If you’ve watched all or even some of the Timberwolves’ first seven games this season, including Monday’s 125-122 overtime victory at Miami, you might be a little confused.
See, this year’s Wolves appear very similar to last year’s Wolves in a lot of ways so far. Their offense is great (fourth in offensive rating). Their defense has been suspect (last in the league in defensive rating). Their bench still isn’t contributing much, while their starters are logging heavy minutes. They’re getting leads, then giving them back.
But these Wolves have also played five toss-up games — all five in which Jimmy Butler has played. The other two, when he didn’t play because of a respiratory infection, were blowout losses that make their defensive marks look particularly bad.
In the first toss-up game at San Antonio, the Wolves didn’t execute down the stretch and lost by eight. But in the last four of those, they’ve secured three three-point wins and a two-point win. The three-point wins all ended with their opponent missing a three-pointer at the final horn. The two-point win came with Andrew Wiggins making a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
Considering last year’s Timberwolves lost their first 10 games that were decided by four points or fewer and didn’t win their first such game until their 43rd game of the season, this is a pretty significant difference.
How do we make sense of a team that is so very much the same for most of the game and yet so completely different at the end? Let’s take a look at some contributing factors:
*The first 44 minutes or so of Wolves games look the same largely because the defense is still very much a work in progress. You can see flashes of it getting better. Towns and Wiggins seem more actively engaged in the process of trying to get stops. There was a hug between Towns and Taj Gibson on Monday after good help defense by Towns led to an errant pass and a turnover. But until the defense is consistently good, teams are going to make runs at the Wolves and get back into games.
*The flow of games also looks the same because the Wolves’ bench, while sporting some better players than in years past, is still not producing much. Signing Gibson meant Gorgui Dieng became a reserve. Nemanja Bjelica has played quality minutes. Jamal Crawford is a veteran the Wolves have lacked. Shabazz Muhammad came back on a low-money deal. Tyus Jones has been the primary backup point guard. Those are the reserves in the regular rotation.
Each of those five players is useful in his own way at times, and mix-and-match lineups featuring a few reserves and a couple of starters have been effective in some spots. That sounds like a better second unit than the Wolves had last season, but the group still ranks 29th in the NBA in bench minutes played this season and 28th in efficiency, per Hoops Stats, after ranking last in both categories last season.
Plus-minus is an imperfect stat, but Jones is minus-45 in the Wolves’ last five games (meaning Wolves opponents have outscored them by 45 points when he was on the court for those 70 minutes). The bench is still giving back a lot of leads the starters have gained, while the starters are still learning to play with each other and haven’t been as dominant as they might be down the road, leaving things tight at the end.
*So why have the Wolves been able to win the exact types of games they were losing last year? Some of it could just be small sample size. They’re bound to lose their share of close ones as the year goes on, just as they won some as last year wore on. Still, from an 0-10 start last year in such situations to 4-0 demands further investigation.
The short answer isn’t rocket science: Their young stars, Towns and Wiggins, are a year older and look more confident in end of game situations. And they’ve been joined on the court by a stabilizing star in Butler, a point guard who can distribute and create his own offense in Jeff Teague and a veteran in Gibson who has seen every situation multiple times. Sometimes they swap in Crawford for Gibson, giving them even more veteran savvy.
Each of those players has contributed meaningfully to close wins. Crawford hit a huge three against Utah. Wiggins devastated the Thunder with his deep three. Towns and Butler were monsters down the stretch in the OKC rematch. Monday night, Teague had seven points in overtime, part of a game in which he contributed 23 points, 11 assists, six steals and five rebounds. Collectively, that group has a better chance than last year’s group of getting a good shot or getting a key stop in crunch time.
In that sense, coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau’s vision is already being realized. I don’t know if I’d rather have Teague than Ricky Rubio for all 48 minutes, but I like him a lot better in the last four. Butler’s early impact has been more subtle than we might have imagined, but he’s clearly already the heartbeat of the team. Gibson and Crawford are imperfect but useful players who aren’t afraid of the moment.
Eventually, the Wolves will need to become a better 48-minute team — building bigger leads with the starters, developing better bench production to maintain those leads, defending more consistently and with more energy regardless of who is in the game — so they don’t have to scramble and claw for every win.
That’s the next step, and it’s not guaranteed. For now, being a better team in the final two minutes of games will have to suffice.