of breaking down the Timberwolves’ defense. Ball-handlers got into the lane and further collapsed a paint-packed defense, drawing in the low-man of the pick-and-roll defense to open up corner kicks. The Pelicans connected on all three of their corner 3s and multiple close-out attacks from the corner that opened up looks elsewhere.
Even when the Pelicans weren’t spraying passes off drives for corner 3s, Ingram and CJ McCollum were able to break down defenders off the dribble for looks in the mid-range, continuing a troubling theme of the Timberwolves struggling to stay in front of their matchups in space. New Orleans was scoring and drawing fouls so easily that on the one call the refs threw the Wolves a bone, Pelicans Head Coach Willie Green absolutely lost his mind.
Offensively, the Wolves just couldn’t make shots. They only turned it over one time, but went 4/10 in the paint and 1/4 on pretty open above-the-break 3s en route to a 22-point quarter. To make matters worse, Edwards picked up yet another technical foul for clapping at an official (which is an automatic technical) — a truly unfortunate habit he has to break. Towns led the way with seven points in the frame, with McDaniels continuing his positive momentum from the first quarter by scoring five to support him. Edwards and Conley took a combined three shots, while the Reid/Anderson/Alexander-Walker trio went 1/6.
The Timberwolves trailed 59-46 at the break, tying their lowest-scoring first half of the season (12/6 vs SAS) because of rather grim 41.5/31.3/70.0 shooting splits.
Things didn’t get any better after halftime.
Outside of Edwards getting more involved getting downhill to the rim, there were next to no positives for the Wolves. After taking just two shots all second quarter, Ant took eight shots in the paint alone in the third frame, connecting on just three of them (with a couple missed foul calls). Edwards did make the most of the calls he got, though, shooting 6/6 from the stripe in the period. The cornerstone made more shots (four) than all of his teammates combined (three) in the quarter.
The Pelicans got whatever they want offensively, shooting 10/14 on 2s and 3/6 on 3s. Zion got seven attempts in the paint (making five) and took Gobert out of the game with his fourth foul midway through the third, coasting to a 12-point period while also creating seven more off of three assists. New Orleans cut beautifully off of drivers (something Minnesota hasn’t really done at all this season) for easy looks inside and moved the ball as well as a team could, collecting nine assists in the third quarter alone.
Minnesota trailed 92-71 after 36 minutes.
All Finch could do was look on, as no one he looked to either in the starting unit or off the bench provided much defensive resistance or offensive spark — at least until the result was firmly in hand.
Towns quickly made three of his first four looks in the fourth quarter, plus another pair at the free throw line, quickly inflating his scoring output to 20 after mustering only 12 points on 12 shots in the first three quarters.
Edwards, after somewhat surprisingly re-entering down with the team down 23 at the 9:25, then carried that forward with a pair of 3-pointers to cross the 30-point mark for the third straight game and sixth time in his last nine outings. While the Wolves will certainly take his scoring uptick, they won’t take his uptick in turnovers; he had a team-leading six more on Wednesday night, more than the rest of his teammates combined.
The fourth quarter was just window dressing in terms of the result, but Finch did leave his starters in for the majority of the frame as the team’s practice days come few and far between in the thick of the season, and there’s no better reps you can get than live game action.
The Timberwolves found some rhythm, scoring 23 points on 9/14 shooting (with six assists) and committing just one turnover in the 9:46 of game action before Finch emptied the bench.
But New Orleans coasted to the finish line to win by a final score of 117-106, giving Minnesota only its second home loss this season. With another loss, the Wolves have now lost two in a row for the first time all season. Their 33-game streak was the longest active in the NBA, as they were the only team yet to lose two in a row in the 2023-24 campaign.
Edwards led all scorers with a game-high 35 points on 11/22 shooting and 9/10 at the free throw line, to go along with five assists (six turnovers), four rebounds, a steal and a block. Towns poured in 22 points on 19 shots, but did get to the line seven times and had only one turnover — a good improvement from his giveaway issues of late.
Williamson led the Pelicans with 27 points on 11/15 shooting, six assists, four rebounds, one steal and one block, with McCollum (24 points on 8/16 shooting, five dimes) and Ingram (19 points on 7/11 shooting, seven assists) were excellent ancillary weapons.
This story will be updated throughout the night after coach and player media availability.
Before I start, let me say that panicking — after two (2) losses in a row for the first time all season (33 games) — is not something that will be part of my takeaways section. This is a serious basketball team that will be playing playoff hoops in April. Every team in the NBA has rough patches. While yes, absolutely, certain patches can reveal fatal flaws that opponents exploit in the playoffs, there is more season in between now and the playoffs than there has been to date.
This is the great part of starting 24-7; the margin for error, for these stretches, is quite a bit wider than it has literally ever been for the Wolves. The Wolves have four weeks (18 games) in between now and the February 8 NBA Trade Deadline. President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly — or anyone, really, inside the Timberwolves organization — certainly won’t panic after not panicking at any points during or after last season. They’ll make adjustments, evaluate their roster, and potentially make some moves in the next month; with (again, just to say it once more — a 24-9 record atop the Western Conference), an open roster spot and more than $2 million in luxury tax space and a very well-liked lead executive, head coach and No. 1 option, the Wolves will be a player in the buyout scene, too.
Consistent Symptoms of Offensive Struggles
The Timberwolves have several issues offensively, without question. They turn the ball over too much, have bouts of flow-stopping iso ball and lifeless possessions, rarely cut, and generally do not move the basketball enough.
But diagnosing some symptoms of those problems is becoming an easier task now that we have a suitable sample. Tonight, the Timberwolves in the first quarter ran a ton of spread pick-and-roll, which was the primary element of the Utah Jazz’s offense during their playoff runs with the Conley/Donovan Mitchell/Gobert triumvirate.
A key reason the Jazz had so much success in running the action with Conley/Mitchell and Gobert is that they had spacing around the two, forcing defenders out of the paint Gobert would roll to the rim. The Wolves have the same setup with their starting five, but run pick-and-roll the 13th-fewest in the league (29.9% of their possessions, per Synergy Sports) because they don’t have the same luxury in bench or blended lineups. But that shouldn’t stop them from running more spread PnR with the starting unit — especially against bigger, longer teams that are able to switch, play a matchup zone, or both.
This clip of the Wolves’ first score is a perfect example of how it can improve the team’s spacing.
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All five Timberwolves touch the ball and are involved in the play, it puts a bind on the Pelicans’ defense. It forces them to fly around, which could be a difficult ask (especially for Williamson and Valančiūnas) on the second night of a home/road back-to-back. Playing out of the corner is a staple of modern NBA offenses partly because of 1) the rise of efficient 3-point shooting and 2) the way it compromises a defense.
“At halftime I think we had 14 assists on 17 baskets, 14 of the 17 assisted. So I thought guys were really looking for each other, trusting the offense and really making the next play,” Finch said postgame. “It maybe made us a little tentative in certain situations but we gotta keep playing that way and things will break for us in a positive manner offensively.”
Another positive was that it got McDaniels involved in the offense as a creator off the dribble, as he’s able to lift out of the corner and attack a rotating defense.
“We had a much more conscious effort of moving it. We got a lot of guys good looks tonight. We got a lot of corner threes. A lot of opportunities at the rim. Mentally, we’ve just got to focus better,” Conley said postgame, highlighting the benefits of more pick-and-roll.
Even though this isn’t a silver bullet that solves the second unit’s scoring problem, it can stimulate more ball movement, leading to more attacks off the dribble against defenders closing out, and creating easier scoring opportunities for all five players, which would lighten some of the scoring burden on Reid and Towns. The problem is that the Wolves completely abandoned it for the remainder of the game, not running a single pick-and-roll with Conley at the controls in the second, third or fourth quarters. Edwards took notice.
“I mean, I think we need to let Mike initiate everything. Including myself, I gotta stop like coming back for the ball, because that’s kinda playing into the defense’s hands, going to a ball screen in traffic,” Edwards said. “I’ve gotta let Mike initiate the offense more, and like you said, play out of the corner. That will help a lot more.”
Switching and Zone Defenses
Minnesota has struggled the most against defenses that are capable of switching 1-5. New Orleans switched quite a bit when Nance Jr. played at the 5, which made it difficult for the Timberwolves’ offense to score. Outside of Reid, the Wolves’ second unit doesn’t have anyone capable of consistently breaking down defenders and scoring in one-on-one situations, which switching concepts create on a more consistent basis. This is a reason why Jordan Clarkson was such an important player as a bucket-getting antidote to the switching Utah faced, especially in the playoffs. It is also why the Wolves may look to acquire that type of player (on a budget, of course) either at the trade deadline or in the buyout market.
While the Wolves rank ninth in points per possession in isolation (1.041) offensively, much of that can be attributed to Edwards, whose 5.1 isolations per game (147 total) at 1.082 PPP represent more than half of Minnesota’s 9.9 per game (316 total). Slow-Mo has isolated more than three times as much (31 straight isolations, which doesn’t count playing off the catch) than the next bench player (Shake Milton, nine), but these possessions generate just 0.839 PPP (in other words, an 83.9 offensive rating).
Reid and McLaughlin are the only really explosive athletes capable of getting past their defenders in isolation, but both are ball movers by nature and can’t control others stopping the ball and isolating or taking poor shots against switching concepts.
As for zone, the Wolves struggle to make the defense work. They do not move the ball enough to fully take advantage of the opportunities zone defenses create. Minnesota sees zone defenses the fifth-most (4.2% of their possessions, per Synergy), yet score just 0.896 PPP against them, good for sixth-worst in the league. They often make one or two passes that don’t accomplish anything, hold the ball, and take the first semi-open shot available rather than seeking specific shots through organized offense. Not to mention that — while yes, the Timberwolves shoot 38.1% from deep (fourth in the NBA) — they don’t have any elite catch-and-shooters (think old friend Malik Beasley) they can insert to break a zone, especially off the bench.
New Orleans deployed both types of defenses well on Wednesday night, which made things tough for Minnesota to play to their strengths and generate a rhythm.
The Timberwolves will begin a road trip — consisting of four games all against playoff-caliber opponents — on Friday as they take on the Houston Rockets. Fans can watch the 7 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.