D’Angelo Russell’s late-game failures torpedoed the Minnesota Timberwolves

D'Angelo Russell had some issues late in the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves against the San Antonio Spurs. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell had some issues late in the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves against the San Antonio Spurs. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves have long sought a closer.

Every NBA team wants one. The player who can methodically pound the air out of the ball and then suddenly rise and fire with the confidence that his shot will be true 10 times out of 10.

The Wolves finally have someone who considers himself a closer. Mr. Ice-In-My-Veins himself, D’Angelo Russell.

And that’s not snark. Russell is confident that his heaves will splash through the net at a high enough rate to lead his team to victory. Make no mistake, that’s a significant chunk of the battle: finding someone who A) wants to take the big shots, and B) can make the big shots.

Alas, Russell got himself into trouble against the San Antonio Spurs. In a game the Wolves led by as many as 16 points early in the fourth quarter, a confluence of issues allowed the Spurs to tie the game at 99 with 4:50 to play.

What happened next was a display of equal parts misguided bravado and shoddy coaching.

Breaking down D’Angelo Russell’s failures in Timberwolves’ loss to Spurs

Over the next three-plus minutes of gameplay, D’Angelo Russell initiated seven consecutive offensive possessions for the Wolves. He passed the ball exactly one time.

Here’s the rundown of possessions, and then we’ll highlight a pair of the worst decisions he made.

  1. Russell receives a Naz Reid screen, dribbles directly into drop coverage, and hoists a contested 10-footer. Miss.
  2. In isolation, guarded by DeMar DeRozan, Russell gets to his left hand and scores at the rim.
  3. Another pick-and-roll. This time, Russell tries to pass to Reid but it’s the wrong read; Malik Beasley was wide-open outside the arc. Reid’s shot is blocked, he kicks the offensive rebound back out to Beasley who ultimately scores on a drive to the hoop.
  4. Another pick-and-roll, although this time Russell rejects the screen and goes right, getting past the Spurs’ defense, which was shading him to go to his strong hand. He scores at the rim.
  5. Pick-and-roll with Reid. Russell is fouled in the paint and makes one of two free throws.
  6. Another pick-and-roll. This time, Russell takes it to the rim, directly at a double-team, and misses. Reid, who was left open on the roll, cleans up the rebound with a put-back dunk.
  7. Another pick-and-roll. The Spurs play drop coverage again and Dejounte Murray recovers to get in Russell’s way at the free throw line. Russell pump-fakes and shoots a contested, fall-away 15-footer. Beasley was standing wide-open in the left slot.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s five points in seven possessions initiated by Russell, or .714 points per possession (PPP). (No, the points scored on offensive rebounds don’t improve Russell’s PPP.)

That’s a horrible return on seven consecutive possessions, to put it mildly. Thankfully for Minnesota, the Spurs only managed to build a two-point lead over that sequence, but that only underscores how winnable this game was if the Wolves had run a competent offense.

Let’s call out two plays in particular. The first was the only possession of the seven that Russell actually passed the ball.

Pause the video at the :05 mark. Malik Beasley is popping wide-open on the perimeter, while Naz is rolling into double coverage at the rim. A simple toss back to Beasley would have given the Wolves the chance to take the lead.

The worst play of the group was the final one.

The Spurs cover the pick-and-roll adeptly — do you think they had an idea of what might be coming? — and Russell has a wide-open Beasley in the left slot. Instead, Russell allows Murray to recover and then double-clutches before hoisting a difficult fall-away jumper from 16 feet.

Yes, Russell’s quite good from that area of the floor. But in no way is that a better decision than kicking a simple pass to Beasley, whose man is ball-watching and not within eight feet of him.

From there, the Wolves proceeded to be the victims of a series of questionable officiating decisions, before DeRozan made one of two free throws with 18.1 seconds left. The Wolves had the ball and a timeout, down three.

Minnesota brought the ball up the court slowly, wasting nearly 10 seconds before San Antonio takes a foul with one to give. For some reason, Ryan Saunders waited until then to call a timeout and set up a sideline-out-of-bounds play.

This is what was (apparently) drawn up.

This play had a little more to it than a simple isolation, but it turned into an isolation play with four players clustered in the corner and Russell going to work on the right side of the floor.

If you watch Beasley and Anthony Edwards in the corner, it appears as though Beasley was supposed to set a down-screen for Edwards, allowing for some additional action and the possibility that one or both of them would be open for a pass. But Edwards waves Beasley off, and the Wolves spacing was abysmal while Russell never once considered passing the ball.

This final play was mostly on the coaching staff for the play call, but clearly, the players didn’t execute properly, either. At best, it was unimaginative on Saunders’ part.

Ironically, Saunders’ greatest strength is arguably his play-calling in after-timeout, or ATO, situations. Here, he failed his team.

Next. Is this the Wolves' worst start ever?. dark

Russell and Saunders share much of the blame for this loss. The Wolves’ offense is rudderless without Karl-Anthony Towns, and it’s up to the head coach and other max-contract player on the roster to figure things out.