Wolves' bench makes up for starters' struggles
MINNEAPOLIS — In basketball, there's such a thing as too little, too late.
In all but one of the Timberwolves' seven losses this season, the team has been down at the end of the first quarter, digging its way out of a hole for which the starters are most often to blame. It's been a tough task for the Timberwolves' bench, and it's often fallen short, sometimes through little fault of its own.
After the biggest such deficit of the season on Tuesday, with the Timberwolves down by 16 after a quarter to the Bulls, it's hard for Rick Adelman to not take a hard look at his bench to find a solution to some of his starters' struggles.
"It's very difficult when you don't have guys that are going to finish or make the right plays," Adelman said.
He's obviously not one to gloss things over.
This year's bench is an interesting group, comprised of two talented rookies in point guard Ricky Rubio and forward Derrick Williams who are sure to be starters before long, along with the repeatedly injured combo guard J.J. Barea, who should get some starts when his hamstring and ankle recover. Forward-centers Anthony Tolliver and Anthony Randolph have also been strong in recent games, increasing the pressure Rubio and Williams are putting on the starters with their mere presence on the bench.
Having what should be one of the better benches in the NBA is crucial this season, with the compacted schedule taking its toll on players' endurance.
"We knew that coming into the season, with the shortened season, with all the games in a short amount of time, the bench was going to have to be very, very good in order for us to be competitive," Tolliver said.
But it's also provided more questions than it maybe should have, and there's no doubt Adelman has spent more time thinking about his bench — and who should be on it — than he'd prefer.
The coach stuck with the same starting lineup of Kevin Love, Darko Milicic, Wes Johnson, Luke Ridnour and Michael Beasley for the first seven games of the season until Beasley injured his right foot against Cleveland. In those games, the bench averaged 34 points per game to the starters' 63.7, and Rubio and Williams were performing well enough to warrant increased minutes.
"When you start changing the lineup, maybe you improve the way you start the game, but maybe you drop off in the second quarter with the group you have," Adelman said, explaining his early reluctance to make changes.
Moving Johnson from shooting guard to small forward to replace the injured Beasley and promoting Wayne Ellington from the bench was a plan designed not only to cover for Beasley's absence but also to shake Johnson from his early-season funk. It didn't work, and Ellington has struggled in his starting role. In fact, on Tuesday Milicic, Johnson and Ellington played only in the game's first quarter.
On Tuesday against the Bulls, a lineup of Rubio, Tolliver, Love, Randolph and Ridnour dug the team out of its early deficit, and Adelman took note. In the past three games, Randolph shot 60 percent from the field and Tolliver was one missed shot from perfect at the free throw line.
And then there's Williams, who's been doing everything he can in recent games to prove he was worth the second pick in last summer's draft. In Washington, he made four of seven 3-point shots, and he's averaged 11 points in the past four games while proving that he and Rubio together on the court may be the most entertaining part of watching the Timberwolves play. And though much early conversation about Williams focused on whether he'd be best at power forward or small forward, the question now is simply one of how to get the rookie on the court more often.
"We're just trying to win the game," Ridnour said. "I mean, we're just all trying to make things happen. When you've got multiple guys out there who can handle the ball, I think it makes it a little tougher for other teams to prepare."
It's that simple. These players want to win, using as many or as few players as is necessary, and that kind of team-first mentality will be crucial if Adelman begins to tinker with his starting lineup.
So now, preparing for the next two games in New Orleans and Atlanta, the bench will figure even greater into Adelman's plans, maybe even in ways the coach wouldn't have considered as recently as last week. For instance, Adelman has said he prefers to save Rubio and Barea for later in the game. However, Rubio played more minutes earlier in the game on Tuesday than he has all season, perhaps hinting at a somewhat altered role in the future for the rookie.
Rubio is just one piece of a deep bench that's shown signs of being able to take on an expanded role, and the Timberwolves have options. But that's not to say the bench has been perfect.
"We've done our job some nights, and other nights we haven't done as well," Tolliver said. "It's the starters too. It's all of us. We all have to step it up and bring more to the table."
Tolliver also spoke of finding the line between contributing more and doing too much, and that will be crucial in upcoming games if Adelman embraces a more fluid starting lineup. Too little, and you're out of the game 12 minutes in. Too much, and the team is overextended and overmatched. Adelman's challenge will be to find that middle ground.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter