MINNEAPOLIS – Before Wednesday night’s game against Charlotte, Rick Adelman was asked whether he made his team sleep in a hotel the previous night to simulate a road-game atmosphere.
The Timberwolves’ coach laughed and said no, but at the same time he acknowledged the inherent truth of the joke. His team is playing better on the road this year. Noticeably better. It has a 6-6 record, compared with 8-10 at home, and its average scoring margin at home is +0.4, compared to +1.5 on the road.
The problem of playing worse at home is a unique one for the first-year Timberwolves coach, one that he said he doesn’t remember facing so acutely ever before in his decades-long career. Kevin Love posited that maybe road crowds and hostile atmospheres cause his team to come together more, to play with a greater unity than it does at home. That’s one theory, but an explanation for the Timberwolves’ patterns of winning and losing is difficult, if not impossible, to find.
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On Wednesday, Grantland.com released a study by John Ezekowitz that studied teams’ performances in the second game of back-to-back series, comparing road games to home ones. It’s an interesting study that measures performance using offensive and defensive ratings (points scored and allowed, respectively, per 100 possessions). It’s less about winning and losing, and more about capturing teams’ energy levels in a grueling season, and the league-wide results – you guessed it – are completely different than what the Timberwolves have done so far this season.
According to Ezekowitz’s data, home-court advantage in the second game of back-to-backs is more important than ever in 2011-2012’s compressed season. Both points per game and offensive ratings are down about 5 percent for the league as a whole, but to look at the second game in back-to-backs is to see a huge discrepancy between home teams and away teams.
Home teams have an average offensive rating of 102.5. Road teams’ offensive ratings average 96.8. Not only is that a sizeable difference, but the league-average home offensive rating in the second game of back-to-backs has decreased less from last season (down 3.1 percent) than has the average road offensive rating under those conditions (down 5.6 percent).
The Timberwolves, however, have an offensive rating of 97.2 in home games at the end of back-to-backs, which is worse than their offensive rating in such games on the road. In those road games at the end of back-to-backs, the team’s offensive rating is 99.7. That goes completely against the trend in the league. It’s also interesting to note that the team’s overall offensive rating at home has remained relatively constant in terms of the other teams in the league – it was 24th last year and is 25th this year – while its road offensive rating has improved from 24th to 10th.
Ezekowitz’s study also looks at defensive rating, and the Timberwolves fit better into the league mold in that category. Minnesota has a defensive rating of 101.6 in the second game of back-to-backs played at home, which is identical to its defensive rating in that situation last season. However, that number puts the Timberwolves at 14th in the league this year, when last year it was only good for 24th.
The Timberwolves are defending worse on the road than at home in the second game of back-to-backs, with a defensive rating of 103.1 (10th in the NBA). However, that’s better than their defensive rating in those games last year, which was 108.2 (26th). Obviously, the Timberwolves’ defense, which has improved overall, is also better than last season in those games when the team is at its most tired.
If those defensive metrics make the Timberwolves’ performance look a bit more normal, more in keeping with the rest of the league, the next revelation will undo any element of “this makes sense” when it comes to the Timberwolves’ performance in back-to-backs this season. Ezekowitz’s study reveals that when both teams are playing the second game of back-to-backs, the home team still has the same edge when it comes to offensive and defensive ratings. However none of the Timberwolves’ five road games that have been the second game of a back-to-back has been against an opponent that played the night before. Those are the games in which the Timberwolves have a better offensive rating, yet their opponents are rested.
Conversely, three of the four times the Timberwolves have played at home in the second game of a back-to-back, they’ve faced a team who also played the night before. League averages suggest their numbers should be better in these games, but they’re worse. However, the Timberwolves are 2-2 in those games, and they’re just 1-4 in the road games.
The team’s record in these games might be the only thing that makes sense. Obviously, its worse defensive rating on the road overpowers its improved offensive rating, but Ezekowitz’s study doesn’t measure wins. It measures energy, and it might just be the best way to quantify exhaustion in the compressed season. And despite the .200 winning percentage in the second games of back-to-backs that are played on the road, the Timberwolves seem to be playing with an energy that the rest of the league is lacking.
So what does all this mean? It means that even though the Timberwolves are playing worse at home in the second game of back-to-back series, they’re somehow winning a greater percentage of those games than the ones on the road. Although they’re seemingly playing with less energy, they’re somehow winning, often capitalizing on other teams’ exhaustion. If anything, these numbers suggest that the Timberwolves are masters of playing up or down to the level of their competition. Against rested road opponents, they’re better, but when visiting teams are tired in Minneapolis, the Timberwolves don’t challenge themselves to play at a higher level and further exploit their home-court advantage.