MINNEAPOLIS – En route to their 90-77 loss against the Clippers on Thursday, the Timberwolves were outscored 21-20 in the third quarter and entered the game’s final frame down by five points.
That hardly sounds ideal, but for the Timberwolves, it was a step in the right direction. Ever since returning from its four-game, four-loss southern road trip, the team has had an acute awareness of its issues with pacing and focus – among other things – after being outscored by an average of 8.8 points in the third quarter of those games.
On the trip, the Timberwolves’ scoring margin by quarter looked like this: plus-1.3 in the first quarter, minus-4.8 in the second, minus-8.8 in the third and minus-4.5 in the fourth. It wasn’t so much a gradual running out of steam while shorthanded as an utter collapse in the middle of too many games, especially coming out of halftime.
That’s true for the season, too. On the year, the Timberwolves are markedly worse in the third quarter than in any other frame; they have a minus-86 scoring margin, their worst margin of any quarter, and are shooting 41.3 percent on 704 total shots. the fewest shots for any quarter this season. Defensively, they’re allowing opponents to shoot 46.1 percent in the third quarter, which is actually better than the 46.7 percent they’re allowing in the second and fourth quarters, but it’s still a far cry from what they have been able to execute offensively.
“Every time, we’re turning it on too late,” forward Derrick Williams said. “Down 20 points, and then we come back and now we’re down five – we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to come ready to play in the third quarter. That’s when we’re losing the games. … I think we all looked at it, looked at the film, looked at the stat sheet, and see the third quarter they’re outscoring up by 15 points every time.”
Williams’ numbers fit right into the Timberwolves’ overall trends. He’s shooting 33.3 percent in the third quarter, his worst mark by far, and he’s not the only one. Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love, Josh Howard and Brandon Roy all have posted the worst shooting numbers of their season in the 12 minutes after halftime.
It’s becoming more pronounced now, as the Timberwolves are down to seven healthy players (until they sign Mickael Gelabale Friday) with guard Alexey Shved and center Nikola Pekovic’s statuses for Saturday uncertain. They’re tired, losing steam, and there’s no clearer way to see that than in the third quarter, at the point when players start looking for subs who simply don’t exist.
“Some of the games, we have great stretches, and then like five, six, 10 minutes we’re just completely out of it, and other teams start jumping on our back … and destroying our defense,” Kirilenko said.
“That’s the human tendency. When we get tired, we’re losing our focus. In the third quarter, people are running out of gas a little bit, and they start making a lot of mistakes, so we have to be just careful. We have to put something in.”
What’s most surprising – and aggravating, too – about the Timberwolves’ scoring breakdown by quarter is that their plus-95 first-quarter scoring margin is among the best in the league. The other margins – minus-23 in the second, minus-63 in the fourth – are hardly impressive, but the dichotomy between first and third sticks out most. In fact, the team’s first-quarter mark remains high even after it has won the first quarter only once in five games, and though it might be encouraging to see that it can execute its offense, at least early, it also makes the later breakdowns more difficult to swallow.
The third quarter has been an issue all season. The Timberwolves have outscored their opponents in the frame in just 12 of 36 games, or a third of the time, and when they do so, they’re an impressive 10-2. However, the last time the team won the third quarter was all the way back on Dec. 15 against Dallas, more than a month ago, and the injuries after injuries after injuries that have marked the early days of 2013 aren’t helping that drought.
“In the beginning it was a little easier because you could play 40 minutes,” Ricky Rubio said, referring to his teammates’ efforts. “But when you play 10 games in a row 40 minutes, you feel your legs. You feel everything. That’s something that we can’t control.”
In theory, the solution would be to stop exploding out of tip-off with such energy and conserve it for later in the game, but that’s not how basketball works. No coach in his right mind is going to tell his team not to create a cushion in the first quarter, and for a team with an even halfway normal amount of injuries, there should be subs to bring in to give the starters rest and guard against a dooming third quarter.
So for the Timberwolves, this is complicated, and it seems like the solution right now is simply to beat the idea of third-quarter struggles into players’ minds and force them to focus coming out of halftime. That’s what Williams said the team did Thursday, when it had a plus-1 scoring margin in the third quarter, but the only thing that led to was a bigger fourth-quarter drop-off than usual and a different point at which the team let its opponents bust the thing wide open.
Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much of a solution for the team’s pacing issues beyond what it’s already doing. The human body can only do so much for so long, and 30 or so minutes into a game is the most logical time to falter before desperation kicks in to end the thing. Until the Timberwolves’ bench grows and the team stops losing players at every turn to injuries both minor and impactful, there is no reason to believe these third-quarter struggles are going to change, other than occasionally shifting to the fourth.