Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves’ first quarter overconfidence issue

D'Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves throws a pass. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves throws a pass. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a huge problem. They seem to think they’re a good team.

Let me be unequivocally clear: they are not.

The Wolves are only a half-game ahead of Houston for the league’s worst record, and they’ve been last in the league for the majority of this lost season. So, why does the worst team in the league think they’re all that?

Take it from Karl-Anthony Towns, who spoke to reporters following the Wolves’ 105-124 loss to the Clippers on Sunday: “We always come in here and act like we got one win. We don’t get many wins so there’s no reason to have any type of cockiness or swagger to it” (subscription required).

The issue manifests itself in the first quarter of games throughout the season.

The Timberwolves are a league-worst minus-3.4 in the first quarter with a mind-numbing minus-12.9 net rating in the opening frame. Put simply, they’re the worst team in the league in the first quarter.

The Wolves improve incrementally as the game goes on; their net rating improves to minus-9.6 in the second quarter, minus-8.3 in the third, and somewhat surprisingly, plus-2.5 in the fourth.

That first-quarter figure gets even worst when they’re coming off of a win. The Wolves are minus-5.9 in the first quarter of the 15 games they’ve played immediately following a win. This is the worst first-quarter Wolves squad dating back until at least the 1996-97 season.

So, what is behind the slow starts?

First and foremost, it starts with the swagger that Towns was referencing. KAT isn’t the only Wolves player to notice the trend. Naz Reid told The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski (subscription required) that they weren’t “all the way into” the game against the Clippers, and they need to “have the right approach coming in.”

Like Anthony Edwards said earlier this month, the coaches can just tell them how to play, but the players have to go and do it and give the effort.

First-quarter effort has improved some under the Chris Finch regime. Minnesota’s first quarter net rating jumps from minus-15.7 in 31 games this season under Ryan Saunders to minus-9.7 in the 27 games Finch has been at the helm.

There’s something going on with this team and its inflated ego after each win. Minnesota hasn’t won back-to-back games since the first two games of the season. They’ve lost nine games by more than 10 points coming off of a win.

Perhaps it’s the extreme youth of the team experiencing a roller-coaster season with emotions all over the place. Minnesota is the youngest team in the league, after all, and hadn’t played basketball for more than nine months, between March 10 and Dec. 23, 2020. The Wolves have only had their full roster playing together for a handful of games, and they went through an unconventional midseason coaching change.

Maybe .0001 percent of the blame can be placed on the fanbase so hungry for a winner that they (we) shoot expectations to the moon after one good game.

The offense has a tough time getting going this season. In the first quarter, Minnesota scores just 102.8 points per 100 possessions, which would be the worst offensive rating in the league if you extrapolate it out over the entire game.

If the offense is the issue in the first quarter, the defense is the problem that persists into the second quarter, when Minnesota allows 119.8 points per 100 possessions. It’s a perfect tag team between the offensive and defensive issues that have plagued the team for years.

So how can the Wolves keep the fourth-quarter energy going throughout the whole game?

It starts with Edwards. The 19-year-old rookie phenom struggles more than anyone else in the first quarter — his 16-point frame against Sacramento on Tuesday night notwithstanding.

In an average 8.1 first-quarter minutes per night, Edwards is averaging 4.1 points on 37.8 percent shooting from the field and 32.1 percent from three. In the fourth quarter, his numbers improve to 5.2 points in 7.8 minutes while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 33 percent from three. Edwards needs to get going early for this team to improve its early game woes.

Finch could start running off-ball actions for Edwards early in the game to get him an easy few buckets and allow him to begin playing up to the swagger he already plays with.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have 13 games to figure out how to begin each game with the right level of intensity. They obviously need to win more games and start winning games without acting like they’ve been there before because they haven’t.

The Wolves should be playing with a chip on their shoulder and an intensity this franchise hasn’t seen consistently since Kevin Garnett (sorry, Jimmy Butler), instead of sleepwalking through the regular season like they’re headed for home court advantage in the playoffs.

Next. The history of the Wolves and the next pick. dark

It starts at tipoff, and doesn’t end until you’ve won or done everything you can do to win.