“We had a lot of games last year where it was hard to see how much we learned because we were getting hammered. This year, we’re disappointed with our record at home, but we’ve been in every game…
I ask my young guys after every game, if one of em learns something tonight… about execution, about spacing, about timing, about waiting on screens, about making the extra pass, then the loss was worth it because they grew tonight. So I can take that.”
–Sam Mitchell, after tonight’s 110-106 loss to the LA Clippers
When the Timberwolves blew a 17-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night at Target Center, I wasn’t overly discouraged by it. Portland does not have a great team this year, after losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and trading Nicolas Batum to Charlotte for younger players. But the Blazers are solid, with a spectacular point guard in Damian Lillard, and the Wolves lost despite an outstanding performance turned in by their rookie big man, Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns was coming off of a four-game stretch of having his minutes mysteriously limited by Coach Mitchell. In those four games, his minute counts were 22, 21, 26, and 22. This was mysterious because, up to that point, Big KAT had been performing like the Wolves’ best all-around player. I think I speak for the Timberwolves-fan community at large when I say that we’d like to see Towns playing more like 30 to 35 minutes, unless he is in foul trouble or bothered by injury.
On Saturday against Portland, KAT’s playing time returned with his productivity. In 31 minutes and 50 seconds of action he dropped 27 points and 12 rebounds on the Blazers, scoring in a variety of ways while doing other things like protecting the rim on defense and dishing out a couple of assists. Towns was animated throughout the game, celebrating made shots and screaming in excitement.
Despite a whole bunch of things that went wrong in that game to cause the lead to disappear, my thought was that as long as both Wiggins and Towns get a full slate of minutes, the game is competitive, and at least one of them looks great, I’ll take that as a win this year. If of the Wolves 82 games, they get 70 or 75 of them that involve a competitive second half and a strong performance from one of their franchise cornerstones, there will have inevitably been a whole lot of progress toward the eventual goal of making the playoffs, and then contending for a championship.
I guess I was redefining for myself what constitutes a successful game for the 2015-16 Timberwolves.
Tonight, Sam Mitchell shared his views on the subject after the game in what was his most enlightening post-game presser of the season. He joked about what many of us (meaning, the media seated before him) would be doing if we were 20 years old with millions of dollars to spend. He was praising his young players for their professionalism at such young ages, continuing to work hard and avoid off-court trouble. Without mentioning the Philadelphia 76ers by name, he said that there are teams in the league that have a lot of youth, without great veterans mentors like Kevin Garnett in the locker room, and we are seeing the kinds of problems that can lead to. But Mitchell’s big quote was the one that I led with; the one about what constitutes a successful game. If a young player learned something, then that’s a win.
Now, we can’t take these things too literally. If the Wolves got spanked by 20 points against a bad team while showing lackluster effort, they could arguably have “learned something,” about preparation, and I doubt Mitchell would feel victorious no matter how far he bends the definition of the word. But he also distinguished this season from last, in that these games — partly structured by the veteran leadership of Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Garnett — have been competitive.
That is such a nice thing to see this year, having Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine get tested in big moments almost every single night. Tonight against the Clippers, LaVine had 14 of his team-high 21 points in the 4th Quarter of a close game against one of the very best teams in the NBA. Towns ended the game with 18 points on just 9 shot attempts, and had by far the best plus-minus among Wolves starters. Wiggins struggled, sometimes bothered by the great defense of former Timberwolves wing stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Maybe he learned something, while Towns and LaVine had more success.
The most fun play of tonight’s game was when Kevin Garnett caught a fast-break bounce pass from Ricky Rubio with just the right momentum in his footwork to cock it back and flush over Blake Griffin. The crowd went crazy and so did KG. He was immediately T’d up for taunting, and even Mitchell had to admit that he didn’t care. The moment was worth it.
The most disappointing play of tonight’s game came out of a timeout with 25 seconds left, when LaVine threw a questionable inbounds pass to Wiggins, who did not handle it well against Mbah a Moute’s defense, leading to a terrible, ill-timed turnover. It’s the sort of play that would drive you nuts if it were a playoff game. Maybe they’ll learn from it. When discussing that screw-up, and others his young players make, Mitchell contrasted their impatience when waiting for a screen or play to develop with Chris Paul of the Clippers, who times his decisions perfectly, always testing the defenses and inviting them to make a mistake. I’m sure they’ll go over that play tomorrow and try to do it better next time.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I think, or at least wonder if, the Timberwolves might have a playoff-caliber roster right now. The immediate impact play from Towns was not foreseeable — even the best rookies typically struggle to help win games right away — and it sort of threw season expectations into a blender. We’re still seeing what will eventually come out. Ricky Rubio missed games due to ankle pain, which led to a slew of losses, but now he’s back and playing almost a full load of minutes every night, so we’re going to see what this team is made of.
Maybe they’ll go on a big winning streak as their schedule eases up in the next couple weeks. In their next seven games they play the Lakers, the Nuggets twice, the Suns, the Knicks, the Kings and the Nets. If they remain healthy throughout that stretch, it’s possible that they could come out of it right back around the .500 mark, and in the playoff discussion. It would be fun to keep that conversation going as long as possible; both for fan interest in the season and for the upbeat spirits of the young players.
But even if the playoff dream dies early, as it very well might, I’ll find most games to be beneficial and reason for increasing hope if Mitchell will simply run out his best two young guys for a full load of playing time — nothing excessive, just full starters minutes for Wig and KAT — and at least one of them shines like a star. If that happens most nights this year, it’ll feel like a success.