Timberwolves Reaction: How the Hornets stopped the pick-and-roll

Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)Getty ID: 876911676
Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)Getty ID: 876911676 /

The Timberwolves dropped their second game in as many days on Monday night, falling to the Hornets in Charlotte by a final score of 118-102, and they did it by stopping the Wolves’ pick-and-roll offense.

After heading into a winnable home game on Sunday night with a 10-5 record, the Timberwolves have lost two games in 48 hours to fall into a three-way tie for fourth place in the Western Conference with a 10-7 record.

Sunday’s game was frustrating for many reasons, some of which I detailed in the moments following the final buzzer. In short: the Wolves held a double-digit lead at multiple points against a solid but far-from-world-beating Detroit Pistons team. It was a home game, and the Wolves hadn’t played in 48 hours. Plus, they knew they had to hop on a plane after the game and travel south to Charlotte to face a bruising Dwight Howard and his Hornets squad.

On Sunday, the Wolves defense was pretty good, and the offense simply stagnated in the fourth quarter. Still, they had a legitimate chance to win before the third of Jimmy Butler‘s three, potentially-game-tying free throws rimmed out, and his potentially-game-tying desperation heave rimmed out as well. In a long season, teams will win and lose an equal number of those; Wolves fans surely haven’t forgotten Andrew Wiggins‘ buzzer-beating heave in Oklahoma City in Game Three, right?

The more frustrating element from Sunday was the offensive issues in the fourth quarter. On Monday night, those offensive issues manifested themselves nearly all game long.

Over the weekend, yours truly broke down the Timberwolves’ pick-and-roll offense, focusing on just how successful it’s been and that they should go back to that well more often. I also argued that while the Jeff Teague-initiated pick-and-roll has been successful, the Wolves would be smart to run more high screens with the ball in Butler’s hands.

On Sunday, the Pistons did a solid job defending the pick-and-roll. And on Monday, Charlotte practically shut it down.

If you didn’t watch the game, you could simply glance at the box score and see that Karl-Anthony Towns had 10 shot attempts to Teague’s 18, and you’d know that something didn’t go according to plan. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Towns still scored 18 points on those 10 field goal attempts, while it took Teague 18 shots to get 18 points.)

The Hornets did an outstanding job defending the pick-and-roll, and that forced Teague into a team-high in shot attempts, held Taj Gibson to zero made field goals, and Towns into a quiet 18 and 12 on the night.

Here, early in the first quarter, Kemba Walker slides underneath the Gibson screen and immediately gets between Teague and Gibson, who is rolling to the basket. Howard drops deep into the paint, taking a way a lob or easy bounce pass to Taj, while forcing Teague to loft a tough shot attempt over him.

Teague’s shot attempt went in that time, but his 7-for-18 night paints an accurate picture of just how tough Charlotte made things for Teague and the Wolves’ offense.

The counter to this defense is, of course, Teague pulling up and shooting a jumper. He did that a few times with mixed success, but the Hornets’ collapsing defense combined with the Wolves’ cold outside shooting (just 6-for-27 from beyond the arc on the night) was enough to slow Minnesota’s offense down to a grind.

It appeared clear that Tom Thibodeau opted to run the pick-and-roll primarily with Gibson on this night, likely with the expectation that Howard would be guarding Towns. KAT could space the floor, drawing Howard and his shot-blocking and rebounding ability away from the rim. This strategy worked at times, but Gibson simply doesn’t have the height, length, or athleticism of Towns to corral in-the-vicinity passes that Teague may otherwise have attempted to throw.

This next clip is more of a drag screen in transition, but it illustrates the kind of shot that the Hornets were trying to force Teague into taking.

Walker does a great job fighting over the screen and funnels him towards Marvin Williams — not exactly an elite shot-blocker, but a defender nonetheless. For some reason, Teague opted to shoot a floater over two defenders instead of taking one hard dribble around Williams for an easy layup; Dwight Howard was trailing the play back by the 3-point line and wouldn’t have impacted the shot.

Teague’s better play would have been to shoot the layup or kick the ball back out to either Butler or Andrew Wiggins, who were both standing wide-open beyond the arc. The Wolves only had Gibson, surrounded by four Hornets, in rebounding position. This was ill-advised all around from Minnesota’s perspective.

This is the recipe to defeat a generally potent Timberwolves offense: pinch the pick-and-roll to entice Teague to launch difficult shots, and count on the Wolves’ largely average 3-point shooters to have an off night if Teague or the roll-man makes the decision to kick the ball back out to the perimeter. Of course, it requires max effort by the opposing point guard a big man with the ability to check Towns — not exactly something that the Wolves will run into on a nightly basis, but absolutely a blueprint that they’ll need to remedy down the road.

Next: Timberwolves need wing help, and it may be nearby

Next up, the Wolves head to Orlando for a matchup with another somewhat surprising Eastern Conference squad. Although the Magic have lost five straight games, they’ve been the likes of the Spurs and the Cavs this season and won road games in New Orleans and Memphis. It’ll be a good opportunity for Thibodeau to get is crew back on track.