Fan ejected from Wolves game after tense exchange with Pistons players

If you turned off your TV just a little bit early Wednesday — after the Wolves had blown a 14-point fourth quarter lead, after Detroit had tied the game on a last-second putback in regulation, after the Pistons had pretty much taken control in overtime but before it was officially over — you missed a pretty heated exchange between several Pistons players and a fan sitting near the end line.

Chief among the players upset was Blake Griffin, whose monster fourth quarter helped fuel Detroit’s comeback victory.

He and other players were visibly upset with the fan, who was shown on FSN’s broadcast being escorted out of Target Center during a stoppage with 14.4 seconds left in overtime. Detroit led by three at the time and finished with a 129-123 victory.

Officials rushed down to that end of the court to help prevent any further confrontation. Fortunately, order was seemingly restored.

The NFL (and Vikings) might be in the midst of an analytics revolution

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where the revolution is televised. Let’s get to it:

*I read with interest a recent piece from The Ringer’s Kevin Clark about analytics in the NFL. His thesis is that the league is in the early stages of an analytics revolution — much like the ones we’ve previously seen take hold in baseball and basketball.

To a degree, the NFL has been dabbling in advanced metrics for a while. But the nature of the league — both in terms of an old-school mentality stifling change and a concession that the moving parts of the sport make isolating data more challenging — has made the NFL a later adopter.

So much of baseball is isolated around a singular event focused on two (or three, if we count the catcher) key players: the delivery of a pitch. It allows for a lot of apples to apples comparisons between pitchers and hitters, as well as deeper dives into more complex factors like the spin rate on pitches.

Basketball, too, came more quickly to analytics than football because even in a 5-on-5 game there are significant comparisons and data points.

Football — and particularly the NFL — has more variables. There are 11 players on the field for each side, many of whom won’t factor directly into a given play but who can influence it subtly. I mean, there are even five guys on offense who are never intended to touch the ball but who can collectively or individually save or derail a given play.

But those who dismiss analytics in the NFL do so at their own peril. It’s hard to know which teams are doing more than others, but the Vikings are certainly interested in the conversation.

While head coach Mike Zimmer has been known to take thinly veiled shots at Pro Football Focus and other stats-based sites, the Ringer points out that the Vikings’ new facility in Eagan has a “massive analytics hub,” which GM Rick Spielman showed off to reporters during a tour around the time of the 2018 NFL draft.

Much of what teams are studying now comes via player tracking data, which is available league-wide to teams for the first time this year. Writes Clark:

Some of this data is public — skill-position players’ speed, for instance, is published on an NFL website — but the vast majority is available only to teams, who are creating other proprietary stats from the raw numbers. NFL franchises are absorbing millions of data points for the first time, and many football lifers are getting their first deep experience with analytics.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the piece is that it reinforces two key ideas: 1) data is only as good as what you do with it (or don’t do with it) and 2) The data that is available to everyone is interesting, but the data we don’t know about might make an even bigger difference in wins and losses.

On the first point, teams can see what the data tells them — say, that going for it on fourth down is a good idea in a lot of cases — but different teams do different things with it. Some might ignore it. Some might dip their toes into it. Some — a growing number — will be apt to make it heavily factor into their decision-making.

The second point is the really interesting one, though. Because for all the comparisons we can spit out now thanks to sites like Pro Football Football Focus — say, Kirk Cousins has been pressured on 38.4 percent of his dropbacks, fourth-most of any qualified NFL passer — the real advantages are there for teams that go beyond what’s available to everyone to create their own proprietary data.

Clark gets at that in his piece with a great example: there’s an NFL team that designs plays to go away from the side of the field that an opposing team’s bench is on, so that rotating defensive linemen expend more energy going back and forth onto the field. He writes:

A team stumbles upon some shred of data and builds a play, a playbook, a personnel decision, or an entire scheme around it. It changes how a team drafts, calls plays, and evaluates opponents. All of these trends point to one thing: Football’s analytics moment has arrived.

*Speaking of NFL data, here’s an interesting stat: Cousins has targeted Adam Thielen 47 times while under pressure this season. That’s the most any QB has targeted a specific receiver while under pressure this year.

*There were several highlights from signing day for the Gophers football program on Wednesday, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of Minnesota’s new recruits — Mike Brown-Stephens — is apparently the nephew of famous musician John Legend.

Let me take this opportunity to personally invite Legend and his hilarious author/model wife Chrissy Teigen to a game at TCF Bank Stadium.

Packers radio broadcaster rips Bears’ coach Nagy for ‘arrogance’

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The Cooler, where a little controversy goes a long way. Let’s get to it:

*The Bears beat the Packers 24-17 on Sunday, giving Chicago the NFC North title while knocking Green Bay out of playoff contention.

Chicago was in relative control throughout most of the game, but the Packers looked to be in prime position to turn the game in their favor early in the second half thanks to two big plays: a failed fake punt by the Bears at midfield, after which the Packers drove for a touchdown to tie the game 14-14; and on the next drive a fumble on a direct snap to running back Tarik Cohen on 3rd-and-1 from Green Bay’s 23 that the Packers recovered.

After that second play, Packers radio play-by-play man Wayne Larrivee took Bears coach Matt Nagy to task.

“More arrogance by Matt Nagy,” Larrivee exclaimed. “A trick play. All the tricks in the world, and they’re foiling the Bears now. … Now if (the Packers) could just take it and shove it up you know where.”

The Packers did not. Instead, they went three-and-out, the Bears scored a touchdown on their next drive and order was restored.

But a Chicago radio station (670 The Score) caught up with Larrivee for an interesting discussion about his comments and overall thoughts on Nagy.

“I think some of these offensive coaches like Matt Nagy and Sean McVay in L.A., they get a little caught up in themselves,” Larrivee said.

The hosts shot back with a critique of former Packers coach Mike McCarthy. The gist: It’s OK to be creative, which Larrivee probably hasn’t seen much from the team he’s been most closely associated with in recent years.

You can listen to the full discussion here.

To be fair, I think both sides made some good points. The Bears are tied for No. 5 in the NFL in points per game, and they’re 10-4 in Nagy’s first year as head coach. He’s clearly pushing some of the right buttons.

But some of that output has been fueled by a strong defense, which has scored six touchdowns (five INT returns and a fumble return). That side of the ball is the biggest strength, and an innovative style on offense (or special teams) doesn’t always play to that strength.

It will be interesting to see how the Bears and Nagy fare when the stakes get higher in the postseason.

*The Wild’s free-fall in the Western Conference standings continued Tuesday with a troubling 4-0 home loss to San Jose.

Minnesota’s 11-4-2 start feels like a distant memory after the team has gone 6-10 in its last 16 games to fall out of playoff position.

The Wild is now 10-6-2 at Xcel Energy Center and has the same number of regulation home losses this year as it had all of last season.

Still, that’s better than Minnesota’s 7-8-0 record on the road. And seven of the Wild’s next nine games are away from home, starting with Thursday at Pittsburgh.

The Wild galvanized its season around a 5-2 road trip earlier this year; if it can’t do the same during this stretch, big changes could be coming.

*LeBron James said the Lakers trading for the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis “would be amazing … that would be incredible.”

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst added some perspective to what figures to be the persistent rumor in the NBA.

Vikings have a better playoff record as wild card than division winner

The Vikings are far from guaranteed to make the playoffs this season, with various sites giving them somewhere between a 58 and 66 percent chance of making it with two games left.

Two things we know for sure, though: If the Vikings win their last two games, they’ll make the playoffs. And if they are going to make the playoffs, the only way they can make it is as a wild card team.

The latter designation might carry a certain stigma and make you think differently about this season. Even if the Vikings beat Detroit and Chicago — or split the games and get some help to sneak in — will an 8- or 9-win season and a wild card berth really mean much heading into the playoffs?

Well, in the course of trying to answer that question Tuesday afternoon I stumbled onto an interesting fact:

In their all-time playoff history, the Vikings have a 20-29 record. That’s, um, not great.

Breaking it down further, though, shows that they’ve actually fared relatively better in the playoffs as a wild card team than as a division winner.

The wild card was first implemented in the NFL in 1970 and has undergone various iterations. The Vikings first made the postseason as a wild card in the strike year of 1982, when they finished 5-4.

Counting that season, the Vikings have made the playoffs as a wild card nine different times. And in six of those season, they won at least one playoff game: single games in 1982, 1988, 1997, 1999 and 2004, and two games in 1987. Their overall record as a wild card is 7-9 — again, not great, but at a .438 winning percentage that’s actually better than their winning percentage (.394) in the playoffs as a division winner, when they’ve gone a combined 13-20.

Now, before we declare the Vikings to be AT AN ADVANTAGE this year if they make it as a wild card, we need to examine a few of the possible reasons for the all-time playoff discrepancy.

*One item of note is that top-quality division winners tend to get first-round byes and therefore don’t get to play more mediocre competition in the opening round, whereas wild card teams can feast on less-than-stellar teams.

The 2017, 2009, 2000 and 1998 Vikings all had byes in the first round but would have been heavy favorites in any first-round matchup. All those teams went 1-1 in the postseason, winning in the division round (at home) before losing the NFC title game (three on the road, one at home).

And the 1999 wild card Vikings, who went 10-6, are a good example of a wild card team with an easy draw. They trounced the 8-8 Cowboys 27-10 in their playoff opener.

*The 1987 Vikings, meanwhile, were just 8-7 in the regular season but in reality were an 8-4 team since they went 0-3 with replacement players during that season of labor strife. While their road wins at New Orleans and San Francisco were still surprising, the Vikings were a higher-quality wild card than their record indicated.

*Still, that doesn’t explain everything. There might be a psychological edge in some cases while playing as a wild card since there are fewer expectations. That seemed to be the case in 2004, when the Vikings (8-8) won at Lambeau Field in the playoffs after twice losing to the division-winning Packers during the regular season.

Winning as a wild card can give a team the feeling of playing with house money. The Super Bowl odds are much longer as a wild card since a team has to win three games — guaranteed to all be on the road, unless both wild cards advance to a conference title game and the No. 5 seed hosts the No. 6 seed — but it’s not impossible. In NFL history since wild cards were added in 1970, a wild card has reached the Super Bowl 10 times and won it six times.

The Vikings have never done it in their nine tries as a wild card … but they’ve also failed to reach the Super Bowl in their last 12 tries as a division winner.

Last year felt like a team of destiny that fell short. Maybe if this year’s Vikings get into the playoffs, they’ll be a less-regarded team that pulls some surprises?

Wolves forward Taj Gibson tried to block a shot … with his shoe?

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The Cooler, where sometimes you have to do the best with what you have. Let’s get to it:

*Wolves forward Taj Gibson is one of those steady grinders who probably doesn’t get appreciated enough. Even in posting a double-double during the Wolves’ 132-105 rout of the Kings on Monday, Gibson was overshadowed by several teammates — including high-flying rookie Josh Okogie.

So let’s pause for a moment and recognize Gibson’s effort Monday. And in particular, let’s zero in on one amazing and amusing sequence.

The scene: Gibson worked his way inside for a very Taj-like basket early, giving the Wolves an 11-4 lead. But in the process, he lost his right shoe. Rather than staying down on the offensive end while trying to put it back on and making his teammates defend short-handed, Gibson put the shoe in his hand and ran to the defensive end.

From there, he brandished it almost like a an extension of his hand. As luck would have it, the player he was guarding — former Wolves forward Nemanja Bjelica — tried to take Gibson to the hoop. Gibson did his best to stay with him and raised his extended shoe-hand high in an attempt to influence the shot.

And the shot was blocked!

Replays confirmed that it was Karl-Anthony Towns, providing help defense at the rim, who swatted away Bjelica’s shot — and not Gibson. But the imagery was still fantastic, as captured in the photo above by the Star Tribune’s Jeff Wheeler and on the video below.

I’m not sure what Gibson did was legal or what the officials would have called had he actually swatted the shot with his shoe. But the whole thing was enough to make head coach Tom Thibodeau laugh about as hard as you’ll see him laugh in the postgame news conference (just before the 5:00 mark of the video).

*Lost in all the good feelings from the Vikings’ 41-17 win over Miami: The Vikings threw ANOTHER backward pass on a swing from Kirk Cousins to Dalvin Cook. It came with Minnesota leading 24-17 in the third quarter (just after the 1:00 mark of this video).

Thankfully for the Vikings, Cook caught the ball — or else it would have been a fumble — and managed to even gain a few yards. I’ve written about the high risk and low reward of these passes. It is my mission to eradicate them from every NFL playbook. Anyone involved in these plays needs to make sure the pass is thrown forward, so at worse it’s an incompletion.

*Are the Vikings for real? FiveThirtyEight had a little chat about NFL teams and spent quite a bit of time on the purple.

*James Harden always travels. I don’t care what the NBA rules say. But he ESPECIALLY TRAVELED on this play.

*Some tough news from the world of journalism: Paul Lukas, who runs the entertaining Uni Watch site that is devoted to what players are wearing, said his contract was not renewed by ESPN. He should have other options, so stay tuned.

*Panthers safety Eric Reid has been randomly selected for a drug test six times in the last 11 weeks. Yahoo wonders if there’s more to the story, given that the chances of someone being randomly selected that often are about 1 in 588.

Vikings playoff odds actually decreased with a win Sunday, but not all news is bad

Welcome to the Monday edition of The Cooler, where I’m going to invite you to take a bite from this compliment sandwich. Let’s get to it.

*OK, first, what is a compliment sandwich? It’s a technique by which you deliver bad news or a negative comment to someone by placing it in the middle of two other more flattering statements. Like if I was going to talk to Kirk Cousins, I might say: “Kirk, great game Sunday. You really took control of the offense and executed the game plan. You really have to stop making boneheaded throws like the one that let Miami back into the game. But that pass to Aldrick Robinson? More of that, please.

So here’s the compliment sandwich version of the Vikings’ playoff chances:

Good news, part I: The Vikings won. As long as they keep winning, they are guaranteed to make the playoffs. Win at Detroit and win at home against Chicago? In. Not needing any help is a nice feeling, and the manner in which the Vikings won should inspire more confidence that they can win the final two games than, say, a 20-17 squeaker would have provided.

Bad news: However, their chances of reaching the playoffs actually went down on Sunday — from 57 percent when the day started to 56 percent right now, according to FiveThirtyEight — primarily because of two key outcomes. First, Washington knocked off Jacksonville on a last-second field goal to end a losing streak and improve to 7-7. But the real blow was the Rams losing to the Eagles. Now Philadelphia is also 7-7, just a half-game behind Minnesota.

Also per FiveThirtyEight, the Vikings went into Sunday with a 78 percent chance of making the playoffs just by going 2-1 down the stretch. That number is down to 54 percent now, and mostly that’s because of the Philly and Washington wins. Basically, if the Vikings split their last two games, it’s pretty much a coin flip that they’ll make the playoffs. You really want to root hard for Houston to beat the Eagles next week and for Washington to lose at Tennessee.

The Vikings also lost any chance to win the division when Chicago won. That was going to be a long shot, but now it’s no shot.

Good news, Part II: Here’s where we make the sandwich complete. The one bit of help the Vikings got came when Seattle lost unexpectedly to San Francisco. That means if the Vikings win their last two games and Seattle loses once — certainly possible since the Seahawks host Kansas City next week — Minnesota would jump up and grab the No. 5 seed, likely setting up a matchup with the NFC East winner (probably at Dallas) in the first round instead of a tougher matchup (likely at Chicago).

The Vikings could clinch a playoff spot as soon as next week if they beat Detroit while Washington, Philadelphia and Carolina (either tonight vs. the Saints or next weekend) lose. But the Vikings could also basically be eliminated by next weekend if they lose at Detroit while Philadelphia, Washington and Seattle all win — because Philly and Washington play each other in Week 17, all but guaranteeing one of those two would finish 9-7 if both win next week.

Ben Goessling has more about all the possible matchups here.

Your favorite condiment: This isn’t normally part of the compliment sandwich, but pick your favorite condiment. That’s the equivalent of Green Bay being eliminated from the playoffs, which happened yesterday.

*If you haven’t read this wonderful story about Charles Barkley’s friendship with a cat litter scientist from Iowa, please do. It’s the kind of thing that will make your day.

*The NCAA volleyball championship was a five-set thriller Saturday at Target Center. But it turns out the real story — and controversy — didn’t really start until after the match ended.

Keeping Parise with Niederreiter and Coyle should be easy decision for Wild

Welcome to the Friday edition of The Cooler, where sometimes it’s best not to overthink things. Let’s get to it:

*In the classic baseball movie “Bull Durham” — the best baseball movie, actually — Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis character tells Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh character that it’s never a good idea to mess with a winning streak.

That sentiment sometimes clashes with another notion in sports that says someone shouldn’t lose their job because they’re injured. Once they come back, they should be able to reclaim their old spot and old surroundings.

In the case of the Wild, though, I’m going to side with Crash — and it’s not even close. Mikko Koivu was injured last week but might be ready to come back soon. Since the injury, the Wild has busted out of its slump in a big way — with the makeshift line of Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Niederreiter in particular has four goals in his last three games after a very slow start.

The question for Wild coach Bruce Boudreau is whether to put Parise and Koivu back together on the same line once Koivu is healthy. The answer is pretty clear: no. Don’t mess with a winning streak, Bruce. If the Parise-Coyle-Nino line starts to cool off after a few games, there will be a time to make the switch. For now, you ride the hot hands.

*Zach Lowe at ESPN has some kind words for Karl-Anthony Towns and what he’s been able to accomplish since the Jimmy Butler trade — noting that the Wolves’ offense has been flourishing while playing through KAT while Towns has also improved on defense.

This version of Towns can anchor a franchise, and develop into a top-five overall player,” Lowe concludes.

*The Wolves seem happy with the Jimmy Butler trade. The 76ers seem happy with the Jimmy Butler trade. The team that initially traded Butler to the Wolves, though? Yeah, the Bulls don’t seem too happy right now. They’re probably still fine with the haul they got for Butler, but everything else about the franchise is a mess.

Players, led by Zach LaVine, are mad at interim coach Jim Boylen. And now Jabari Parker has fallen out of the rotation despite being the team’s highest-paid player ($20 million). The only good news is that the misery is producing some comedy.

*How rare was the Chargers’ comeback from a 14-point deficit to beat the Chiefs on Thursday? This rare:

Every Vikings playoff scenario you need for the rest of the season

If the season ended today, the Vikings would be in the playoffs. Hey, great idea. Let’s just end it now!

Ah, it doesn’t work that way. The Vikings, at 6-6-1, have a narrow half-game lead over three slumping 6-7 teams for the final wild card spot.

The Vikings’ Week 2 tie at Green Bay remains a source of frustration for plenty of fans, but it might be enough to make a difference in getting in or staying home. And one thing the tie definitely did was make potential Vikings playoff scenarios pretty easy to figure out.

Only one other NFC team has a tie — Green Bay, of course! — and the Vikings hold the tiebreaker edge with the Packers in the event that they finish with the same record (entirely plausible, as you’ll see in a moment) because the Vikings won the other head-to-head matchup. Unless another team has a tie in the final three weeks, the Vikings won’t have to worry about complicated tiebreakers.

So with the help of FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, here are some scenarios for the rest of the season as it pertains to making the postseason:

*The site currently gives the Vikings a 57 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s probably better than Minnesota deserves for its .500 record, but that’s the reality. Seattle, at 8-5, is a near-lock at 99 percent to make the playoffs. But no other team chasing Minnesota has better than an 18 percent chance (Eagles).

But the key component of the site is that it shows you how the percentages increase or decrease based on different outcomes.

*If the Vikings win their last three games against Miami (home), Detroit (road) and Chicago (home), they are guaranteed to make the playoffs at 9-6-1. Disregarding any other Chicago outcome other than losing to Minnesota, the Vikings would have a 9 percent chance of winning the division by winning out. But most likely they would be the Wild Card. They would need to win out and have Chicago also lose to Green Bay and San Francisco to win the NFC North. That would be the only way the Vikings could host a wild card round game, either as the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, depending on what record Dallas (as the likely NFC East winner) ends up with.

If they win out but lose the division, the Vikings would be the first wild card (No. 5 seed) if Seattle loses two of its final three games. If Seattle wins at least two of its final three, the Vikings would be the No. 6 seed. In either case, the Vikings would open on the road — either at Chicago or presumably Dallas. Right now, Chicago has a one-game lead on Dallas. So the most likely scenario IF the Vikings make the playoffs is that they would be at Chicago — a repeat of 2012, when the Vikings won in Week 17 over the Packers, then had to play at division-winning Green Bay to open the postseason. Joe Webb would not be the QB in this scenario.

*If the Vikings go 2-1 in their next three games, they cannot win the division. But they would finish 8-7-1 and — regardless of which teams they beat — have a 78 percent chance of making it as a Wild Card, which almost certainly would be the No. 6 seed and have them on the road against either Chicago or Dallas to start the playoffs.

The Vikings would miss out in this scenario if Seattle wins once more and one of the 6-7 teams — Washington, Philadelphia and Carolina — wins all of its remaining games. But Washington has lost four in a row with a horrid QB situation following a string of injuries. Carolina has lost five in a row and has to play New Orleans twice in the final three weeks. Defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia — which might be without Carson Wentz, who has a fractured vertebra — has to play the Rams and Houston before finishing at Washington. So it’s impossible for both Philadelphia and Washington to go 3-0.

Finishing 8-7-1 would effectively knock Green Bay (5-7-1) out of the hunt, even if the Packers win out. Seattle would need to lose all three of its remaining games, plus none of the 6-7 teams (Washington, Philadelphia and Carolina) could run the table.

*If the Vikings go 1-2 in their next three games to finish 7-8-1, they would have just an 11 percent chance of making the playoffs and would be the No. 6 seed for sure if they backed in. They would need Green Bay to lose one of its next three games, while each of Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina would need to lose at least twice. Since Philly and Washington play each other, that becomes less likely but not impossible.

This scenario would also give the Packers life. If the Vikings, Eagles, Panthers and Washington go 1-2 or worse in their final three games while the Packers win out, Green Bay will make the playoffs. But as it stands right now, Green Bay has just a 3 percent chance of making the playoffs. If the Packers hadn’t lost that home game to the Cardinals, it might be a much different story.

*If the Vikings go 0-3, they cannot make the playoffs (nor would they deserve to).

*Without results from any other contending teams factored, in a win Sunday against the Dolphins would boost the Vikings’ playoff chances to 69 percent from their current 57 percent. A win in their next two games would put them at 91 percent heading into the finale against Chicago. A split of the next two would leave them sitting at 47 percent, almost certainly in need of a win over the Bears (who would have clinched the division already) and perhaps help from someone else to get in.

*As far as individual games go, FiveThirtyEight says the Vikings have a 72 percent chance of winning Sunday over the Dolphins (6.5-point favorites in their system), while at Detroit (51 percent) and home against Chicago (53 percent) are essentially coin flips. Long story short: The Vikings really need to win Sunday.

So I guess this isn’t exactly EASY, but the picture should get very clear thanks to the lack of tiebreakers. And the easiest thing of all is that if the Vikings go 3-0 they’ll be in for sure and if they go 0-3 they’ll be out for sure.

Why can’t the Timberwolves win a conference game on the road?

The latest Timberwolves road trip out West hasn’t quite taken on the horror show feel of the last one, which ended 0-5 and resulted in Jimmy Butler finally being traded.

But the trip now sits at 0-3 after a 141-130 loss to Sacramento on Wednesday and perhaps feels even more disappointing than that last awful stretch if only because the Wolves had generated great optimism by going 9-3 since the trade and seemingly had discovered a winning combination centered around defense that might lead to better road results.

Spanning both iterations of the Wolves — pre- and post-Butler — this team is now 0-10 in conference games on the road. There are a lot of ways to define a 13-15 season-to-date, but that’s as good as any. Winning on the road is tough, but even marginally better results would have a major impact.

Let’s take a look at what has gone wrong on the court, identify some extenuating circumstances and see if there is any hope that things might bet better:

WHAT HAS GONE WRONG

This one is pretty easy. The Wolves’ defense and rebounding have been abysmal in Western Conference road games.

They rank No. 28 in defensive rating in road games against the West at 117.6. While certainly skewed by the 141 points surrendered Wednesday, their mark is even worse if we isolate on this current trip: 119.7.

Part of the reason the defense has been so bad is that the Wolves have the worst defensive rebounding rate (66.1) of any team playing road games against Western Conference teams. That had been a problem before the Butler trade, but the Wolves had moved toward the middle of the pack since adding defensive stalwart Robert Covington and versatile forward Dario Saric. On this trip, the rate is back down to 67.4.

EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Well, part of the problem is that the West is really good — or at least there is only one team in the West, Phoenix, that is really bad. Everyone else is two games below .500 or better.

The West was tough last year, but there were four teams that finished 27-55 or worse. The Wolves, if you’ll recall, went 34-18 against the West last season but just 13-17 against the weaker East. This year, it’s reversed. In all games, the Wolves are 6-12 against the West and 7-3 against the East.

The Wolves have also had some unfortunate momentum interruptions and health issues on both of their big West trips. The Butler saga was draining them last time, but they also missed Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose and Andrew Wiggins for stretches. On this trip, Covington missed the Portland game — a winnable one Minnesota arguably should have locked down regardless.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Well, the Wolves are already done playing Golden State and Portland on the road after losing a combined four games to those teams. Those are hard places to win for any team. And they get two road games at Phoenix (4-24), including one Saturday to end the trip.

Minnesota also doesn’t have any road trips out West (or anywhere, for that matter) that are longer than three games for the rest of the season. Long trips aren’t necessarily bad, but they can tend to compound problems, wear teams down and expose weaknesses.

If the Wolves can at least beat Phoenix on Saturday, they won’t embark on their Western Conference road game feeling the weight of the world — and perhaps they can start ascending to the mean after all this regression.

Twin Cities sports venues rank poorly in food safety inspection report

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where sometimes a cautionary tale is necessary. Let’s get to it:

*ESPN’s Outside The Lines published an exhaustive report on food safety at every major North American sports venue. There were 111 venues in all, and enough data from 107 to be included in the report, which covers routine safety inspections in 2016 and 2017.

OTL then ranked each of the 107 from worst to best in terms of what percentage of health inspection reports from various spots at each stadium turned up high-level violations.

None of the four Twin Cities sports venues on the list fared well.

The worst of the bunch, per OTL’s reporting and methodology, was U.S. Bank Stadium — home of the Vikings, which opened in 2016. High-level violations were found at nearly 60 percent of inspection points, ranking U.S. Bank Stadium 90th out of the 107 venues.

Target Field, home of the Twins, checked in No. 79 with 50.4 percent of inspection points revealing high-level violations. Target Center (48.2 percent, No. 72) and Xcel Energy Center (43 percent, No. 65) rounded out the local list. All four were in the bottom half of the rankings.

You can check out each venue and see some of the high-level violations listed for all of them on the report.

Some context, though, is also important. For the 82 venues studied that had comparable data for food safety inspections in the overall surrounding community, 73 of the sports venues had as good or better ratings.

That data, however, was not listed as available for any of the Twin Cities venues — but it’s certainly possible all or some of them would fare better than the local average. Yankee Stadium, for instance, ranked No. 102 out of the 107 venues but had a high-level violation rate much lower than the overall inspection rate in that area.

Inspection might also be more rigorous in our market than others, leading to more reported violations and the impression of less safety. It’s also possible new protocols have been put in place since the inspections were done in 2016 and 2017.

That said, food safety is a critical issue — particularly at sports venues, which serve a ton of people and increasingly are offering a wider variety of foods and beverages to entice customers.

You can read more about the larger issue in the expansive story that accompanies the report.

*Two fans at a Pacers game on Wednesday played an in-arena game that is some sort of combination of basketball and tic-tac-toe. As someone who has played a lot of tic-tac-toe lately with my 4-year-old, I am confident in saying this: She would have won. This is just frustrating to watch.

*If you think there’s a lot of scoring in the modern NBA, you probably didn’t watch a lot of basketball in the early 1980s. Today, in fact, marks the 35th anniversary of the highest-scoring game in league history. Final score: Pistons 186, Nuggets 184 in triple overtime.

Going beyond that ESPN video clip, I dug up the box score on Basketball Reference. The most amazing part: There were exactly four three-pointers attempted (two by each team, one make for each team) in the entire game. Also, the score was ONLY 145-145 at the end of regulation — not all that far off from last night’s 141-130 final in the Wolves’ loss to Sacramento.