Harper: 5 things Wolves need to do to start winning close games late
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Minnesota Timberwolves are 0-10 in games decided by four points or fewer. That's a scary statistic, isn't it? And there has to be a reason it exists.
There are some people who believe it's because this team is inherently flawed. Ricky Rubio isn't any good. Kevin Love isn't a number one guy. Corey Brewer is too chaotic on offense. Kevin Martin can't get his shot off in these situations. Nikola Pekovic gets shaky when we're in the closing minutes of a close game.
There are some people who believe that it's just random occurrence. Over the course of an NBA season, you'll find that there are probably a minimum of five or six random games that will come down to random bounces of the ball. Look at Love's missed 3-point attempt in Cleveland. Look at Pek's missed shots in Los Angeles at the end that was capped off by Love rushing a tip attempt that would have sent the game into overtime. There's the missed foul call at the end of the loss to the Mavericks that may have swayed the outcome of a game decided by fewer than four points.
The reality is it's probably somewhere in the middle. As much as luck may or may not exist in sports as an overpowering force we can't touch or see, the Wolves have made poor decisions and suffered some bad luck at the end of these close games. This has kept them from notching a few in the win column. The Wolves performed well at the end of a tight game on opening night when Love hit an incredible 3-pointer to send the game into overtime against the Orlando Magic.
Since then, they've been involved in a few games here or there in which they've extended the lead in the final minutes of the contest in order to avoid that four-point purgatory they can't seem to find their way out of at the moment.
The biggest problem hasn't really been the defense so much as it's been the offensive execution. There have been times at the end of losses in which Rick Adelman has questioned offensive execution putting them at a disadvantage while the rest of us were questioning the defense. Part of the reason is most of the time you score, especially at the end of games, the opponent has to reset their attack with the inbound pass.
You slow down their attack and put yourself in position to set up defensively. When there is a turnover or a long miss, you're suddenly scrambling to match up defensively while recognizing the play they may be setting up.
So how can the Wolves become a better offensive unit at the end of games in order to avoid these continuous collapses?
First off, it's important to know what the Wolves are good at running on offense. MySynergy sports tracks all of the different ways teams score and defend by breaking them into 10 different categories (isolation, pick-and-roll ball handler, post-up, pick-and-roll man, spot-up, off screen, hand off, cut, offensive rebound, transition).
The Wolves excel in three of these categories (post-up, PnR man, offensive rebound), are in the top half of the league in two other categories (transition and off screen), are top 20 in another category (hand off), and struggle in the other four (isolation, PnR ball handler, spot-up, and cut).
When looking at the last three minutes of a game in which the Wolves are ahead or behind by four points or fewer, Minnesota is a disaster on the floor. They have the second worst offense in the NBA and the second worst defense in the NBA in these situations. If you buy into Adelman's theory of the offense causing the problems then that makes sense why both numbers would be so bad.
The team shoots just 32.8 percent from the field in these situations. Part of that is poor offensive play calling and some of it is simply missing shots. While watching all of the offensive possessions the Wolves have had in these close game situations, I noticed how many good shots the team missed.
At what point do you nitpick about how the team is performing in these situations if they're simply missing a ton of quality shots? Granted, there are plenty of things they could change. Getting rid of the core of players they're throwing out there isn't necessarily one of them, although offensive/defensive substitutions with Brewer and Chase Budinger would certainly help stretch the floor.
Here's an excel sheet breakdown of the types of scoring plays the Wolves had had in these close games:
Some of the positives to take away from what the Wolves are doing at the end of close games:
1. They don't run a bunch of isolation plays. Isolation plays typically allow the defense to load up a wall behind the primary defender, forcing the offensive player to take a worse shot in the process.
2. They actually don't turn it over that often. They've had nine turnovers in roughly 90 possessions. That puts them seventh in the NBA at not turning the ball over in these situations. With the way certain collapses have gone, I expected them to be much worse.
3. They're mostly using the weapons at their disposal. The Wolves are mostly running post-ups (22.2 percent of the time), which is good because Love and Pekovic are two of their three best options. At least, they're going to good scorers.
Here are the problems I see at the end of these games. Ideally, you don't want these things but they seem very fixable:
1. Get your best player more involved. The Wolves have gone away from Love at the end of games a lot over the past month and it simply is because of poor execution. They haven't been imaginative in how to get him the ball, instead trying to post him up 16 feet from the basket. They could run more cross-screen action or move Love from one side of the floor to the other to get him better post-up opportunities. Patience in delivering him the ball is key.
2. For the love of Ricky Davis, have this team run Kevin Martin off of screens. He's been one of the best scorers in the NBA all season long, is deadly from the free throw line, and knows how to draw fouls. He's almost forgotten at the end of close games and the numbers reflect that. Get creative and run him around to get free -- he's good at it.
3. Need to utilize the pick-and-roll a lot better and more often. Rubio's lack of scoring threat isn't a big problem; it's simply something that means the Wolves have to be more creative in how they set up the pick-and-roll. Running staggered screens with Love and then Pekovic can give you Love spreading the floor on a pick-and-pop, while giving Pek the room to roll to the hoop.
If Rubio attacks quickly on the play, he has the room to get the ball to Love or Pekovic. He doesn't have to pick up his dribble when he dribbles under the hoop and he doesn't have to shoot coming off the screen. If the Wolves initiate the play earlier in the clock, he'll have less pressure to make a quick decision over the correct decision.
4. Run the corner set a lot more often. We hardly see any backdoor cuts and movement off the weak side in these situations. If you're giving the ball to Love and asking him to create something, give him a passing option.
5. Keep taking quality shots. At some point they have to start falling, right?
The Wolves at the end of close games aren't a complete lost cause and the inability to not necessarily a cause for concern just yet. The framework for success is there; it just needs to be tweaked a little bit and executed a little better.
Once the Wolves get the initial end-of-game monkey off their backs, we should see a lot more moments like the end of the Magic game and fewer collapses that have you wondering when the Twins start up again.