There are five minutes remaining in a tie game. Can the Minnesota Timberwolves finish the job when the pressure is on?
Every basketball aficionado has dreamed of hitting a buzzer-beater in a close game. The spotlight on you with the burden of the entire game on the line.
Unfortunately for the Minnesota Timberwolves, this scenario has often ended with a deafening silence throughout the Target Center.
The NBA defines clutch as the final five minutes of a game in which the two teams are within five points. The Timberwolves have seen their playoff aspirations diminish largely due to their performance in clutch-time situations. Minnesota ranks fifth in the league with 32 clutch-time games, and yet they are No. 20 in the league in clutch wins with just 13.
The team’s advanced numbers showcase an even larger problem: Minnesota falls from 14th in offensive rating to 23rd in clutch-time situations. The team also drops from 19th defensively to 25th, and most shockingly fall from 12th in total pace to last in the league during clutch-time.
All of these numbers must improve if the Timberwolves hope to compete in the difficult Western Conference.
Fortunately for Minnesota, things aren’t all doom and gloom in the final five minutes of games.
Dario Saric and Josh Okogie have each proven to be capable defenders in crunch time, while on the offensive side of the floor Robert Covington and Derrick Rose have continued to hit big shots down the stretch with Effective Field Goal Percentages of 63.2 and 53.8, respectively.
In fact, many of the disappointing clutch-time statistics can be attributed to the lack of Covington and Rose during their extended absences. With Rose’s return against the Clippers on Monday, Minnesota was able to close out a clutch-time situation thanks in part to some timely baskets by Rose.
While Rose is an essential piece of the Timberwolves’ clutch-time offense, he is a severe liability on the defensive end. During the Tom Thibodeau era, Minnesota often stuck with Rose on both ends during the final five minutes, costing them multiple games on the defensive end earlier in the season.
But even more detrimental than late-game defensive issues is the Timberwolves’ lack of shot-making in the closing stretch. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Saric are all shooting career-low numbers during clutch-time situations. An abundance of isolation plays and slow pace have resulted in poor looks for all three of these players, affecting the overall outcome of numerous games this season.
These three players are a core part of the Timberwolves’ future, and it is therefore vital that the team is able to find the right spots for these players to operate in the final five minutes of games.
The Timberwolves have to make adjustments to their style of play in clutch-time situations. Minnesota also needs to focus on making the proper adjustments moving forward.
Josh Okogie has become a vital piece of the defense, especially in clutch-time situations. If the team needs a crucial stop, Okogie has to be on the floor. If the team needs a basket to spark a comeback or take the game-winning shot, then Rose needs to be part of the closing lineup. It’s a fine balance but it is one that coach Ryan Saunders will have to find in order for his team to be successful rest of season.
More importantly, the Timberwolves need to run an offense that suits their best players. The number of players who are shooting career-low numbers in clutch-time situations is not a fluke, but rather a result of a bigger problem. They cannot and should not be last in the league in pace during the final five minutes. Minnesota has a playoff-caliber offense with players who are able to get up the floor for easy baskets in a hurry.
Limiting the team to half-court isolation sets has hurt the effectiveness of the team’s top players, mainly Towns and Wiggins. Push the tempo with players like Wiggins and Rose, post-up Towns when in a half-court set, and allow your bigs to kick it back out to shooters such as Saric and Covington around the perimeter.
The Timberwolves have capable players who have proven to make big-time shots at the end of games. And if all else fails, give the ball to Rose or Covington and let them work their magic.
Enjoy All-Star weekend, and be sure to keep it tuned to DWW as we’ll have ongoing coverage of the events on all three days.