After a 4 game win streak consisting of victories all by 10 or more points I am officially declaring that the Minnesota Timberwolves are back! Well for now at least. We’ll still take it day by day. The most recent victory against the New Orleans Pelicans featured yet another rousing performance by the team’s defense as they poked and prodded and generally frustrated a short-handed Pelicans team on their way to a 4th straight win. Here are 3 thoughts on the latest win and a preview of the upcoming biggest game of the season against the Miami Heat.
Let’s begin with a Pelicans Outlook…
Early in the 3rd quarter of a developing blowout loss for New Orleans, the Wolves had a possession where they gave themselves several opportunities with offensive rebounds and eventually finished the possession with a Jarred Vanderbilt “and-1” layup. In a silent Smoothie King Arena, a sideline microphone picked up a clearly exasperated Pelicans player shouting “Come on man, this is embarrassing!”
Not great if you are a Pelicans fan! The losses are taking a toll on the players, and that sucks to watch. They are a beaten down team going through injuries and face a massive talent disparity every night. Minnesota came into town riding a 3 game streak and have recently figured some things out. Mix that with the Wolves employing Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley and you have a recipe for one team to easily beat up on the other.
Brandon Ingram is clearly playing through a hip injury. Jonas Valančiūnas needs some sort of perimeter threat to set him up so he is not swarmed by arms and bodies in the post. And above all they need their incendiary scoring big man, Zion Williamson, back in the mix. This season is likely lost, so let’s hope for some more lottery luck for our friends in the bayou.
D’Angelo Russell was dealing…
Let’s get this out of the way: DLo put up a stinker in the shooting department. 3–16 from the field and 1–10(!!!) from beyond the arc. He will need to shoot so much better to beat good teams. And I think he will!
The real positive sign however was that he did not let the scoring woes stop him from being a masterful playmaker. With his shot eluding him, he decided to get downhill whenever possible and he was consistently able to find cutters or kick-out passes for open shots.
This is especially important when Russell is playing with bench units, which he does a lot of. Getting some of those guys going, mainly Naz & Beasley, is integral to the Wolves sustaining offense throughout the game. DLo clearly likes to look for Malik Beasley to try to get him going. He knows Malik’s shooting can be a game-changing weapon for this team. In the Pelicans game Beasley was struggling, but it certainly was not for lack of opportunities created by the point guard.
As always, DLo HAS to shoot better than 18% from the field. But watching him make a point to get the ball to others in efficient situations was a sight for sore eyes. Keeping that up along with some positive regression on the shooting percentages is a recipe for a good pilot of this offense.
There is no precedent for defense like this in the Wolves Post-KG era…
(all stats per basketball-reference.com)
We all know the history for this team since the 2007 trade that dealt the franchise cornerstone to the Celtics. They have not put together a competent defense since they sent away their anchor on that end. There have certainly been good stretches of defense, particularly when Jimmy Butler was traded away and the team was reinvigorated by positive vibes. That was never going to last though as the losing took its toll on that team’s defensive will.
Fast forward to this season’s first 17 games where we are in the midst of some of the most sustained defensive effort this professional basketball team has seen in years. After basically 1/5th of the season the Wolves rank 8th as a team in defensive rating and are 10th in opponent points per game. They are also #1 in opponent turnovers and 4th in opponent field goal percentage.
The numbers are great, but the eye test is what inspires real confidence in the team’s ability to consistently provide this caliber of play. For once, they just “give a shit.” A Monday night game in a sleepy arena against a talent-starved opponent used to spell defensive apathy and disaster for the Timberwolves. This season under those conditions they manufactured all of their own energy and generally suffocated the basketball life out of the New Orleans players.
Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley are the ring-leaders for this defensive renaissance, but credit has to be given to former sieves D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns for buying in and feeding off the energy. Defense takes a team effort, as it always has! This Wolves team is finally playing like they want to be good on that end and it is truly refreshing to watch.
Previewing the Miami Heat
The Heat should march into Target Center on the day before Thanksgiving as a mostly healthy squad. Markieff Morris looks like he may still be out and Duncan Robinson is listed as “day-to-day” but otherwise they have their full complement of stars.
Make no mistake, the Heat are finals contenders this year with the 4th ranked offensive rating and defensive rating per Basketball Reference. They are led of course by Jimmy Butler who may be having his best season yet averaging 25.1/5.6/5.4 with 2 steals per game to go along with it. Add in Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry and you have a team with a tremendous amount of toughness and skill.
For the Wolves, matching the Heat’s energy and effort should not be the problem. Considering their winning streak and the bad blood between a few players on these teams this should be considered as their biggest game of the young season. They need to play like it.
One spot where the Wolves can steal some points will be in a 3pt. shooting disparity. Miami takes the 22nd most 3’s per game and shoots at about an average rate. The Wolves take the most 3’s per game, and while they have not shot a high percentage overall the tide has begun to turn recently. If Malik Beasley, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards can shoot a respectable % on their high volume of 3pt. attempts while KAT continues to convert 3’s like a tall Seth Curry the Wolves should win the 3pt. battle fairly significantly.
Overall there is no magic formula to beating a team like the Miami Heat. Their game plan will include playing physical and suffocating defense and attacking the rim offensively. Sometimes it isn’t about talent, you just need to want it more. If the Wolves come in and feed off of what should be a raucous crowd using that energy in a positive way, there is a decent chance they come away with an enormous W. However if they rest on the laurels of a 4 game winning streak against weaker competition then Jimmy Butler will walk out of Target Center with an easy win. Yuck, let’s not let that happen.