MINNEAPOLIS – As young and inexperienced as the Minnesota Timberwolves are, they might not fully grasp how to tell their situation is. This whole playoff environment is new to them, and it’s quite possible they’ve been lulled away from the big picture by how well things seem to have gone for them in the little picture.
Through five games against the Memphis Grizzlies in their Western Conference first-round series, the Wolves have held the lead for more than 155 minutes of the 240 played. Seemingly in control, right? That’s approximately two-thirds of the time on the game clock.
And yet – here’s some analytics for you – they’ve only come away with 40% of the victories so far. Down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, Minnesota heads into Friday’s Game 6 at Target Center (9 ET, ESPN) on the brink of elimination.
A facile breakdown of what’s gone right and wrong for the Wolves might suggest they already should have moved on from the Grizzlies. Besides their solid victory in Game 1 at FedEx Forum, the Wolves held leads of 25 points or more in each of the halves in Game 3. And they were up Tuesday in Game 5 by 11 points with less than seven minutes left.
Lost them both. Anger, urgency and a star turn by Karl-Anthony Towns saved face at home for Minnesota in Game 4, so it’s tricky to say they would have given the same performance if not for the ghastly collapse in Game 3.
Still, a 3-2 series lead for the Wolves seems reasonable except for … what is it Charles Barkley likes to say about them?
“Dumber than rocks” was the term that stuck after Game 3 on the Wolves’ court.
Listening to coach Chris Finch on Thursday afternoon, it sounded as if Barkley wasn’t far off. Much of what he wants his team to fix are the unforced, self-imposed problems.
“Every time we’ve lost to these guys it’s been the exact same blueprint,” Finch said. “It’s been fouling, offensive rebounds and offense too stagnant. A lot of the fouling and the rebounds are related because the ball gets downhill into the paint.
“So it’s just about tightening up that. And the offense is too many guys who want to go 1-on-1. We’ve talked about that ad nauseam. Everybody wants to be the hero and that’s not how you’re going to win these games.”
For the record, Memphis went 2-2 against Minnesota in the regular season despite getting outscored by 37 points in the series. So “high basketball IQ” has been a bit lacking all year.
Here’s the detritus just from the final 12 minutes of Game 4: The Wolves launched 24 shots and made only eight. They got out-rebounded 18-10, giving up eight offensive rebounds to fuel Memphis’ 12-0 edge in second-chance points. Their 11 fouls put Ja Morant (10) and his teammates on the line for 17 free throws and they got outscored there by eight in the quarter, in a game they lost by two.
“Attention to detail is huge,” Finch said. “You can’t take a moment off. To me, the biggest play of the fourth quarter, we make a 3, we go up 106-102 with 1:45 left and we blow a transition coverage we have done pretty well all year – it’s been one of our best coverages – just because we weren’t ready.”
Specifically, Towns drained a 3-pointer, only to pick up his fifth foul three seconds later on Morant, who cut the gap to two. “Whereas if we make them eat clock or we get a stop,” Finch said, “it’s a whole different ballgame.”
A similar brain cramp came at the very end. Out of a timeout with 8.2 seconds left, backup Wolves guard Jordan McLaughlin’s bounce-pass finds Anthony Edwards in the right corner for a 3-pointer. Memphis huddles with 3.7 seconds to go as Minnesota contemplates overtime.
Only, when play resumes, Edwards gambles for a steal, lets Morant get inside position and the Grizzlies’ magician twists in a layup to win.
And throughout the fourth – and other Wolves finishes, win or lose – players have sought their own shots, playing right into the Memphis defenders’ hands. Trusting their talent instead of their teammates.
For instance, with 12.3 seconds left, guard D’Angelo Russell forced a 10-footer from the left of the lane that missed everything. The seventh-year pro is averaging 13 points on 32.3% shooting in the series.
“It’s a little bit of a battle we’ve been fighting all year,” Finch said. “We have a lot of guys who want to close games. Those situations are basically like anything else, a matter of trust, a currency of trust.
“Right now I think we’ve got to go to a mentality we’ve talked about where the go-to guy needs to be the open man. Whoever has the ball in his hand has to create those situations by attacking with the mindset of finding, rather than attacking with the mindset of shooting.”
Edwards, the only Wolves starter to talk with reporters Thursday, pled guilty as one of the hero-wannabes.
“Yeah, I was a lot of that that coach talked about,” the 20-year-old wing said. “Sometimes it is a problem because my teammates have no rhythm. And I pass them the ball with two seconds left [on the shot clock when] I don’t have a shot. It’s always a bad shot then.”
There seems to be an issue of Towns, Edwards and Russell each acknowledging the scoring capabilities of the others, which is a stagnant, splintered way to run an offense. My turn-your turn rarely fools a defense. The Wolves have turned iso ball into eyesore ball.
“We’ve got three dudes on the team who think they all can make the shot in me, D-Lo and KAT,” Edwards said. “So it’s kind of like, ‘OK, he’s got it, let him try it.’ [Then] I got it, ‘Let me try.’ We’ve got to come to an agreement of, ‘Let’s just move it and get the best shot.’”
Said reserve shooter Malik Beasley, who is averaging in the series about half the 8.1 3-point attempts he got in the regular season: “We’ve got to make the right plays, not hit home runs. We should be resting [for the conference semifinals], just like Golden State. But we made some mistakes, we’re a young team, we’ve got to learn from it and bounce back.”
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said Thursday the Grizzlies need to play their “best game of the season” Friday. The Wolves need to play their smartest.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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