The last month has not been kind to the Minnesota Timberwolves when it comes to the outcomes of their road contests. Let’s take a look at what is causing this futility, and attempt to decipher how they’re going to adjust.
Let’s wind the clock back to the night of Dec. 28. It was on this night that the Minnesota Timberwolves traveled to Milwaukee to take on the Bucks on the second night of a back-to-back. The Wolves were on a five-game winning streak, having just beaten the Denver Nuggets the previous evening due to some Jimmy Butler heroics (and highly entertaining trash talk).
At this juncture of the season, the Wolves sported a respectable road record of 10-7, with tough wins at Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Miami bolstering Minnesota’s reputation of being a tough team no matter what arena they were playing in.
In the third quarter of this contest, Karl-Anthony Towns expanded the Wolves’ lead to 18 points after a nifty behind-the-back pass from Jimmy Butler and seemed to be on their way towards logging yet another gritty win against a should-be playoff opponent. Their net rating on the road sat at a solid 2.0 (Offensive Rating: 109.5 – Defensive Rating: 107.5) and things were looking sunny and bright in Timberwolves territory.
Then, slowly but surely, the Bucks crept their way back into the game with an assortment of defensive intensity and offensive execution that was met by the Timberwolves with tired legs from playing their second game in two nights and spotty final quarter play. These combined factors led to Milwaukee stealing a game from the Wolves, which was understandable, even if frustrating, for a team attempting to sweep a back-to-back set.
Fast forward to today, and that game was the spark that led to a month-long drought of quality play on the road for this year’s Minnesota Timberwolves squad. Including that contest in Milwaukee, the Wolves are now just 2-9 in their last 11 road games. This record is marked with a net rating of -4.5 and overall deflated numbers from the first two months of the season.
Quick Disclaimer: Before diving into what has created this slide, it should be noted that the Wolves just finished off a month in which they led the league in games played and did have to push through multiple difficult traveling schedules. This fact must not be overlooked, however, it would be naïve to completely excuse all of the poor road play on this factor.
What has been the problem?
An assortment of elements has led to these struggles. Perhaps most concerning is the re-emergence of the fourth quarter woes that plagued the team over the first two months of the season.
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Over this 2-9 stretch, the Timberwolves fourth-quarter net rating while on the road sits at an atrocious -18.2. To put that into perspective, the closest team to the Wolves this season in fourth quarter awfulness is the Memphis Grizzlies with a final quarter net rating of -6.4. That is quite frightening if you are a Timberwolves supporter.
There are several culprits for which the blame of this final stanza misery lies, beginning with head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Thibs has long been lauded as one of the best defensive schemers in the modern NBA game, as his attention to detail and demand for excellence has garnered him the reputation of a highly respected coach. However, his consistent and utter lack of late-game creativity in offensive play sets and after-time-out (ATO) designs have left fans scratching their heads on multiple occasions. When combined with his incessant need to micromanage every late-game possession, thus wasting valuable timeouts that could be used to advance the basketball at the end of single possession games, Wolves’ faithful around the world must reach for an alcoholic beverage to contain their frustration. I tried to put it in lighter terms on Twitter.
This complete lack of innovation feeds the opposing crowd’s energy, as they see the Wolves grind the shot clock down to the waning seconds with very little ball or player movement, usually ending in some desperate heave where the floor is poorly balanced. Many times this can be overcome at home, but when playing in an opposing team’s arena the bounces seem to go your way much less often.
Another element of the Timberwolves road struggles has been a persistent lack of energy when playing the cellar-dwellers of the NBA. Over the course of this aforementioned losing stretch on the road, the Wolves have lost to Brooklyn, Orlando, and Atlanta – currently the bottom three teams in the Eastern Conference. Regardless of fatigue, lack of energy, or just an off night, losing to that feeble trifecta of teams within one month is nightmare-inducing.
All of the players share some of the fault for these defeats. Jeff Teague has had nights where he seemed to actually be asleep, culminating with him playing his best ever game for the Atlanta Hawks this past Monday (come on, it’s okay to laugh at that). Andrew Wiggins has continued to improve, but he still sometimes disappears in the game’s biggest moments. Jimmy Butler, for as incredible as he has been for the Timberwolves this season, sometimes resorts to too much hero ball which results in painfully slow and ugly possessions.
To top it off, and this is something that Dunking With Wolves own Brian Sampson touched on here, is Karl-Anthony Towns continuously logging games in which he has less than 10 shot attempts. For a player who is one of the most offensively gifted players in the entire league, that should be completely unacceptable. The responsibility for this probably lies on a combination of Towns, his teammates, and Thibodeau. But more offensive play sets for KAT MUST be implemented throughout the game if the Timberwolves are to be successful.
The NBA season is a journey that inevitably comes with several ebbs and flows for every team. The Timberwolves have had their share of positive moments throughout this year, but this recent road stretch is one blemish on an otherwise widely successful campaign.
The good news is that this difficult recent road stretch has been buoyed by a 10 game home winning streak, keeping the Wolves in the hunt for a top-4 seed in the Western Conference.
But judging by the discrepancy in how Minnesota plays at Target Center in comparison to how they have recently competed away from home, attaining home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs may turn out to be a crucial element if the Wolves have hope of advancing to the second round.
Either way, the hope is that turning the page to a new month and getting a fresh start will spark the Timberwolves into being more successful on the road as we move forward. In the meantime, let’s just try to enjoy what this winning NBA fan feeling is like.