Written By Tom Schreier (ColdOmaha.com)
Tom Thibodeau’s notion that connectedness leads to success should come as surprise to nobody who has watched the Minnesota Timberwolves play this year. They play well for about three-quarters of the game — often faltering in the third quarter early on, although recently the lapse has come more randomly — and then fall apart, leaving the door open for opposing teams to create leads that are too difficult to overcome.
The Wolves have now won three of their last four games, however. They beat the Bulls in Chicago after a poor first quarter performance, blew a 12-point lead late in their loss to the Houston Rockets, and then beat the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks convincingly. They’re still 9-19, but have an opportunity to rise in a Western Conference half-full of sub-.500 teams.
“I feel like we’re playing good basketball,” Andrew Wiggins told the Star Tribune after the win yesterday. “I feel like it should be four in a row the way we’ve been playing. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
So why is it that the Wolves have stumbled out of the gate in a season when Vegas had their over-under at 40.5 wins? Well, basically they stop playing as a team occasionally, causing the defensive scheme to fall apart and the offense to sputter — depending on which side of the floor they are on.
“The thing is being connected, and that’s our challenge,” Thibodeau, the Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach, said after practice on Wednesday. “Sometimes you might have four guys doing the right thing and one guy’s a step off, and that’s all it is, it’s a step in making everyone understand, ‘Okay, you being two steps off the elbow is causing the penetration, which is leading to the over-help, which is opening up the three-point line.’
“So if you get to the proper area, it will take away that penetration,” he continued, “and then if we have good hand and foot activity, maybe we get a kick, maybe we get a hang-time pass that we can recover on that buys us another step. So now on the catch you’re there versus a guy having a rhythm three, that makes a big difference.
“It’s all the little things, and I think we’re getting better at it.”
While the offensive and defensive schemes themselves are complicated, the theme he is getting at is pretty straightforward. In essence, the Wolves have to play as a team. The offense is a tapestry of passes that creates opportunities for an opening shot; the defense is an amoeba that suffocates the opposing team. A selfish play on offense or an out-of-place player on defense can cause the entire ecosystem to collapse.
“We’re making progress,” said Thibodeau. “There’s still a lot of improvement that we have to make, but we’re moving in the right direction. I think the understanding is better, the commitment is better.
“We have to read defenses a little bit better, because we’re seeing different defenses,” he added. “Karl’s getting double-teamed a lot. Wig’s getting double-teamed a lot. Zach’s getting double-teamed, so we have to play off of that.
“But staying connected is important for us, both offensively and defensively. And then the understanding of how it all works together, with five men moving on the flight of the ball, the commitment to get back and get set and protect the basket.”
Thibodeau uses a combination of stats and the eye test to figure out where the breakdowns are. His stats are sorted by play types (i.e. pick-and-roll or transition defense) and he breaks down a lot of film.
“Understanding why you win or lose after a game, it reveals everything to you,” he said, “so I think how you study, you develop an understanding of what needs to be done, and then you can see, ‘Okay, if there’s 60 pick-and-rolls in a game, and you defended 40 or 45 well, and you see that, okay, when we do it correctly, this is what we get.’
“Or when you break down, maybe it’s your side pick-and-roll defense that you need to work on more, maybe it’s just one step where it’s your hand placement, or it’s how you challenge your shot or it’s how you recover,” he added. “Sometimes it’s the commitment to read and the decision-making. If it’s shot from a certain distance, you have a good idea of where it’s gonna go, how far it will go. And if your man’s not getting to the board, you have to get to the elbow area versus running in and the ball goes over your head.”
“So I think all those things we’re learning, and we’re developing an understanding of.”
- On playing on Christmas Day, Thibodeau said: “We’re just thinking about tomorrow. We’re not jumping ahead.”
- And on Cole Aldrich not seeing the floor very much in Atlanta: “We thought Howard was playing, so when a team downsizes like they did, then you gotta make those decisions. But Cole’s done a good job for us.”
- As for Zach LaVine hitting shots late in games: “Just take the right shots. The game tells you the shots, and so like last night, Wig got going, they double-teamed him, and then he did a great job making the play. The ball comes out, and then usually against a double-team, it’s the second pass that will get you a wide open shot.”
- And on his team playing better in the 4th quarter: “I think we’re getting a better understanding of how the 4th quarter is different, the decision-making is different, so once we recognize that and learn how we can take advantage of it, I think we can be pretty good.”
Zach LaVine was the only player to speak with the media at practice. He is one of the more outspoken players on the team, and definitely the goofiest. Watch the whole video below to see him discuss understanding Thibodeau’s defense, playing on Christmas (he said a lot more), the team picking up some momentum with the wins and more.