Over the last five games, the Minnesota Timberwolves have looked much improved on both ends of the floor, with solid veteran play being a catalyst.
After a (what’s the best adjective to use here…) forgettable 42-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 15, the Minnesota Timberwolves have seen a small turn-around in their play. In the five games since Minnesota has gone 3-2 and has the ninth-best net rating in the league during that span.
It hasn’t been a murderers’ row of opponents; they beat Phoenix twice and a beaten-up Lakers team while dropping close games to the Spurs and Jazz. The Timberwolves have had a pretty good excuse, however: everyone is dropping like flies!
Robert Covington, the team’s best perimeter defender, has been out since the beginning of January with an ankle injury. Tyus Jones (five games), Jeff Teague (three games), and Derrick Rose (one game) have also missed time due to ankle/foot injuries.
Minnesota has had to dig deep and trust its veteran depth and surprisingly, it has given the Wolves something of a spark.
Jerryd Bayless has perhaps been the biggest difference-maker. After arriving in Minnesota via Philly in the Jimmy Butler trade, Bayless was buried behind Teague, Jones, and Rose on the depth chart. With injuries to all three as of late, though, Bayless has been called upon by head coach Ryan Saunders to step up and he has had a positive impact.
Before Minnesota’s Jan. 20 victory over Phoenix, Bayless hadn’t played more than 16 minutes in a game. Bayless played 22 minutes in that game, however, and has seen his minutes rise in the three following games.
Bayless hasn’t been terribly efficient from inside the arc, shooting just 30 percent his last four games. From deep, however, Bayless’s shooting has opened things up for the Wolves offense — hitting 39 percent on seven attempts per game. Leading up this four-game stretch, Minnesota had attempted 28.5 3-pointers per game — 23rd in the league. During these four games, however, Minnesota has put up 31.1 attempts per game — 13th in the league.
Teague, Jones, and Rose simply don’t have the shooting gravitas that Bayless holds. Whether Bayless is hitting or not, defenses can’t crowd the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson in the post with Bayless standing alone on the perimeter.
Like Bayless, 14-year NBA veteran Luol Deng had mostly been a bench warmer this season up until recently. For the most part, Minnesota’s reserve big man rotation has been Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Tolliver, and Dario Saric — which makes for a pretty big group, with Tolliver getting some run at small forward.
Lately, though, Saunders has trimmed both Dieng and Tolliver’s minutes (depending on the game) and squeezed Deng into the rotation.
Resting for the majority of the past one-and-a-half seasons, it’s fair to say Deng has had fresh legs to come in and give the Timberwolves a good handful of minutes — and he’s done just that.
Deng hasn’t had an incredible impact, averaging 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds on 50 percent shooting in 16.3 minutes over the past three games. Simple court positioning and heads-up plays have been important, though, like this steal-turned-bucket.
Tolliver, a floor-spacing forward, is the type of player Minnesota could use off the bench but he just hasn’t been able to hold onto a consistent workload this season. If Deng is still playing well by the time Covington returns, Tolliver may find his minutes completely cut — unless he is traded at the deadline.
It will be interesting to see how Saunders manages the point guard situation once Teague, Jones, and Rose return to the floor as well. If Bayless continues to shoot like this (from deep, that is), he deserves at least a small dose of minutes on a consistent basis.