The Minnesota Timberwolves’ hot start has faded quickly into familiar, unwelcome territory. Is this just part of the ebb and flow of a long season or something more concerning?
Karl-Anthony Towns‘ preseason proclamations about people sleeping on the Minnesota Timberwolves looked pretty good in the first few weeks of the season. The Wolves were 7-4, Andrew Wiggins looked like a whole new player and Towns was an absolute force, posting a 26-12-4 stat line while canning 40.7 percent of a whopping nine 3-pointers per game.
Since then, however, that early-season racket has died down to little more than background static, giving people plenty of reason to go back to sleep. If things don’t change soon, that promising 11-game start will be revealed as another false taste of the promise Wolves fans have been expecting from a Towns- and Wiggins-led team for years now.
“It’s a long season in the NBA, and there’s ebbs and flows, there’s ups and downs,” head coach Ryan Saunders said. “We were fortunate to come out of the gates strong, but I think everybody understands too that it wasn’t going to be all wins the whole year.”
On Monday, the Wolves faced a Phoenix Suns squad with an identical 10-12 record on the second night of a road back-to-back. Though they had built a three-point halftime lead, they were blitzed by the Suns in 33-21 third quarter disadvantage that gave Phoenix a lead it would never relinquish.
Everything went wrong. The defense — which was already leaky in the first half — became outright porous. The offense shriveled up. The team made only six of its 22 3-pointers, the Wolves didn’t get KAT the ball enough after he dominated with a 21-point first half … the list goes on and on.
It was the exact kind of game Minnesota desperately needs to learn how to win, especially given how thick the Western Conference playoff field will be this year.
“We’re losing games that are important and might come back to haunt us,” Wiggins said. “Just refocusing, not getting complacent. I feel like we were kind of content with where we were, how we started the season. We started the season with more urgency. Just getting that urgency back, ‘cause we’re falling behind now. We don’t want to dig ourselves that ugly hole. It might be hard to get out of.”
Monday’s 16-point loss, which came off the heels of a 17-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers the night before, dropped the Timberwolves to 3-9 over their last 12 games, including a winless four-game road trip. It also prompted a postgame discussion and venting session from the Wolves in the visitors locker room at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“That’s what family does, they talk it through when things aren’t the way you’d like them to be,” Saunders said. “What I mean by that is, win column, we didn’t get a win on this road trip. So we want to talk through what went wrong while it’s fresh in guys’ minds. We have men in that locker room, and I think guys will respond.”
So what exactly came up as the Wolves aired their frustrations, which were visible on the court throughout the night? The exact details were scant other than, well, focusing on the details.
“We’ve just gotta go back to the basics and do what we did early in the season,” Towns said of the meeting. “We’ve got to pay attention to the small details and we have to be a better team.”
Is that it?
“We know the team we can be, we’ve just got to go out there and actually do the work to get it done,” Towns continued. “We’ve just got to do it all. Just get it done. We’ve just got to play better. There’s things we can adjust internally, from ourselves as a system, and we’re going to be better.”
It sounds simple enough, right? Just be better.
The problem is, there are a lot of problems going into overcoming that hurdle right now. Whether it’s his young age, general demeanor, or Minnesota’s struggles contributing to recency bias, Saunders looks a bit overwhelmed when it comes to figuring out what ails this young group.
“All of the above right now,” he replied exasperatedly when asked about the team’s struggles. “All of the above. Not a good road trip for our defense. Not just [that] — not a good road trip for us in general. So we have things we need to clean up going home. We’ll have challenges, but opportunities.”
Turning those tribulations into opportunities to make up ground in the conference standings may start with the buzzword that came up consistently in the locker room after the Phoenix loss: urgency.
“Just our sense of urgency,” Robert Covington said. “It wasn’t necessarily lacking as much, but we’ve just gotta be more attentive on it, like small things that we have [to do].”
Establishing an actual identity might be a good place to start. The Wolves rank 17th in offensive rating despite possessing one of the most elite scoring bigs ever, and they also rank 20th in defensive rating despite boasting a collection of lockdown wings who can play multiple positions.
“We’ve just gotta be connected,” Wiggins said of their defensive woes. “We’ve just all gotta worry about each other.”
Unfortunately, as Saunders is right to point out, most of the players finishing games for the Wolves right now are as green as the team’s neon Statement Edition jerseys. When games come down to those minor details, sometimes inexperience can make all the difference.
“I’ve said it before, but I think a lot of times people forget that Andrew and Karl are 24 years old,” he said. “Jarrett [Culver] just turned 20. Josh [Okogie] just turned 21, he’s teetering right there too. We’ve got young guys and a lot of times these guys are finishing games. We need them to grow up fast too, but with the maturation, you learn that in tough games, in close games. So all these things that we’ve gone through, we feel that we’re going to be better for them, but they’re only lessons if you learn from them. They’re only losses if you don’t learn from the losses.”
After the 7-4 start, quite a few of Minnesota’s defeats have come down to little mistakes in close contests. They lost by eight to a Utah Jazz team expected to contend for the Western crown. They lost by two to the Suns. They lost by eight to the Memphis Grizzlies, by seven to the upstart Dallas Mavericks and by eight in overtime against the improving Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before Monday’s game, Saunders remained fixated on the silver lining.
“Nobody’s going 82-0, so you do have hard times, and I felt good about the way our guys have competed, I felt good about the way guys have executed and the game plan, for the most part,” he said. “There’s things we need to clean up on this trip on the defensive end, especially, but we’ve been in games, so I’ve been happy with our guys’ effort.”
Another poor defensive effort against Phoenix took away all the positive spin. Despite losing nine of their last 12 games, the Timberwolves’ offense has been fine, ranked 14th in the league in O-rating over that stretch. In fact, even with Wiggins’ rapid regression to the mean from deep, the team has actually improved its 3-point percentage from 30.9 percent over their first 11 games to 35.4 percent ever since.
The problem is the defense has completely tanked, allowing 115.3 points per 100 possessions (26th in the NBA). And as far as his team staying in games? Monday’s 16-point Suns loss joined a 17-point Lakers loss as the most recent evidence something isn’t right during an ongoing five-game skid.
“As I’ve said before, the season is an ebb and flow season,” Saunders said. “It’s a long season. Two weeks ago, we’re feeling great. One week ago, for the most part, you’re feeling pretty good getting two great road wins. Things change quickly, but we’ve got to make them change.”
Preaching the long view makes sense for a young and inexperienced team, but actually proving these recent struggles are just an ebb to the flow of a 7-4 start — rather than a regression to the mean, as many are beginning to suspect — will be another matter entirely.
There’s been no talk about Saunders being on the hot seat and tensions weren’t high in the locker room in any discernible way after the loss to Phoenix. But whether it’s a matter of effort, urgency, defensive minutiae, inexperience, getting their mojo back, having fun again, simply playing better or all of the above, the Timberwolves have to get things back on track, and fast, lest they lose precious ground in the West … and another year of Karl-Anthony Towns’ prime and patience.
“Adversity hits; how are we gonna react?” Wiggins said. “What are we gonna do? That’ll show our character. That’ll show us as basketball players who we are. Are we gonna sit down and fold, or are we gonna fight?”