That was exhausted and undisciplined and very possibly a major statement about what’s to come.
When the Timberwolves left Minneapolis last Tuesday night, it was on the heels of a surprise win over Atlanta. (Never mind that the Hawks have somewhat imploded since.) It was with a 16-15 record in spite of several seasons’ worth of injuries compressed into two months and with the intention of making a statement on a four-game Western Conference road trip.
They made a statement, alright. Just not the one they wanted.
The Timberwolves went into the trip with an above-.500 record and a positive point differential, though barely so, at plus-0.4. They come out of it now with a differential of -1.6, a massive leap borne only of the kind of road trip Minnesota just finished. On the trip, which ended as a four-game losing streak, the team had a point differential of -16.8. Yes. You read that right. It shot 41.3 percent from the field, 21.3 percent from 3-point range, a figure that made its 30 percent mark from long-range going into the streak look downright accurate. And that field goal percentage, in fact, was 25th-worst in the league over the span of the trip, from Jan. 8 to Jan. 14.
But we’ve known the Timberwolves are struggling offensively. We’ve known it for a long time. Logic has dictated that these numbers might regress to the much-better mean, and while they haven’t, miserable shooting nights have become this team’s currency. What this road trip solidified, then, was not necessarily anything about the team’s shooting, but rather the method by which it tends to execute its losses.
On the season, the Timberwolves are now 16-19. Of those 16 wins, 10 have come when the team has outscored its opponent in the third quarter. Somehow, though, in 35 games, Minnesota has outscored its opponent in the third quarter only 12 times, contributing to a -83 third-quarter scoring margin. That’s 34.3 percent of the time, and the Timberwolves have only lost TWICE when they’ve won the third-quarter scoring margin. Twice.
What this team does, now, is start strong and then deflate. The Timberwolves have outscored their opponents in the first quarter of in 22 games this year, 62.9 percent of the time, on their way to plus-100 first-quarter scoring margin. They’ve outscored good teams, too, the Warriors twice, the Nuggets, the Clippers, the Celtics, the Heat, the Thunder, the Knicks, the Hawks, the Jazz. But they’ve only won 11 of those 22 games, blowing another 11 hot starts.
That was never more apparent than in New Orleans last Friday, in the most winnable game of the trip. The Timberwolves went out to a 29-14 lead after the first quarter before being outscored 56-32 over the next two quarters and 90-63 over the remainder of the game. Yes, they were injured, with just nine healthy players, but they’ve done similar things with a fuller roster and more gas in their collective tank. So part of it is the fact that they’re shorthanded, but there’s an element of pacing or focus or some combination therein that’s lacking and leading to this.
Coming out of this trip, the Timberwolves are now at the bottom of the Northwest Conference and teetering dangerously close to the cellar of the West; there are only six games separating them and New Orleans and its 11-26 record, six games that could remain a wedge but could easily disappear with a continued skid and an uptick at the other end of the Mississippi. Sure, that sounds like doom and gloom, but Minnesota has seen this before, too many times, and no matter how dedicated or talented or chummy this current group might be, it’s still just a fraction of a full NBA team, missing one star until March and with the other star still not even a year removed from an ACL tear that spurred a team-wide collapse.
When the Timberwolves left for Oklahoma City, they were riding the high of an unexpected win but still no doubt haunted by the revelation that there would be no Kevin Love for two-ish months. That breeds a certain kind of urgency, but perhaps not a desperate one. When they return from this trip, though, there should be desperation. Not so much on the part of the players, who have been doing as well, if not better, than many might expect under the circumstances, but rather on the part of the decision-makers. No matter how much better Ricky Rubio is looking with every game — he really is — this group of ten or so players on a good night, without Kevin Love, is not going to cut it if the Timberwolves want to end their playoff drought.
It’s time for a move. It’s time to weigh present vs. future, to do some kind of cost-benefit analysis that can balance winning now against creating something sustainable, and that has to be the hardest thing to do in sports, especially when so much is riding on this team and this rebuild and ending this drought.
But after the past week, it has to happen. These were tough opponents in San Antonio and Oklahoma City but also perfectly beatable ones in New Orleans and Dallas, and the fact that there was really not a moment in a second half of any of these games when the Timberwolves looked like they had a plausible shot of winning — well, that’s a problem if you’re Minnesota.
This was a rough week for the Timberwolves, and there were too many moments when it seemed like a reasonable proposition to just end the game early, pack up and go home. It was a wakeup call of the worst kind. But if there’s any silver lining at all, it’s the timing. It’s inching closer to too late, but the season hasn’t reached that point yet, and this may still be salvageable, with the right moves and the perfect circumstances.
Until then, though, the Timberwolves are going to have to somehow, some way, do better.