The Timberwolves are still a relatively young team — especially with Jimmy Butler out — but have been playing much better in the fourth quarter over the past couple of games.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are not playing their best basketball overall of late, but it was good enough for two consecutive wins against the Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards, even without Jimmy Butler.
The defense against the Golden State was impressive, as the Warriors only scored 19 points during the last quarter. The Warriors shot 23 percent (6-23) from the field, with just one from long distance on 11 attempts.
After that, the Wolves outscored Washington by a 34-21 margin during the last quarter, combining excellent efficiency behind the line (5-7) with unexpected defense on the perimeter. Porter and Beal combined to shoot 3-10 from the field in the final frame and the main credit goes to Andrew Wiggins and his defensive effort.
Even if Golden State and Washington were without their main offensive gravity, Minnesota worked excellent on the both ends. The Timberwolves found positive answers on some issues they were having throughout the year. Obviously two good games can’t erase the rest of the season, but it can suggest what aspects be focused and how to solve them.
Karl-Anthony Towns has never been so active enough with his feet, and at times this season he hasn’t been able to find the correct spacing in the paint, which is his deadliest offensive spot on the floor. For these reasons, Towns was attempting just 3.2 shots on average during the last quarter heading into the Warriors game. His usage rate is only the fifth-highest on the roster — just behind Jamal Crawford, who has played 200 minutes less than him in this season.
However, the situation looked better during the last two games and this is encouraging. In fact, in last two games, Towns doubled his attempts during the last quarter moving from 3.2 to 6.5 shots and he looked more capable in creating an advantage from a specific situation.
The win against the Warriors could be pivotal to clinch a playoff spot and stop the seemingly never-ending postseason absence. But this wouldn’t have been possible without Towns and his perfect last quarter with Golden State, as he scored 14 points in the frame and showed off his entire skill-set.
The idea of giving more possessions to Towns to have more clutch points is a formula with too many variables in long-period terms, but in this short streak it paid off.
In fact, this is not the first-time Draymond Green had a nightmare matchup guarding Towns. Green struggled a lot to oppose passes and shot created with an excellent footwork. He simply is not able to match-up to Towns in both size and technique at the same time.
When Towns faced the Wizards during the last game, he was used mainly as a play initiator that forced the backcourt to collapse on him. This allowed to the teammates driving to the basket and to create a good spacing. It’s something new for the offense.
He finished the fourth quarter with just six points, all coming on a pair of 3-pointers, but he did make a lot of extra passes that helped get the Wolves some easy baskets.
KAT is no longer just a floor-spacer used to move the big defender away from the pain; he is becoming a real long-distance sniper. Just look how he punished a slow perimeter defender like Ian Mahinmi.
Versatility is helping on both ends of the floor
The Wolves are allowing 114 points on 100 possessions during the fourth quarter, per NBA Stats. But this data is worse if we only consider the period after the Jimmy Butler injury. In fact, from that moment, the points allowed has slid to 121 points per 100 possessions. This is bad, of course, but the problem is bigger than just Butler’s absence.
To close the games, Thibodeau used Jamal Crawford too much, causing him to log the second-highest usage rate during the last quarter. Thibs tried him as shot creator, giving Gorgui Dieng a specific role that Taj Gibson has been able to do at a macro level.
The result was tragic. On the one hand, Crawford is a bad defender, with the lowest Defensive Real Plus-Minus in the entire league at -5.12. The opponents are shooting more than 60 percent from two when he is the first defender, and in general, 50.5 from the field against Crawford. On the other side, Dieng is a good player and a solid rim-protector, but he is still looking for his ideal role in rotations.
Surprisingly, during the last two games, the lineup composed by Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica and Karl-Anthony Towns is working well. In fact, their Net Rating is an excellent 84.5, and this is especially because of the perimeter protection and their offensive flexibility.
The Serbian was called to defend Kevin Durant for most of the time and the Finals MVP shot just 4-for-13 when Bjelica was the first defender. Even Wiggins played a great defensive game guarding Klay Thompson, following him on every cut or movement. Bjelica might not be the best man to protect the perimeter against the opponent snipers or to guard as four some big shooters, but the agility he added was essential to stop Warriors transition.
One of the most popular argument against Wiggin’s defense is due to the lack of attention and effort protecting the weak side when he’s not involved in a one-on-one situation. However, against the Warriors, he was able to shut down Thompson from the beginning of the action.
After Wiggins stopped Beal, he was able to arrive in time to slow down Porter on the other side, creating the illusion that there were two Wiggins on the court at the same time. He’s more than a reliable defender in one-on-one situations.
The connection between Jones and Bjelica is one of the most positive topics for these Timberwolves without Butler. Jones is a vital member of the rotation at backup point guard, capable of running the early offense crisper than Teague, even though Teague has more all-around offensive skills.
Bjelica has been showing good confidence in spot-up shooting from the corner, where he is more efficient than when he tries to attack the rim after a stagnant offensive set.
The Wolves have also had a more positive defensive approach of late. Jones is a vigilant defender, capable to break the screens so quickly to allow Bjelica to be reactive in pick-and-roll situations.
There’s still a long road ahead to truly evaluate this fourth quarter revamping, but if you consider that the Wolves’ record when trailing after the third quarter was 5-18 prior to these two wins… honestly, this is already a big step forward.